On 27 March 2020, the Australian Energy Regulator (AER) released a ‘Statement of Expectations’ which sets out ten principles they expect businesses to adhere to during this time, to the maximum extent possible.
While the statement is not legally binding, it is obviously in energy retailer’s bests interests to comply with the statement. In our view, it is likely that the Government will codify obligations in due course.
Below, we look at each of the ten principles in turn.
1.Offer all residential and small business customers who indicate they may be in financial stress a payment plan or hardship arrangement, regardless of whether the customer meets the ‘usual’ criteria for that assistance.
2. Do not disconnect any residential or small business customers who may be in financial stress, without their agreement, before 31 July 2020 and potentially beyond.
3. Do not disconnect any large business customer, without their agreement, before 31 July 2020, and potentially beyond, if that customer is on-selling energy to residential or small business customers (for example, in residential parks or retirement villages).
- Retailers should not refuse entry into a hardship program on ‘technical grounds’. The AER is likely to be actively testing a retailer’s understanding of their obligation to assist customers in hardship at this time. It is in a retailer’s best interests to work with a customer as soon as possible and to provide whatever assistance they are able to provide.
- Disconnections should not occur unless a customer agrees. The AER is concerned to ensure that any existing hardship is not exacerbated by disconnection of energy supply. The AER has made specific reference to embedded networks here.
4. Defer referrals of customers to debt collection agencies for recovery actions, or credit default listing until at least 31 July 2020.
5. Be prepared to modify existing payment plans if a customer’s changed circumstances make this necessary.
6. Waive disconnection, reconnection and/or contract break fees for small businesses that have ceased operation, along with daily supply charges to retailers, during any period of disconnection until at least 31 July 2020.
- Retailers can continue to send reminder notices etc with respect to non-payment but should ensure that such notices are not misleading with respect to the potential for disconnection of that customer’s energy supply. This may require changes to your reminder notice templates.
- Retailers should ensure that system changes are made to give effect to charge limitations.
- A point of contention here will be whether the LNSPs agree to waive Daily Supply Charges. We expect to see more announcements on this issue soon.
7. Prioritise the safety of customers who require life support equipment and continue to meet responsibilities to new life support customers.
8. Prioritise clear, up-to-date communications with customers about the issues addressed in this Statement, including by keeping website, social media and call centre waiting and hold messages up to date, so customers can readily access updates when they need them and relieve some pressure on affected call centres.
9. Prioritise clear communications with customers about the availability of retailer and other supports, including the availability of payment plans, energy efficiency advice and fault repair.
10. Minimise the frequency and duration of planned outages for critical works, and provide as much notice as possible to assist households and businesses to manage during any outage.
- Retailers should take care where a customer is due to return a medical confirmation form. Such a customer may not be able to visit a doctor and so retailers should provide additional times for responses.
- Retailers should develop customer communications, ensure that their call centre staff are able to identify hardship and consider wider comms including notices on bills and on websites.
- Retailers should ensure that they have a clear understanding of the assistance that they can provide customers including government rebates and concessions.