People struggling to pay their utility bills this winter, will be given more time to pay them under new plans being considered by the energy regulator.
It comes as the Government this week announced a review of supply of electricity as Ireland faces extremely high energy prices. Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan confirmed the move by the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities (CRU) in response to a parliamentary question last month. The cost of electricity, gas and oil have all increased by significant margins in the last 12 months.
Mr Ryan said the CRU was working very closely with suppliers to enhance existing protections by introducing additional measures to “ensure more manageable payment/debt repayment plans by extending the time for repayment”.
A presentation made to the group of officials overseeing the State’s response to the energy crisis — the Energy Security Emergency Group (ESEG) — also outlines a range of measures being examined. It shows that CRU are “considering widening the net of vulnerable customers and are engaged on this policy discussion” and extended protected periods during the next winter season. It identifies the Traveller community as being particularly of risk.
The CRU will also seek to ensure more manageable debt repayment for customers on financial hardship prepayment meters and enhance protection for financial hardship prepayment meter customers.
The energy regulator will also seek to ensure customers in debt are on a metering/payment plan that is suitable for them and make sure that energy suppliers “proactively identify customers in debt” who should not be on prepayment meters and help them find other options.
They will also require energy providers to nominate a charity that will be able to help their customers who may be in debt.
A spokesman for the CRU said it was “concerned about the impact that high and increasing gas and electricity prices” was having on energy customers.
He said the CRU was engaged with its customer stakeholder group, energy suppliers and the department on additional measures the CRU will take to strengthen protections for customers in advance of the forthcoming winter.
He said the regulator was working with Mabs, St Vincent de Paul (SVP), Age Action Ireland and others, and was seeking to introduce new measures to protect customers as the winter approached. “These are focused on measures to support vulnerable customers and customers struggling to pay bills or pay down debt. The CRU expects to be in a position to provide further information on enhanced customer protection measures for the forthcoming winter in the next number of weeks.”
In addition to this the CRU will run a communications campaign to support customers in making the switch to the best tariff for their needs, to be aware of their rights and to register as a vulnerable customer where they are entitled to additional protections in the energy market.
The head of social justice at St Vincent de Paul, Dr Tricia Keilthy, said they were mainly concerned with prepaid customers who were “self disconnecting” because they did not have enough funds to top up. “We want to see greater monitoring and support for those households.”
Dr Keilthy said they were also worried about those customers who built up utility debt during the pandemic who were now facing a winter of rising energy bills.
Mr Ryan confirmed on Wednesday the Government was contingency planning for extreme scenarios such as power shortages, adding this winter and next would be a “very, very challenging situation” with the war in Ukraine driving the price of gas “beyond any precedent, beyond any compare”.