Energy retailer slammed for pushing poorer customers to a competitor
Summary: Complaints about energy retailers in NSW have increased for the first time in five years, jumping by 12 per cent, with some related to a retailer pushing struggling customers to a rival.....
The Energy and Water Ombudsman NSW's annual report shows two-thirds of the total 26,416 complaints made in 2017-18 related to billing problems.
Billing complaints rose by 18 per cent and largely related to high and estimated bills, billing errors and problems with opening and closing accounts.
"Energy affordability - evidenced in complaints about high energy bills, payment difficulties, debt collection, credit default listings and disconnections - continued to feature in many of our complaints," the report said.
Complaints about energy affordability, including payment difficulties, debt collection, credit default listings and disconnections, increased by 12 per cent.
The ombudsman Janine Young raised concerns about financial hardship programs, which all retailers are meant to offer to customers in financial difficulty and can include a once-off payment extension or a longer term payment plan.
NSW Energy Minister Don Harwin wants retailers to offer lower prices.CREDIT:JAMES BRICKWOOD
She said while some programs have improved, overall, they were becoming increasingly inaccessible and providing an increasingly inconsistent level of support.
"[There is a] lack of standard protections offered by large and small retailers [and] access to these programs is often inadequate," she said.
"More recently, we have seen a requirement by some retailers for their customers to meet unaffordable short-term payment plans in order to qualify for access to affordable and longer term payment plans".
This year two potential systemic issues relating to hardship programs were identified involving two smaller retailers.
In one astonishing case, a retailer strongly encouraged customers experiencing financial hardship and asking for affordability assistance, to transfer to another retailer.
In a separate case, a retailer demanded large upfront payments towards an energy debt before considering whether to reconnect their customers or offer them a payment plan.
1st Energy, amaysim Energy (which includes Click Energy) and Mojo Power, generated the highest number of complaints, based on cases per 10,000 customers.
Complaints related to poor customer service increased by 19 per cent and mostly related to failure to respond, incorrect advice or information, and failure to consult or inform customers.
Seventy-eight per cent of total complaints were about electricity, 19 per cent about gas, and 3 per cent about water.
Last week, IPART said NSW electricity and gas prices had stabilised over the past year and retailers were facing increasing competition.
NSW Energy Minister Don Harwin said energy affordability was a priority for the government and it would continue to push retailers to deliver better outcomes.
"The NSW Government is developing a new Energy Switch service focused on providing a platform that will empower consumers to shop around for a better deal and increase price transparency," he said.
"We expect retailers to put their customers first by helping them with their rebates and providing lower market offers."
The Labor Opposition has seized the opportunity to restate its election promise to re-regulate electricity prices, saying the report was another sign the market was broken and needed to be reset.
“Households across NSW are hurting because Gladys Berejiklian and the Liberals have only one energy policy - to privatise and deregulate retail electricity prices," Labor's spokesman for energy Adam Searle said.
Although when this commitment was first announced, the Grattan Institute's Tony Wood said the Opposition might have jumped the gun because re-regulation should be considered "a last resort".
Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham said a public-owned energy retailer would focus on the needs of the community over profits and help restore this balance to the market.
The Australian Energy Council, which represents the energy retailers, said the rise in complaints reflected the heightened media and political focus on energy bills and the pressure on power prices as a result of higher wholesale electricity costs.
"Retailers’ average electricity prices in NSW reflect the underlying costs in supplying customers," its spokesman said.
"Retailers continue to work with regulators to deliver effective hardship programs."