Hope for struggling bill-payers on reconnection fees
The ESB and Bord Gais can waive reconnection fees for customers who have had their power cut off because they can't pay their bills, the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER) has declared.
It follows criticism of the CER by the Society of St Vincent de Paul which claimed that it was the regulator who was insisting that fees for disconnection and reconnection must be charged by the power companies.
The fee for having your ESB supply reconnected is just over €197, while for gas the charge is €140.
The ESB is cutting off 2,500 customers a month and more than 90,000 of their customers are now in arrears, double the levels from 2009.
Bord Gais is now disconnecting 230 homes per month from gas supplies.
Between January and August of this year Airtricity has disconnected an average of 33 customers a week.
The charges for reconnection are a crushing blow to householders who have to find money to pay for their arrears and are then presented with a further bill to get their power switched back on.
A spokesman for the Society of St Vincent de Paul said last week it was "ludicrous", given the financial climate, that the regulator insisted fees for disconnection and reconnection were charged.
But the regulator said that ESB Networks and Bord Gais Networks do not have to impose the reconnection charges.
"It is up to the supplier to decide whether or not to pass this cost on to the customer --the supplier can always waive some or all of the disconnection charge. To be clear, the CER does not require the cost to be passed from the supplier to the customer," the statement said.
However, the regulator added that waiving connection fees would mean that the cost would have to be passed on in some way to the people who pay their utility bills.
"We would also like to point out that if we were to approve a disconnection and reconnection charge lower than the cost of this being undertaken, this would mean that those customers who do pay their electricity/gas bill would be subsiding those who do not. This could put extra financial pressure on such customers."
More than 110,000 households have entered payment plans with Bord Gais and the ESB because they have difficulties meeting their bills.
Bord Gais chief executive John Mullins said that changing circumstances meant that over half of those in trouble paying their power bills could be described as middle class, and were mainly people already having difficulty meeting mortgage repayments.
"We have no other option if we are faced with a moral hazard -- we have no choice if people refuse to pay bills, refuse to engage with us and try to leave other customers, who are paying their bills, to suffer," he said.
Bord Gais insisted that disconnection was only carried out as a last resort.