Power firms must offer families meters before cutting supplies
ELECTRICITY and gas companies will no longer cut off energy supplies to households that are willing to work with them.
Around 16,000 homes had their energy disconnected last year but under new rules struggling homeowners will have to be offered some kind of staged payments as a way to pay off their arrears instead of having the lights and the gas shut off.
The new rules, announced by Energy Minister Pat Rabbitte, mean most people who are not up to date on their bills will be given a pay-as-you go meter.
These are available from electricity and gas suppliers and allow people to pay for power when they have the money. Credit for the meters can be bought in shops and electronically and they are topped up much like a mobile phone.
Bord Gais, Electric Ireland, Energia, Flogas and SSE Airtricity have all signed up for the new voluntary code of practice, which was launched in the Dublin HQ of St Vincent de Paul.
There are now 140,000 homes with pay-as-you go meters for gas and electricity.
This has seen the number of disconnections dropping massively over the last year, said Owen Wilson of the Electricity Association of Ireland.
Meters being installed means that 26,000 electricity customers and 15,000 gas customers had the threat of disconnection removed last year.
The energy regulator estimates that around 40pc of the 16,000 household disconnections last year involved vacant properties where nobody was living. The number of disconnections fell by around 25pc on the previous year.
Mr Wilson said just 30 customers out of every 10,000 were disconnected last year, which means 99.7pc of people are not at risk of disconnection.
Mr Rabbitte said: "The disconnection of a customer should be an absolute last resort. To achieve this we must ensure that vulnerable customers receive every possible assistance and support."
He said that since 2011 more than 50,000 electricity and another 80,000 gas pre-pay meters have been provided free of charge to customers in financial difficulty.
"I am convinced that this single measure has done more than anything else to reduce the number of disconnections," he said.
The code demands that energy suppliers never disconnect a customer who is engaging with them. Mr Rabbitte said that while the code was voluntary its effectiveness would be monitored, and it was in the interests of both energy companies and consumers for it to work.
The firms also have to try to identify customers at risk of falling behind on payments. Offers of debt repayment options have to be made to vulnerable customers.
Mr Wilson said: "The key principle underpinning this programme is a firm commitment by suppliers that they will never disconnect an engaging customer."
The Society of St Vincent de Paul had advocated for a code of practice on disconnections for a number of years.