Regulation

What does financial hardship mean and what support is available to energy consumers?

In the current economic climate, many are struggling to pay their energy bills. In light of this, the rules and regulations relating to financial hardship, and customer financial support, are more important than ever.

Here we set out the framework for financial hardship support, access to concessions and the latest guidance from the Australian Energy Regulator (‘AER’) for supporting customers affected by COVID-19.

Financial Hardship and support

If customers are in financial difficulty, there is a risk that they will be unable to pay their energy bills and be disconnected from either their electricity or gas supply. A network of legislation, regulations, rules and policies exist to ensure that disconnection for non-payment is a last resort.

Consumer protections, including financial hardship rules, in Queensland, NSW, ACT, Tasmania and South Australia are contained in the ‘National Energy Customer Framework’ or ‘NECF’; a package of laws, regulations and rules which has been agreed to by the Governments of those jurisdictions. Victoria, Western Australian and the Northern Territory have not adopted NECF, so the rules are determined entirely by that state or territory. The key elements of the financial hardship framework in NECF are:

  • a range of minimum entitlements for consumers in financial difficulty including flexible payment arrangements, advice on suitable energy plans, advice and information on energy-efficient appliances and energy rebates or concessions;
  • a requirement for each energy retailer to have a ‘Hardship Policy’, approved by the AER which sets out what customers are entitled to;
  • a right to complain to the energy ombudsman in that state or territory, if the customer is concerned with their treatment under the retailer’s hardship policy.

Energy concessions and rebates, directly reducing the amount that energy consumers have to pay, are often targeted at low income earners, pensioners and those with medical conditions. They are determined on a state and territory-basis. New South Wales provides considerable guidance on how concessions and rebates are to be applied in the NSW Social Programs for Energy Code.

You can find out about the energy concessions and rebates available in other states and territories by looking at the Government website for each state or territory.

Consumers should check with their retailer if they are eligible for a rebate or concession and they will be provided with an application form. If eligible, the retailer will apply the rebate or concession directly to the consumer’s energy bill.

Who is eligible?

Eligibility for a customer hardship program is set out in the Hardship Policy of individual retailers. However, energy retailers must not use criteria which unreasonably exclude customers experiencing financial difficulty. In addition, customers should be informed why they have been refused entry to a hardship program, as well as providing the opportunity for that decision to be reviewed (see clauses 36-39 of the AER Hardship Policy Guideline available here).

Note that, in general, financial hardship protections only apply to customers that are supplied by authorised energy retailers. Some consumers in caravan parks, apartment buildings, retirement villages and other ‘embedded networks’, will not be eligible. However, these customers have similar (though not identical) protections under the exemption guideline that apply to ‘on-sellers’.

  1. What has changed in light of COVID-19?

The AER released a statement of expectations setting out how it expects retailers to deal with the crisis. Their expectations include:

  • Offer all residential and small business customers who indicate they may be in financial stress, a payment plan or hardship arrangement, even if they do not meet the ‘usual’ criteria for that assistance;
  • That no residential or small business customers who may be in financial stress, are disconnected, before 31 July 2020 and possibly later;
  • Not to disconnect any large business customers, without their consent, before 31 July 2020 and possible later, if they are on-selling to residential or business customers;
  • Defer referrals of customers to debt collection agencies until at least 31 July 2020;
  • Be prepared to modify existing payment plans;
  • Waive disconnection, reconnection and/or contract break fees for small businesses that have ceased operation, during any period of disconnection until at least 31 July 2020;
  • Prioritise the safety of customers who require life support equipment and continue to meet responsibilities to new life support customers;
  • Prioritise clear, up-to-date communications with customers about the issues in this statement;
  • Prioritise clear communications with customers about the availability of retailer and other support;
  • Minimise the frequency and duration of planned outages, and provide as much notice as possible.

For information on rebates and concessions that are available during the COVID-19 crisis, consumers should check state and territory government websites.

Conclusion

A substantial framework of customer hardship and rebate and concession assistance is provided for energy consumers in Australia. The first step for access to this support is to contact the retailer for further information on what assistance they might be eligible for. If unsatisfied with the response they are getting, consumers have the right to make a complaint to the energy ombudsman in their state or territory.

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