Wednesday, 8 November 2023
Electricity Costs (Emergency Measures) Domestic Accounts Bill 2023: Committee and Remaining Stages
As the Minister of State said, most of our amendments were ruled out of order but what they were seeking to do was improve the Government scheme. As I said, any measures at all that alleviate the cost of electricity where people are struggling to heat their homes are welcome. We thought with amendment No. 4 that those on hardship meters would have access to the same rights and entitlements as all other domestic electricity customers. It is disappointing it was ruled out of order.
I move amendment No. 6:
In page 9, between lines 2 and 3, to insert the following: “(3) Electricity suppliers shall remove any arrears limits placed on pre-pay meters until the Minister directs otherwise.”
Amendment No. 6 is with regard to electricity suppliers removing "any arrears limits placed on prepay meters until the Minister directs otherwise". This is according to the most recent data from the energy regulator, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, that there are 217,450 households in arrears, or about 10%, and that hundreds of households have been disconnected so far this year. However, we are sorely lacking in data on a number of households that self-disconnect. I have repeatedly raised this with the regulator at committee. Self-disconnection concerns those who are on prepaid meters who are not physically disconnected from the grid but who are going without electricity because they simply cannot afford to top up the meter.It is Dickensian to think of households going without a basic necessity such as electricity because they cannot afford it. This amendment seeks to remove the limits so households would not be disconnected.
I thank Senator Boylan. I will take amendments Nos. 6 and 11 together. Amendment No. 6 relates to section 5 of the Bill and the functions of electricity suppliers in relation to the scheme. Amendment No. 11 relates to the Title of the Bill. These amendments seek to insert text or remove arrears limits on prepaid meters. As with the previous electricity credit schemes, prepayment customers will have the payments credited to their account and suppliers will engage with customers regarding arrangements for this. Suppliers will notify customers of how to avail of the credit and when the payment is credited via a text on the vendor receipt. All of the prepaid customers will receive their credit on 1 December. Unlike billing customers who have different billing anniversary dates, all prepaid customers will see a credit on their on their account from 1 December, which will be the first credit.
In August of this year the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, announced the introduction of specific customer protection measures for the coming winter. This is to strengthen the existing protections currently in place and strengthen consumer protection obligations on suppliers mandated by the CRU, firstly to extend debt repayment periods of 24 months minimum and to reduce debt burden on pay-as-you-go top ups. This means that a maximum of 10% of a single customer vend can be put against a debt. Only 10% of the money that is added to a prepaid meter can be used to pay off debt and the other 90% goes to credit. A third protection measure is an increase of pay-as-you-go emergency credit from €10 to €20. A fourth measure is the better value for customers on financial hardship meters because customers on financial hardship meters will be automatically placed on the most economic tariff. A fifth measure is the promotion of a vulnerable customer register. This has seen an increase in registrations of 30%. The eligibility criteria for being on the vulnerable customer register are really quite broad - if any Members are working with any of their constituents on this.
The CRU has also suspended the €200 gas meter exchange site-works charge. This charge was associated with a customer who wanted to move from a pay-as-you-go meter onto a bill-pay meter and this will ensure that customers do not face a penalty for moving from pay-as-you-go to bill pay.
The Government has stressed on many occasions that nobody should go cold or without necessary electricity and power this winter. The "reduce your use" campaign was started in spring 2022 in response to rising energy prices and the need to reduce energy use in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and to provide a clear whole-of-government message on how reducing energy use can save money and contribute to a national effort. It was also recognised that there are many people for whom reducing energy use is simply not possible and is not advisable. Therefore, the "stay warm and well this winter" message was developed as part of the wider campaign in order to provide energy advice and information on where to go and who to contact for help. As part of the multimedia campaign an information leaflet that details how to access Government supports and advice on how to be more conscious about energy usage was delivered to every home in the country. The nationwide campaign ran right across the fuel season through to March of 2023. Any customer in need of additional support may apply for an additional needs payment provided by the Department of Social Protection, including customers on a pay-as-you-go meter who have a need for financial assistance to facilitate their continued energy supply. Every effort will be made to ensure that these vulnerable individuals in financial distress and who qualify receive an additional needs payment on the same day or as soon as possible where it relates to electricity and heating expenses.
Electricity suppliers also have supports available. Their hardship funds can be accessed by pay-as-you-go customers in the same way as bill-pay customers. Electricity suppliers are working with MABS and with the St. Vincent de Paul on this.
