PIAC report highlights the complexity of issues around disconnection
Last week NSW’s Public Interest Advocacy Centre released a new report Close to the Edge, a qualitative and quantitative study into the experiences of people facing disconnection from essential services, specifically energy or water services.
What is covered in the report?
The research highlights the range of longer-term factors that make households vulnerable to financial hardship. These include medical problems and experiences of disability, relationship breakdowns and sole parenthood, complex household situations, and being a victim of crime, including domestic violence.
The combined impact of multiple longer-term factors is greater than the sum of the parts.
The report suggests that efforts to reduce disconnections in the future will be most effective if they seek to address the longer-term factors that make households vulnerable when a larger than expected bill comes in.
What are some of the steps AGL is taking?
AGL acknowledges there is still more work to do to address energy affordability and disconnections. Ongoing improvements to supporting customers experiencing vulnerability and difficulty paying energy bills remain a focus area. Some recent initiatives include:
- Reducing barriers to access: Earlier this year, AGL launched ‘Here to Help’ a digital solution to make it easier for customers to determine eligibility for concessions and grants and make accessing those supports easier. And for customers who feel uncomfortable directly asking for help, they are able to arrange their own payment extension or bill smoothing arrangement through this online portal. There is also work in progress to extend this to a range of payment plan options.
- One stop, one story vulnerability hub. In 2017, AGL became a founding partner of the Thriving Communities Partnership. And then in September 2018, with AGL’s financial support, the Thriving Communities Partnership commenced work on its first breakthrough project – the development of a ‘One Stop, One Story Vulnerability Hub’. This Hub operates as a central point where those who are experiencing financial difficulty can go to access support programs and government assistance from all of their service providers (energy, water, telecommunications, banking) in one place. In turn, removing the need to retell their story over and over again.
- New measures to identify and support hardship customers: As announced last week, AGL’s new hardship policy to be implemented in January 2019 involves new measures, embracing predictive solutions to identify customers at risk of payment difficulty and proactively communicate the supports available through our hardship program, Staying Connected. These include tailored payment plans, direct access to financial counsellors, energy efficiency advice, and payment incentives and matching.
- Energy plans that support vulnerable customers: AGL has heard the concerns around pay on time discounts and their impact on customers who are already struggling to meet payment commitments. As part of our ‘A Fairer Way’ package, customers participating on the hardship program are offered tailored energy plans which involve guaranteed discounts and are not subject to late payment fees. These complement ‘AGL Essentials’ a generally available, no discount, low rate energy plan.
- $50 million debt relief and revitalisation of Affordability Initiative – At our FY18 Financial Results, we announced a $50 million package for debt relief and payment matching, and the revitalisation of our ‘Affordability Initiative’ to focus on energy literacy and social and economic inclusion, with a new allocation of $6 million in funding over three years.