AER announces protection for hardship customers

Vulnerable energy customers experiencing financial difficulties are the focus of a series of new protective measures announced by the Australian Energy Regulator (AER).

AER chair Paul Conboy said energy affordability was a significant issue for many Australian households.

“Customers are entitled to assistance from a retailer if they are having trouble with their energy bills and we are working to ensure they are receiving that,” she said.

Building on the findings of its 2017 Hardship Policy Review, the AER has submitted a rule change request to the Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC) that would develop a binding Customer Hardship Policy Guideline as a single point of reference for industry on how the hardship obligations should be applied, and provide customers with a clear understanding of their rights and entitlements.

“Our Hardship Review showed a wide variation in practices across retailers and a disconnect between retailers’ policies and practical assistance offered to customers,” Ms Conboy said.

The AER is also auditing the hardship processes of selected retailers and is investigating potential breaches of hardship and disconnection requirements.

Ms Conboy said the Retail Law provides protections for customers experiencing financial difficulties, including requirements that disconnection for non-payment only occurs as a last resort.

Customers adhering to agreed repayment plans or participating in hardship programs cannot be disconnected.

“Rising electricity disconnections, fewer customers successfully completing hardship programs and high debt levels for customers not in these programs are all strong indicators there is more work to be done to ensure customers get the required assistance,” Ms Conboy said.

The AER will focus on hardship protections in 2018 and will continue to monitor retailers’ compliance with these obligations and take action where they are not being met.