More left in dark by the ESB than Bord Gais
'Disconnection is genuinely treated as a matter of last resort'
BORD Gais is cutting off fewer customers for failing to pay their energy bills -- while the ESB is coming under pressure for cutting off more.
The semi-state company, which has around 600,000 domestic gas customers, said it was cutting off 100 fewer people a month compared to this period last year.
In the past three months, Bord Gais has disconnected an average of 230 people a month, compared to 330 a month for the same period last year.
Social Protection Minister Eamon O Cuiv contacted the ESB yesterday after becoming concerned about the revelation that it was disconnecting 900 people a month. This is almost double the figure of 500 people a month this time last year.
Until yesterday the ESB had chosen to term its cut-offs "de-energising customers". But then it changed its corporate language and talked instead about the "disconnection of customers".
Despite the recession, a Bord Gais spokesman said the trend appeared to be downward, with just 190 customers disconnected last month compared to 400 for the same month last year.
"Disconnection is genuinely treated as a matter of last resort and it really only arises where people are genuinely not co-operating in terms of trying to find a resolution," he said.
And Bord Gais said that it believed the reason for the drop-off was its campaign to increase customer awareness of the alternatives to disconnection, such as payment plans.
Bord Gais moved into the electricity market 18 months ago and now has 400,000 electricity customers, with an average of 120 per month of these new customers being disconnected.
Mr O Cuiv is now seeking details from the ESB about the profile of the 900 customers a month it is cutting off.
A spokeswoman said he had been told that the average number of disconnections per year was 8,000-9,000.
"They told him that this year would not be seen as overly extreme in comparison with the last number of years," she said.
It also emerged yesterday that more than 30,000 people on social welfare are now using the Government's Household Budget Scheme.
This means that their payments are automatically deducted to pay for household bills such as electricity and gas.
Both the ESB and Bord Gais said they were willing to arrange repayment plans with customers who were unable to pay all of their bills -- usually on condition that the bill was paid off within six or 12 months.
So far this year, the ESB has agreed 80,000 repayment plans with customers.
Asked if it felt it was being put under pressure by Mr O Cuiv to change its approach to cutting off customers, the ESB declined to comment directly.
"We work very closely with the Department of Social Protection," a company statement said.
"We emphasise that disconnection only occurs when all other avenues have been exhausted and 99.9pc of those disconnected are reconnected within 24 hours."
The ESB has a total of 1.6 million customers -- far more than Bord Gais's total of 1 million gas and electricity customers.
Although the St Vincent de Paul called on the ESB to waive the reconnection fee of almost €200, the ESB said it was a regulatory fee for all energy companies set by the Commission for Energy Regulation, and was therefore outside of its control.