A coalition of community groups have issued a joint statement calling for additional government funding to provide financial support for homes and small businesses under financial stress to deal with energy costs.
The statement has been issued by a group of more than a dozen consumer advocacy and support organisations, which said that more needs to be done to ensure those impacted by the Covid-19 outbreak will not face the loss of energy supplies.
The groups have called on both State and Federal governments to commit funding that can be distributed directly to customers to help reduce the additional financial pressures of energy costs.
“Millions of people have just lost work and incomes. At the same time, people are having to spend their time at home, pushing up energy costs when they are least able to pay,” PIAC’s head of energy policy Craig Memery said.
“Without better support, this winter many families face a choice between heating their homes and having enough money for food and rent.”
The joint statement has been issued by a coalition of community groups, including the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, the national and state-based Centres for Social Services, the Consumer Action Law Centre and the St Vincent de Paul Society.
The groups called for additional funding to be provided to allow for an expansion of energy retailer payment assistance and hardship support. Additionally, the group said that governments should consider increasing funding allocations for energy efficiency schemes, that would help reduce energy costs, as well as to improve the quality of housing as the next winter approaches.
“The groups call on the Government to work with energy retailers and community organisations to ensure the relief is delivered quickly and simply to where it is needed most, with a package of Government funding and energy industry commitments, including targeted energy debt relief and new jobs in Australian call centres,” the statement says.
While the community groups welcomed a call issued on Friday from the Australian Energy Regulator to all electricity retailers to provide greater flexibility to customers during a period of financial certainty, they said that more needs to be done to proactively support consumers financially.
“Recent measures by energy retailers are welcome and necessary first steps in reassuring and supporting communities during this difficult period. But temporarily suspending disconnections and debt collection won’t stop winter energy bills for many households jumping by $200 a month as a result of COVID-19 related circumstances,” Memery added.
“In times of crisis it is incumbent on companies who are providing essential services to put people first, to provide relief and a level of comfort during this uncertain and unprecedented period. It’s the right thing to do,” CEO of ACOSS Cassandra Goldie added.
The call mirrors those from the clean energy sector, which has called on stimulus measures to include support for the installation of rooftop solar and storage systems, that would provide economic stimulus while also helping homes reduce their energy costs in the long term.
The call from community groups follows a statement from the Australian Energy Regulator that laid out a set of expectations for electricity retailers on how to handle customers experiencing financial hardship due to the Covid-19 outbreak.
In its own statement, the AER said that it would expect electricity retailers to make offers of payment plans or hardship arrangements for household and small business customers suffering financial stress.
“We understand the significant impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having on the Australian community and our stakeholders,” the AER chair Clare Savage said.
“Many people are or will be affected by dramatic changes to their lives, businesses, income and working arrangements, and those of their friends, families and communities. As a result their energy use and ability to pay their bills could be affected.”
These measures would include a cessation in electricity disconnections and referrals of customers to debt collection agencies until at least the end of July.
“People enter into a contract when they sign up with an energy retailer. But businesses also have a deal, a social contract, with the community in which they operate. At a time like this, it is vital they remember their broader social obligations,” Savage added.
“The AER is not calling for an amnesty on bill payments and encourages those Australians who can to pay their bills on time to continue to do so.”
“This is vital to ensuring the ongoing viability of energy businesses. However, we also recognise that the circumstances arising from this pandemic mean more customers may find it difficult, or impossible, to pay their bills at the moment,” Savage added.
Following the AER’s statement of expectations, several electricity retailers openly endorsed the calls, with the Australian Energy Council saying that its members, which includes most electricity providers, would adhere to the expectations.
“Energy retailers are focused on providing support through measures like payment plans and ensuring there are no barriers to entering hardship programs. They will also ensure long term assistance is readily available on request,” AEC’s Chief Executive, Sarah McNamara, said
“There will be no disconnections for affected customers receiving hardship assistance if they are unable to afford their energy bills.”
“For customers in the hardship program, AEC members have committed to pausing any external debt collection and bankruptcy proceedings, and will not charge any late fees if these customers cannot pay on time,” McNamara added.
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