Finally, I must stress that it is not possible to remove arrears limits from accounts completely. The electricity and gas retail markets in Ireland operate within a European Union regulatory regime whereby electricity and gas are commercial and liberalised. The regulation of retail prices ended in the electricity market in 2011 and in the gas market in 2014. Price setting by electricity suppliers, including standing charges, is a commercial and operational matter for the companies concerned. Each such company has its own different approach to pricing decisions over time.
Under its legal mandate the CRU as independent regulator is responsible for implementing energy-specific customer protection measures including in relation to the matter raised by the Senators. For those reasons I cannot accept these amendments.
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 9, between lines 5 and 6, to insert the following:“Review by electricity supplier
6.(1) Where an electricity supplier refuses to make an electricity costs emergency benefit payment then the final customer may request the electricity supplier,
on or before 30 June 2024 to review its refusal.
(2) The request under subsection (1)shall state the reasons why the person making the request wishes the refusal by the electricity supplier to be reviewed.
(3) The electricity supplier shall within 28 days of the request under subsection (1), take into account the reasons stated in the review request and shall—(a) affirm the refusal to make the electricity costs emergency benefit payment, or(4) An electricity supplier shall inform the final customer who made the request under subsection (1)of the electricity supplier’s decision under subsection (3)in writing within 28 days of the request for review.
(b) on being satisfied that the final customer is or is eligible to be registered as a vulnerable customer or is the holder of a hardship meter account, make the electricity costs emergency benefit payment.
(5) Where the electricity supplier makes a decision referred to in subsection (3)(a)it shall when informing the final customer concerned under subsection (4)—(6) Where, following a review under this section, an electricity supplier determines that an electricity costs emergency benefit payment will not be applied to a domestic electricity account, the final customer may make an objection, under section 9R(1)(e) of the Act of 1999, to the Commission.”.(a) state the reasons for the refusal, and
(b) specify the period (being not less than 60 days from the date on which the final customer concerned is informed of the decision under subsection (4) within which an objection, under section 9R (1) (e) of the Act of 1999, may be made to the Commission.
This is a simple enough modification to fine-tune an appreciated aspect of the Government Bill concerning the review process. This adjustment bolsters the review procedure, improves consumer safeguarding, and offers greater certainty to consumers. The amendment requires energy providers to promptly respond to review requests within a specific 28-day timeframe as opposed to the vague "as soon as practicable", which can be ambiguous and potentially open to interpretation. Additionally this amendment aims to establish clearer deadlines for submitting complaints to the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, thereby enhancing predictability for regular employees and families, and fortifying the conflict resolution process.
Amendment No. 7 relates to section 6 of the Bill and the review by electricity suppliers for customers who did not receive payment under the scheme. It is necessary that we have this review in place because we are going to exclude a large number of people with vacant homes. We want to make sure that we are rightly excluding them and that we are dealing with exceptional cases in a fair way. While I thank the Senators for these suggested additions I am proposing to reject this amendment.
Proposed amendments for part 3 and part 4 seek to include a limit of 28 days for a supplier to consider a review request and then 28 days to respond in writing to review requests. While I recognise the merit of these amendments this would cause unintended consequences for electricity suppliers and consumers. Setting a limit of 28 days for a supplier review and response would prove difficult to implement and adhere to if issues arise. I understand that previously with the first scheme and the second scheme there was a large increase in call volume to energy supplier call centres in relation to the operation and roll-out of the credit. This caused problems such as increased wait times for customers and is not something that I wish to add to during the winter months. Permitting the review to be carried out "as soon as practicable" after receipt of the request provides the flexibility required for dealing with requests. It is proposed to reject these amendments.
The amendment seeks in part 5 (b) to provide an extended 60-day period for a review decision to be referred to the CRU. The Bill has provided 28 days for this referral rather than 60 days. This scheme will end on 31 July 2024. Suppliers will return unallocated funds to ESB Networks which will in turn forward these moneys back to my Department. It is preferable that these moneys are returned to the Exchequer as soon as practicable. There is no obvious reason or benefit as to why this should be extended and therefore I propose to reject this amendment.
The preparation for this Bill was quite different from last year's legislation. A great deal of work went into this, starting approximately six months ago. I thank the departmental officials for their work on the Bill, as well as the community groups, voluntary groups, etc., that engaged with me. For example, the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and other groups that deal with vulnerable people came to meet with us and made suggestions on how the Bill could be improved. I thank everybody who was involved in making this Bill a successful. I thank the Opposition also.