In this final edition of EWOV News for 2021, we look back at some important issues and trends, and look ahead to the coming year. Disconnections fluctuated in 2020 and 2021 as Victorians coped with waves of lockdowns and companies limited the number of disconnections they did. We’re starting to see some more disconnection cases come through but we’re aware that there may be a lot more in 2022, when we predict companies will resume somewhat normal operations. At the same time, we’ve noticed an increase in the number of customers reporting vulnerabilities, particularly in payment difficulties, family violence and the impact of COVID-19. Looking to the future, we’re eager to get back out in the community and continue our outreach work, in partnership with community organisations and to share insights from their experiences. As we enhance our approach to communicating with stakeholders, these insights help us reach more Victorians to let them know who we are and how we can help.
We released our 2021 Annual Report in late September. If you haven’t had a chance to read it, please visit our report landing page, which features case trends and highlights, interactive data visualisations and links to the full report.
We hope you enjoy this edition of EWOV News. If you have any feedback, please let us know.
Energy and Water Ombudsman (Victoria)
Disconnections have been trending down since the early part of 2021, as energy and water companies again limited their disconnection and restriction activity. So far in 2021, imminent disconnection cases have dropped from a high of 77 cases in February to 29 cases in November. Actual disconnection cases reached a high of 39 cases in March and dropped to a low of 5 cases in October. Actual disconnection cases have started with a modest increase, going from the low of 5 cases in October to 8 cases in November. We will continue to watch the trend in disconnection cases as we move into 2022.
On the individual case level, we are seeing some disconnection cases present a picture of some of the financial and social issues in the community. In a case received in late October, a victim-survivor of family violence contacted us about being disconnected after their usage led to a debt of over $50,000. We were able to have the customer’s electricity reconnected and will continue to investigate this case, noting that this is a serious incidence of vulnerability and high debt. We will be watching disconnections cases closely toward the end of this year and into next year, to determine if there are any systemic issues that need to be addressed.
We are aware of a number of customers reporting vulnerabilities when they contact us. We use this information to tailor our responses to customers contacting us with a complaint, in some cases using our discretion to bypass the Assisted Referral stage and go straight to an Investigation. Of particular concern is that customers are reporting that they are experiencing payment difficulties/limited income and family violence at higher levels over the past year, and in greater numbers than other issues such as age and impacts of natural disasters. This is concerning, given the common link between these issues and problems with accumulating debt and paying bills.
A contributing factor to these issues being prevalent may be the number of conversations about these topics that have occurred in media and communities, making it more accessible to self-report these vulnerabilities. We will continue to monitor the number of customers who report vulnerabilities and will continue to tailor our responses to these customers.
We’re committed to being an independent and impartial dispute resolution service for customers with complaints in the energy and water sector within Victoria. Being fair and reasonable is central to that. Our investigation process allows each party a fair opportunity to explain their perspective, giving customers and their companies a chance to understand each other’s point of view, and giving companies an opportunity to offer a resolution that takes into account the individual customer’s situation. To support our commitment to independence and impartiality, we make fair and reasonable assessments of the resolutions offered by energy and water companies. These assessments have been a focus of ours this year and we’ve streamlined the assessment process and committed to conducting them more often and earlier in our investigations. We began increasing the assessments in February 2021. So far this year, we have completed 53 fair and reasonable assessments, up from 21 total in 2020. We’ll continue to improve our fair and reasonable assessment process to ensure outcomes are clear and structured, and to help demonstrate our independence.
With the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, we are pleased to be back in the community, after maintaining our outreach activities online during lockdowns. We have restarted our in-person connections with support agencies and community organisations, and reaching customers directly with information and assistance.
In late November, we participated in outreach at Banyule Support and Information Centre (BANSIC) in Heidelberg West and at a Bring Your Bills day in Sunbury. At these events, we were able to directly engage with vulnerable customers experiencing financial hardship, assist them to raise complaints with their companies and let them know about their rights and entitlements as energy and water consumers. We saw an increase in customers with significant arrears accumulated during the pandemic. Families on low incomes expressed concern about the amounts their retailers were asking them to pay and advised they had little hope of paying off large debts. We also heard from a victim-survivor of family violence who had accrued over $25,000 in arrears across their electricity and gas accounts. They told us that their retailer was aware of their situation, but it failed to offer any advice about how to manage the debts or what would happen should they continue to accrue.
We also ran the first meeting of our revised Community Consultation Group (CCG). The CCG is one of our initiatives to get together with community partners and share insights into complaint data and trends, systemic issues, recent reports, case studies and new initiatives and projects EWOV is working on. Community partners were able to share direct knowledge of the lived experiences of community members, raise questions and concerns about case processes and outcomes, and let us know how we can better serve them and their clients.
In October, we released the latest edition of Reflect, our regular quarterly report featuring case data and insights. We explored the increase in planned outage cases experienced during the recent pandemic lockdowns as well as the complexity of the solar feed-in system, highlighted in a number of complaints we received. You can also read our recent edition of Detect, our systemic issues report, where we highlight systemic issues we have detected in our case data and trends.