Gas and electricity bills 'the hidden debt crisis from Covid lockdowns' as ban on disconnections ends   

Mabs has called for a new code of practice for distressed households in their dealings with utilities, including electricity and gas providers
Gas and electricity bills 'the hidden debt crisis from Covid lockdowns' as ban on disconnections ends   

The framework for dealing with utility bills in arrears could be similar to the Mortgage Arrears Resolution Process, or Marp, that was developed by the Central Bank following the banking crisis 10 years ago, Mabs said.

The country's main household debt advisory organisation is warning that utility bills and PCP car finance loans are "the hidden household debt crisis" in the wake of the Covid-19 lockdowns.   

The Government-funded Money Advice and Budgeting Service, or Mabs, which provides independent advice to households, has also called for a new code of practice for distressed households in their dealings with utilities, including electricity and gas providers.      

The framework for dealing with utility bills in arrears could be similar to the Mortgage Arrears Resolution Process, or Marp, that was developed by the Central Bank following the banking crisis 10 years ago, Mabs said. 

That framework sets out the rules of engagement between mortgage lenders and mortgage borrowers in arrears. 

Michelle O'Hara, a regional manager with Mabs, said some sort of new structure was required as the moratorium for utilities cutting off households for non-payment of electricity and gas bills during the Covid crisis came to an end this week. 

She warned that another "hidden part" of the debt distress facing households will come from personal contract plans, or PCP car finance, which have ballooned in recent years. 

Ms O'Hara told the Irish Examiner that households depending on the car could be also badly hit although statistics on the extent of the potential problem were hard to come by.   

"From our experience, we have a concern that there is a hidden household debt problem with utilities because there was up to this week a moratorium on bills," Ms O'Hara said. 

"The impact on families will only be felt in the next month or so," she said. 

Ms O'Hara said households struggling to pay their bills should contact the utility company at an early stage and Mabs will also provide guidance.                

The Commission for Regulation of Utilities has said that the moratorium on electricity and gas disconnections came into place at the beginning of the crisis last March and ran to the end of last month. 

It said that the ending of the moratorium was needed to help customers engage with their arrears built up with utility providers. 

Many thousands of households have missed their payments on electricity and gas bills during the Covid crisis. 

Paul Joyce, senior policy adviser at the Free Legal Advice Centres, or Flac, said that the problem is significant because people have spent a lot of time in their homes through the winter and their energy costs will have increased substantially. 

Utility debt has always been an issue especially for lower-paid households which is why debt relief notices under the personal insolvency legislation includes utility and rent arears, he said.

"I would say it is already an issue and with the ban on disconnections being removed one would assume that the various different utilities will engage in collection," Mr Joyce said.   

Flac is preparing to publish a range of papers on household debts accumulated during the Covid crisis. Mr Joyce said that the mortgage debt will also be under the spotlight after the ending of payment breaks last year "because it has been a very long lockdown".

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