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ESB cuts off 900 houses a month

Government to press ahead with 5 per cent electricity levy despite shocking new figures

The ESB is cutting off power to 900 households a month because they can't pay their electricity bills, the Sunday Independent has learned.

The shocking new figures come in the same week the Government piled more pressure on recession-hit families with a new 5 per cent electricity levy.

It confirms the fears of agencies working with those caught up in the worst recession in recent memory that tens of thousands of ordinary families can no longer afford the basics, including their utility bills.

The Money Advice and Budgeting Service (Mabs) said that the number of people being disconnected reflected what they were already hearing from people contacting their helpline. They called on energy providers to show restraint when it came to disconnecting households.

A spokesperson for Mabs said: "We feel that in today's climate, there is an onus on everybody to distinguish between people who can't pay and people who won't pay.

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"We'd be looking for the same forbearance that is now evident in the credit industry to also be shown by all power and utility companies."

A spokesperson for the ESB confirmed to the Sunday Independent that in the last year about 30 households a day were having their mains power cut off by the semi-state body.

He blamed the advent of competition in the power market for the new get-tough regime, though he stressed that cutting people off was the option of last resort.

The spokesperson said: "In the last year, ESB customer supply has de-energised an average of 900 customers per month and this must be seen in the context of a total customer base of 1.5 million.

"This de-energised figure is slightly increased on previous figures of around 700 per month. De-energisation only occurs when all other avenues have been exhausted."

Despite these figures, the government intends to introduce a 5 per cent levy on electricity prices to offset costs of electrical producers obliged to buy a certain amount of renewable and peat-generated energy.

According to the ESB, deregulation is partly to blame for the increase in the number of households being disconnected from the national grid.

The ESB feels that it has to be seen to carry out de-energisations in order to recoup revenue in an increasingly competitive energy market. However, a spokesperson for the ESB said that this only occurred at the end of a lengthy process and as a last resort.

The spokesperson said: "Where problems with payments arise, we work with all our customers, through our collection process, to arrange payment plans and budget payments. We also work with St Vincent de Paul and Mabs to assist customers who are struggling financially with their bills."

When other energy providers such as Airtricity and Bord Gais are taken into account, the number of people being cut off every month makes for stark reading.

The most recent figures available from the Commission for Energy Regulation show that in January 1,668 households were disconnected. In February, the figure rose to 2,515, and by March there were 2,604 people disconnected for not paying their bills.

The Commission for Energy Regulation has come up with a code of practice in relation to de-energisation, which allows energy companies to cut off a customer's power for non-payment of bills that are not related to the sale of electricity.

The code states that customers can be cut off for "failure to pay a bill which is not related to the sale of electricity (eg, failure to comply with the terms of a hire purchase of an electrical appliance)".

The Department of Social Protection said that people having difficulty paying their utility bills should contact the community welfare office.

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