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The release of the Australian Energy Regulator’s (AER) Customer Hardship Policy Guideline on 29 March has been welcomed by the Energy and Water Ombudsman NSW (EWON).

“The Guideline is a positive step in improving energy retailer support for customers experiencing energy affordability issues,” Energy and Water Ombudsman NSW, Janine Young, said.

In submissions to the AER and Australian Energy Market Commission to inform the development of the new Hardship Guideline and the accompanying rule change, EWON identified a range of issues with retailer affordability support.  

“Customers have not been receiving consistent, reliable support from energy retailers, despite all retailers being required to have affordability programs. Many retailers have improved their policies, but the accessibility and deliverables of all affordability programs fall short,” Ms Young explained.

The Guideline also seeks to address concerning trends such as a fall in the number of customers accessing retailer affordability programs, while customer energy debt increases.

Over the past ten years, the cost of energy has increased well beyond Consumer Price Index and wage growth, and payment difficulties, debt and disconnection of supply are now the norm for many consumers.

In 2017/2018 complaints to EWON relating to energy affordability increased by 12 per cent and were present in 21 per cent of all complaints. According to the AER, 37,565 households had their electricity or gas disconnected last financial year, up 14 per cent on 2016/2017.

Ms Young hopes that the new guideline will help ensure retailers take individual customer circumstances into account and affordability support will be equal regardless of the retailer. She said retailers need to do more than just update their policy though.

“Changes to policies must be accompanied by behavioural and process change by energy retailers that ensures frontline staff know when to refer customers for affordability support.”

The Guideline requires retailers to have steps in place to help customers prevent and manage debt; actively engage with them throughout their affordability program experience; provide them with clear, consistent and transparent information about their rights and retailers’ responsibilities. Retailers now have two months to submit their updated policies to the AER for approval.

The Guideline recognises that energy affordability is a key issue for many people. As such, the EWON is calling for the term ‘hardship’ to be replaced with ‘affordability’.

To view EWON’s submissions, visit ewon.com.au.

Charlotte Pordage is Editor of Utility magazine, a position she has held since November 2018. She joined the team as an Associate Editor in October 2017, after sharpening her writing and editing skills across a range of print and digital publications. Charlotte graduated from Royal Holloway, University of London, in 2011 with joint honours in English and Latin. When she's not putting together Australia's only dedicated utility magazine, she can usually be found riding her horse or curled up with a good book.

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