It is with mixed feelings that I introduce the March edition of EWOV News. This edition will be the last under my tenure as Ombudsman for EWOV before I take on the position of Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman in May. As I look back on the last 10 years as the Victorian Energy and Water Ombudsman, I can see all that we have achieved over that time, the connections with people that I have been fortunate to make and the crucially important future of EWOV in the Victorian energy and water market.When I took over as Ombudsman in 2012, we were incredibly busy. Case numbers were rising, reaching a peak of 84,758 cases in the 2013-14 financial year. Since then, we’ve seen a decline in case volumes. I can confidently say that we have contributed to this decline by working hard with industry, government and regulators to drive down complaints. We did this by participating in policy reviews, highlighting systemic issues from our casework and working with companies to address many of the problems that lead to complaints. The COVID-19 pandemic has also had an impact on complaint numbers, due to temporary changes in business practices, such as reduced disconnection activity.
Now that we’re returning to normal, EWOV can look to the future. We’ve been working hard to ensure that we remain relevant as consumers begin to engage in the market differently. From solar and storage to emerging technologies, EWOV must remain focused on being part of the consumer protections available to consumers. That’s what has driven the research we’ve been doing over the past several years and the continued work we do with government and regulators.
I’d also like to acknowledge the key stakeholders I’ve worked with as we’ve shifted EWOV to that of a leading ombudsman in Australia. Our ability to achieve this has been driven by effective collaborative working relationships with industry, community groups, financial counsellors and so many more. I’ve also had the pleasure to work with talented and dedicated staff at EWOV over the past 10 years, and a board of directors made up of experienced and knowledgeable people from the industry and consumer sectors who have always been collegiate and professional in their actions.
I hope you enjoy this edition of EWOV News, featuring a look at important issues in the Victorian energy and water market that are emerging during this phase of the pandemic. If you have any feedback, please let us know.
Energy and Water Ombudsman (Victoria)
We have seen more disconnection complaints since Victoria emerged from lockdown in October 2021. Actual disconnection/restriction complaints rose from 5 cases in October 2021 to 35 cases in February 2022, despite overall case numbers declining from 1,328 to 1,273 cases. After the lull in disconnection activity in 2020 and 2021 due to the periods of COVID-19 restrictions, companies have started disconnection activity again. We anticipate more complaints about disconnections to reach us in 2022.
It is important that customers are aware of their rights when it comes to disconnection and restriction, such as provisions around life support and when companies can disconnect or restrict a customer’s supply. Customers may seek to set up a payment plan to avoid disconnection and seek to ensure they can access their full suite of entitlements. We have more information about rights and responsibilities on our website.
Backbill complaints (cases involving a catch-up bill for previous usage) have been dropping in recent quarters, however, we continue to see cases that are similar in nature. All backbills issued to customers in Victoria need to be in line with the Energy Retail Code of Practice, however, in many cases the backbill amount calculated by a customer’s company is incorrect. It appears that many calculations are completed manually, as billing systems may not be set up to complete backbilling, and errors can occur. During investigations, when we ask companies to show us their calculations, we often find that they are incorrect and have resulted in an overcharge to customers.
We are bringing these issues to the attention of companies. Customers should be aware that they are not expected to pay backbills beyond the maximum period allowed (four months for electricity and gas, and 12 months for water) and that they can contact their company to request a payment plan. It is also important for customers to try to avoid a backbill where possible, such as by making sure meters are accessible and following up with their company if they are missing a bill. Regular billing is important to make sure customers can meet their payments and to discover issues such as leaks at properties.
We continue to receive a consistent number of debt collection and credit default listing complaints. In February 2022, we received 38 complaints related to debt collection agencies (where a debt had been sold on by the company), as well as 30 complaints related to credit default listing and 15 related to debt collection activity initiated by the company.
In many of our investigations, the company has sold the debt on to a third party debt collection agency. In some of these cases, we will expect that the company buy back the debt if it has not met its obligations under the Energy Retail Code of Practice, such as providing payment difficulty assistance under the Payment Difficulty Framework before selling the debt. The company also has an obligation to show that it has listed the credit default correctly.
It is important that customers are aware of their rights when it comes to debt collection and credit default listing, and how companies must behave when seeking to collect the debt. Visit our website for more information.
As part of our commitment to being an independent and impartial dispute resolution service, we often conduct fair and reasonable assessments of offers made by companies. We have a fair and reasonable investigation framework that provides a structured guide to assessing the customer’s and company’s positions, and the offers made by companies in order to resolve complaints. The framework features six elements and we will consider any or all of these when making an assessment:
- Customer considerations
- Company considerations
- Laws and regulations
- Advice and interviews
- Good practice
- Previous case results
Not every criteria are applicable for every complaint, however, we will look at all of the above factors wherever they are relevant. We have been increasing the number of assessments we make over the past year and will continue to improve our fair and reasonable assessment process. You can find out more about our fair and reasonable investigation framework on our website.
In February, we released the latest edition of Reflect, our regular quarterly report featuring case data and insights. We explored the increase in debt collection cases over 2021 as well as the complexity of the spikes in unplanned outage cases. You can also read past editions of Detect, our systemic issues report, where we highlight systemic issues we have detected in our case data and trends.