Government scrambles to stop pay-as-you-go energy customers being cut off

Government scrambles to stop pay-as-you-go energy customers being cut off

The CRU has said it is difficult to aid pay-as-you-go customers specifically, as metering systems cannot provide the necessary data. Picture: Nick Ansell/PA

Home and business owners face further sustained increases in their energy costs because of extreme increases in wholesale energy prices, they have been warned.

With 125,000 customers now behind on their bills, up from 100,000 during the pandemic, the ESB and Electric Ireland told an Oireachtas committee they have sought to slow down and limit the impact of wholesale energy price increases on customers through hedging 18 to 24 months ahead.

Unfortunately, due to the extreme and sustained nature of these price increases, customers have been hit with larger energy bills, which will continue to rise.

The Government is scrambling to get emergency payments to pay-as-you-go energy customers who could face being cut off this winter.

Prepaid meters 

Taoiseach Micheál Martin told the Dáil that there are around 346,000 households with prepaid electricity meters.

A €3 million hardship fund to help those households top up their energy meters, administered by MABS and St Vincent De Paul, has been branded “wholly insufficient” by the Opposition.

The Irish Examiner understands that Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications Eamon Ryan is to seek assurances from energy suppliers that households won’t face disconnections this winter. 

However, Cabinet sources have said they are focusing on how to make it as quick and easy as possible for struggling households to access additional needs payments, through community welfare officers.

The Government has provided funding of €45.75m for the additional needs payment in 2022. A Cabinet source said: 

Discussions are underway on how to get payments to people as quickly as possible and to make it more straightforward for people to get access to the emergency payments.

“This will be challenging because you can’t see when a pay-as-you-go customer's meter is running out, so it’s figuring out how quickly those payments can be made.”

Mr Martin told the Dáil the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities (CRU) has functions with regard to consumer protection as part of its statutory role, including around disconnections and protections for those on prepay meters. The Taoiseach said: “There is a range of protections for customers on prepay meters.

In addition, if anyone was in any difficulty, we have the social welfare system to provide supports on an emergency-needs basis, and a basic position with regard to not disconnecting people throughout the winter who are in genuine hardship.

While Mr Martin said no vulnerable person will be disconnected, Electric Ireland’s executive director Pat Fenlon made clear that such a characterisation only applies to people with certain medical conditions.

“The definition of vulnerable used relates to those who are medically vulnerable. That is used by the CRU for the purposes of identifying people to register with ESB Networks or through their supplier,” he told the Oireachtas Environment and Climate Action committee.

It is understood invitations have been sent out to energy suppliers and to the CRU to meet with Minister Ryan.

Budget measures

The Government is hoping measures announced in the budget such as double welfare payments, as well as the €600 energy credits will be enough to get households through “difficult” months ahead.

A Government source last night said: “The Budget measures were carefully designed so that people shouldn’t face a situation where they can’t top up their meter.

Obviously the Government understands that some people will face difficult situations, and is engaging with CRU and the energy companies on this.

The CRU said it has already let Minister Ryan’s department know that making any additional credits to pay-as-you-go customers is difficult, because the metering systems cannot provide the data to identify these people.

A spokesman said: "While all electricity customers will benefit from the Government electricity credit that was recently announced during the budget, additional credits to pay-as-you-go customers would require further subvention or access to a non market-based credit mechanism.”

Meanwhile, the exchequer surplus came in at €7.9bn at the end of September, while overall tax revenue for the first nine months of the year came in at just under €58 billion.

This is up over a quarter on the same period last year.

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