Customer hardship remains an area of significant concern for regulators of the Australian energy market. As energy is an essential service, energy hardship provisions aim to ensure the continuity of supply and management of energy debt for those individuals who are experiencing hardship.
On 6 September 2018, the Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC) made a draft rule to help customers who are having trouble paying their bills due to hardship.
A new rule 75A will be inserted into the National Energy Retail Rules which will require that the Australian Energy Regulator develop, maintain and publish a customer hardship policy guideline. The customer hardship policy guideline will include processes, timelines and requirements to be complied with by retailers in connection with the approval or variation of their customer hardship policies, and standardise statements that retailers must include in their customer hardship policies.
Retailers will be required to use consistent, transparent, and specific action statements in their hardship policies so that customers understand their rights. Retailers will be obliged to ensure that they demonstrate how they will identify vulnerable customers early. Retailers will be required to set out how they will help vulnerable customers pay their bills by ensuring that customers on the best energy plan they can be, offering programs to help customers manage energy usage, such as home energy audits, and lastly by putting customers on a manageable payment plan.
The new rule includes civil penalties for non-compliance and the AER will have greater insight into retailers’ hardship programs by amendments to the reporting guidelines. New retailers will not be able to start their business until they have an approved hardship policy in place