While the nation winds down from this year’s round of April Fool’s shenanigans, the Australian Energy Regulator (AER) are taking a more serious approach.
From today, energy retailers must comply with the AER Hardship Policy Guidelines when drafting their hardship policies and providing assistance to Aussies facing financial difficulties.
A draft of the guidelines was released on February 2, detailing the four key areas retailers need to improve on with their hardship programs.
“Retailers need to better assist vulnerable customers experiencing payment difficulties. Protection for people having trouble paying their energy bills is a right, not a privilege,” said AER Chair, Paula Conboy.
“We are seeing rising levels of energy debt and more people being disconnected. This is of grave concern.”
Some of the areas retailers must put into practice include making hardship programs easily accessible to customers as well as explaining how retailers plan to help customers through standardised statements.
Identifying customers who may be at risk of falling behind on their energy bills was another massive area that needed improvement, as the AER believe this to be one of the best ways to help customers better manage their bills and avoid disconnection.
“A lot of the time, people who are struggling to pay their bills might forget they can turn to their retailer for help,” said Mozo Energy Expert, Nathan Warne.
“Not only will these new guidelines ask retailers to tidy up their hardship policies, but they will also provide more clarity for customers in terms of the kind of assistance they can expect from their retailers.”
Retailers will have two months to adjust their current hardship policies to the new guidelines or face penalties if their policies fail to meet the requirements.
Australia’s disconnection disaster
According to the AER’s recent report on the retail energy market, over 82,000 energy customers are in hardship programs, with only 22% of electricity customers completing the program in 2017-18.
There were also 72,100 electricity disconnections in 2017-18, an 11% rise on the previous year, with the average electricity customer debt when entering a hardship program sitting at $1,146.
“One of the areas addressed in the new Hardship Policy Guidelines are customers rights. This type of transparency can definitely be of assistance to energy customers who are having their electricity disconnected,” said Warne.
And while Warne believes that having your electricity disconnected is a matter of customer rights, according to Conboy, it could also be a legal issue.
“If you know you’re going to have trouble paying an upcoming bill, or your debt is mounting, call your retailer and ask them to help you. As long as you are in a hardship program and meeting its conditions, you cannot be legally disconnected,” she said.
If you’d like to find out more about the new guidelines, you can read our guide about the AER’s Hardship Policy Guidelines.
Or if you’re an Aussie struggling to keep up with your energy bills, there’s the chance that you could be paying more than you need to. Find out by heading over to our energy comparison tool to compare a range of plans in your area.