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In this edition of EWOV News, we explore some very important issues for customers, including debt waivers and the over-representation of customers identifying as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, in our disconnection cases, compared to those who do not. We also highlight the release of our recent VOICES report, a look at consumers’ experiences with new energy products and services. The report continues to have an impact on discussions around the energy transition and how best to ensure consumers are protected.

Stay tuned for our 2021 Annual Report, due to be released in late September. The report explores our case data, drawing insights about trends and the lived experiences of customers, and underlines the work we’ve completed under challenging circumstances. If you haven’t yet, please subscribe to make sure you receive an email when the report is released.

We hope you enjoy this edition of EWOV News. If you have any feedback, please let us know.

Cynthia Gebert 2

Cynthia Gebert
Energy and Water Ombudsman (Victoria)

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic impacts continue to have an effect on customers in long-term financial difficulty. While our case numbers decreased in the 2020-21 financial year, down 18% compared to the previous year, customers are coming to us with more credit issues on average. A look at our Data Hub shows that credit cases increased 1.8% in the April to June quarter, when compared to the previous quarter, and were up 4% when compared to the same time last year, despite the drop in overall case numbers.

We have identified the approach by some retailers to provide their customers debt waivers and a transfer away from them as a resolution for cases related to customers in financial difficulty. While we see that these resolutions may be helpful for customers in the short term, many of these customers have complex needs and require solutions that address how to manage usage and their bills over the long term. Two examples that provide some insight into options that are more likely to assist in the longer term are:

  • one case, where a retailer offered a resolution that involved staggered debt waivers where the customer would have their debt reduced over time as they engaged with the retailer and reduced their usage
  • another example, where a retailer offered to replace old appliances that were contributing to high usage to help with a sustainable solution to high bills.

We believe that, while these approaches will go some way to assisting customers, it is critical that they are accompanied by the early and effective application of the Payment Difficulty Framework (PDF). Sustainable solutions to high usage and bills will lead to the best results for customers in severe financial difficulty.

We’ve identified trends in energy and water that are resulting in some customers not getting the support they need. Drawn from our casework and our outreach and engagement activities, these trends, if reversed, could have significant benefits for vulnerable customers.

Our Ombudsman, Cynthia Gebert, hosted a roundtable recently with a focus on identifying these barriers. We brought together staff from water businesses and representatives from the Victorian Pride Lobby, Community Information & Support Victoria (CISVic) and the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service in order to highlight barriers in accessing support and the impact they can have on future engagement with businesses. Our aim with these sessions is to give businesses the chance to listen and understand the lived experiences of their diverse customer base and offer practical advice to enhance their approach to case handling.

We shared data and observations from our casework including that over 60% of respondents to an EWOV survey of customers from Assisted Referrals or Investigations felt that their energy or water company was not listening to them. Presenters at the roundtable spoke about the need for staff to have appropriate training to facilitate accessible and appropriate engagement, and to only collect information that was required to support the customer. They also spoke about customers having to continue to give consent for someone to speak on their behalf and for the person supporting to have to retell their story as they progressed through different parts of an organisation. Presenters noted that it would be helpful for agencies supporting customers to have a direct line into the teams who can support them.

We continue to search for ways to share knowledge and insights from our casework and organisations that work with customers, to help drive improvements in the operations of energy and water companies and enhance the experiences of customers who interact with them.

In the 2020-21 financial year, customers who identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander made up an average of 2% of cases at EWOV. More recently, however, this number has increased. Comparing against the 2016 Census data, which showed that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples made up 0.8% of the Victorian population, it’s clear that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are more likely to experience energy and water issues that require the assistance of EWOV.

In 2020, a moratorium on energy disconnections was put in place for part of the year. When this was lifted in December, we saw a sharp increase in disconnection cases with 16% of these cases from customers who identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Overall in 2020-2021, more than 6% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander customers who came to EWOV had actually been disconnected, closely followed by those who were facing imminent disconnection (5%) – a total of 11% of complaints received. By contrast, only 2% of customers that approached EWOV who did not identify faced imminent disconnection with 1% actual disconnection – a total of 3%.

This data shows that, not only are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander customers overrepresented in EWOV cases, but they are coming to us with more serious and complex issues. We will continue to monitor our data for trends in cases where customers identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and support initiatives that will improve the engagement and outcomes for this community.

Last month, we released VOICES, an important part of our research program into the energy transition and implications for Victorian customers. Short for Victorian Energy and Water Ombudsman’s Investigation of Consumer Experiences, VOICES explores the issues customers face with new energy products and services (such as solar panels, home batteries and virtual power plants). The report found that many customers are keen to engage in new energy products and services, but that there were concerns around the complexity and accuracy of information and their experiences with companies. Of particular concern is the complex and confusing nature of the technology, and the lack of adequate consumer protection for customers, including access to free and independent external dispute resolution, when making what can be significant financial investments.

Since the release of the report, our Ombudsman has featured in media stories about new energy technology and the experiences of consumers, including a story on the ABC’s 7.30 and an article in ABC News, highlighting some of the issues customers have faced when interacting with the industry and their difficulties in finding help when things went wrong. In addition, an article in The Conversation highlights the insights by the report researchers at the Australian National University’s Battery and Storage Grid Integration Program.

In August, we released the latest edition of Reflect, our regular quarterly report featuring case data and insights, and an edition of Detect earlier this month - where we highlight systemic issues detected in our case data and trends. In Detect, we explore two areas where we often see significant systemic issues – solar, with customers experiencing confusion as a result of complex processes, and customer service issues, including failing to issue Utility Relief Grant Scheme applications, refusing to issue a final bill, troubling family violence responses and more.