"Billing cases were up 47% in October – December compared with the same quarter last year - reflecting persistent affordability challenges"
EWOV typically sees a drop in caseload in the final quarter of the year, as consumers receive the last of the winter bills in October. This year, while overall case numbers declined 16% from the July–September quarter (5,603) to the October–December quarter (4,735), our caseload was up 26% compared with the October-December 2022 quarter (3,761). These increases are consistent with our forecasts for the 2023-4 financial year, which anticipated a substantial post-COVID increase in complaint volumes. The profile of this increase appears to reflect ongoing cost-of-living pressures as consumers experiencing ‘bill shock’ and/or affordability challenges seek validation of the reasons for rising costs or report issues in accessing assistance to pay those costs.
Billing issues continued to feature heavily among reasons for consumers coming to EWOV, accounting for 58% of our caseload in the latest quarter compared with 50% in the October–December quarter last year. Many of these complaints relate to higher underlying costs of energy – principally gas – showing up as more complaints about high gas bills, estimates, inaccurate bills, and leaks.
The pace of the energy transition looks set to continue ramping up, with new subsidies available for Victorian households to install solar and electrify hot water and heating systems. EWOV will continue to contribute our insights to the various policy and regulatory processes underway to ensure the consumer and market experiences of emerging products and services are well understood in the policy debate.
In November we signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Essential Services Commission, further strengthening how our organisations work together to ensure energy and water markets are continuing to deliver effective outcomes for consumers.
Throughout 2023, EWOV adopted a new approach to resolution, leveraging our existing powers to apply Fair Offer Assessments. This allows us to draw on our unique perspective on the market and our expertise to identify and determine the fair and reasonable outcome to a case. In doing so, we consider evidence from both scheme participant and consumer and the individual circumstances in light of good industry practice, regulation and our fair and reasonable framework. Following positive feedback from stakeholders, we have developed a model which allows for wider application of this approach which we will be piloting from February 2024 (while also retaining conciliation as a valued resolution methodology). We expect this new model to result in faster, more transparent, more consistent and effective resolution of complaints, delivering benefits for EWOV, scheme participants and consumers.
Looking ahead, we will be watching for issues arising from the floods this summer. While EWOV isn’t a primary responder, we do run community outreach to help connect consumers who may be facing heightened difficulties after a natural disaster. We often receive complaints in the short-term about supply and reconnection issues and in the longer-term complaints about billing, supply, affordability issues and the need for understanding from providers. EWOV has added further information to our website relating to supports available for consumers, which can be found here.
Finally, EWOV is farewelling our Assistant Ombudsman Dispute Resolution Mandy Wilkins later this month. Mandy has been central to the evolution of our dispute resolution operations and approach, our dispute resolution reform, and leaves an impressive legacy of improvement. We wish her all the best for the future.
I look forward to working with my EWOV colleagues and the broader stakeholder community to meet the challenges of 2024 in my second year as Ombudsman at EWOV.
Read on for more detail in the latest edition of Reflect. As always, you can find more data about our casework in the Data Hub.