Community groups call for energy hardship relief package as household energy bills jump

Public Interest Advocacy Centre

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre joins a coalition of leading consumer and community organisations to call for immediate Commonwealth Government funding and stronger commitments by energy businesses so people can afford their energy bills during the COVID-19 social, economic and health crisis.

In a joint statement released today, 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 comes as the Australian Energy Regulator and state governments take their own welcome steps, such as the NSW Government’s commitment to boost the Energy Accounts Payment Assistance Scheme, and energy retailers such as AGL, Origin and Energy Australia commit to measures including temporarily suspending disconnections and debt recovery.

‘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.’ said Craig Memery, Head of Energy Policy, Public Interest Advocacy Centre. ‘Without better support, this winter many families face a choice between heating their homes and having enough money for food and rent.’

‘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.’

The groups, including the Australian Council of Social Services, Uniting Communities and Consumer Action Law Centre, are calling on the Commonwealth Government to act immediately to give people confidence they can afford to remain safe, healthy and warm in their homes in the coming months, with targeted Government funding to support an expansion of energy retailer payment assistance and hardship support.

As many energy retailers have had to close call centres in Australia and abroad, the coalition asks the Government to consider supporting energy businesses to increase customer support, while creating local jobs, through subsidising the increase of Australian-based call centre capacity.

The groups are calling on retailers administering the funding to in return commit to additional steps to support their customers and the community, accompanied by accountability measures to ensure government funds are delivered as intended. They’re also calling on the Government to support immediate measures to improve energy efficiency for those who are required to stay home during the crisis, such as more efficient heaters, draft sealing kits, and support for advice services to help people adopt energy efficient decisions and behaviours.

As noted by statement signatories:

Cassandra Goldie, Chief Executive officer, Australian Council of Social Service: ‘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.’

Gerard Brody, Chief Executive Officer, Consumer Action Law Centre: ‘Energy businesses and governments must act so that households across the nation can be absolutely sure that their essential electricity and gas services are not going to be disconnected for non-payment under any circumstances at this time. Anything less than that clear reassurance will put households at risk of unnecessary anxiety about energy use when we should all be focused on our health and turning on the heater when we need it.’

Mark Henley, Uniting Communities: ‘The most vulnerable people in our communities are also the people at greatest risk of Covid-19 impacts. It is crucial that energy businesses and governments act promptly to reduce the risk of further financial pain and the emotional anguish from uncertainty for the most vulnerable people in our community. Uniting Communities is most concerned about the circumstances of low-income private sector renters, casual workers and newly unemployed people and people with disabilities. Commitments of no electricity disconnections and no debt collection with improved concessions will provide substantial immediate relief for the people who need it most.’

List of statement signatories: Australian Council of Social Service, Australian Capital Territory Council of Social Service, The Brotherhood of Saint Laurence, Combined Pensioners and Superannuants Association, Consumer Action Law Centre, Ethnic Communities Council, The Physical Disability Council of NSW, Public, Interest Advocacy Centre, Renew, South Australian Council of Social Service, Tasmanian Council of Social Service, Uniting Communities, St Vincent de Paul Society, West Australian Council of Social Service

/Public Release.