ESB uses UK debt collectors as 130,000 in arrears on bills
THE ESB promised last night that its customers would not be treated in a heavy-handed manner after it appointed a British debt-collection firm to chase down unpaid bills.
More than 310,000 cash-strapped families have agreed to payment plans where they pay their electricity bills weekly because they are unable to meet the normal bills every two months.
Of these, some 130,000 are in arrears on their ESB bills.
Now Electric Ireland, as the ESB has been renamed, has brought in UK debt-recovery specialists BCW to take over its payment-collection operations for its 1.3 million customers.
The contract for the outsourcing of the semi-state back-office operations has an emphasis on collecting cash for unpaid bills.
A spokesman for Electric Ireland insisted that outsourcing its bill-collections system and its debt management would not mean customers would be treated any differently.
BCW has offices in Blanchardstown in Dublin and already had a long-standing relationship with the energy company, the spokesman said.
"We are not trying to come the heavy here. We have a responsibility to our customers. But we do need to get paid," the spokesman insisted.
He said the signing of the contact with the debt-management firm would mean that those who got behind on their bills would be contacted quickly to avoid a build-up of arrears.
Anyone who fails to pay their bill within 25 days is now contacted by the utility company.
There are then attempts to get householders to agree to pay €10 or €20 a week with a view to paying down the arrears within 10 weeks.
Some 200 families a month are being disconnected because of their failure to pay their electricity bills, but the utility company insisted its has a lower level of disconnections than its main rivals, Bord Gais and Airtricity.
Its aim was to move to a situation where there were no disconnections, the company said.
Electric Ireland already has 25,000 coin-operated meters in householders' homes.
And it is now installing around key-pad-operated meters in homes for those unable to cope with getting a bill every two months.
The outsourcing of the payments services at Electric Ireland is part of a €140m cost-cutting operation that will mean the loss of 1,000 jobs.
The core staff of the company is 6,900, but the spokesman insisted the layoffs would be through voluntary redundancy and retirements.
Electric Ireland has had to write off €15m in bills for householders that it was unable to recover last year and a similar amount the previous year.
All energy suppliers recently got approval from the regulator to set up a system where householders who are in arrears of more than €250 and 60 days behind on payments are "flagged up" if they try to move to another supplier.
The supplier then has the option to refuse to sign up the household that is in arrears.