774 ABC Melbourne
Simon Leo Brown
More Victorian households are being forced to choose between buying food and paying bills, according to a local welfare agency.
Stella Avramopolous is CEO of Kildonan UnitingCare, a community service organisation with offices in northern Melbourne, Shepparton and Cobram.
She said many of the people who contacted her organisation were being forced to choose between heating and eating.
"Thirty-two per cent of our clients are going without food, about 34 per cent are unable to heat their home, and about 83 per cent can't pay a bill on time," Ms Avramopolous told 774 ABC Melbourne's Rafael Epstein.
"I've certainly seen a trend over the last five years of those numbers increasing every year," she said.
Ms Avramopolous said the majority of those clients were families who were confronted by an unexpected problem, such as a death or illness, and found themselves unable to pay their bills.
She said those families "need some time and need a bit of a break" to sort out the issues they were juggling.
Reports suggest changes to energy hardship plans
The Kildonan experience is echoed in a new report from the Consumer Action Law Centre (CALC) titled Heat Or Eat.
There were more than twice as many gas disconnections and three-and-a-half times as many electricity disconnections in 2013/14 as there were in 2009/10, according to the CALC report.
The report tells the stories of six Victorians who have experienced being disconnected from their energy supplies by a gas or electricity retailer in the past year.
Some were victims of domestic violence caught in financial hardship, while others found themselves suddenly unable to pay bills due to an accident or illness.
One family found itself disconnected after the automatic bill payments they had set up stopped going through without their knowledge.
The CALC report was prepared as a submission to the Victorian Essential Services Commission's (ESC) Financial Hardship Inquiry, which released its draft report into the financial hardship programs of energy retailers on Monday.
Current legislation requires energy retailers to have a financial hardship policy, and the Energy Retail Code specifies standards for those policies.
However the ESC's draft report notes that efforts by energy retailers to identify and assist customers experiencing hardship have been "hit and miss".
The draft report recommends allowing customers to initiate a payment plan if they foresee themselves having difficulty paying their bill.
It also recommends retailers be required to offer a tailored payment plan if a customer misses payments on the standard payment plans.
The so-called Active Assistance Plan would include analysing the customer's energy use to provide personalised advice on how to reduce the customer's energy consumption.
Written submissions in response to the ESC's Financial Hardship Inquiry draft report are due by October 2, and the commission will hold public meetings about its proposals this month in Dandenong, Moonee Ponds, Wangaratta, Horsham, Bendigo and Traralgon.
Under the ESC's proposed framework retailers would still be able to disconnect customers who did not pay their bill and did not respond to attempts by the retailer to contact them within 28 days.
But CALC said the decision to disconnect a customer should be made by an independent panel or arbiter.
'CareRing' trial offers help with underlying problems
Ms Avramopolous said energy retailers needed to realise that standard financial hardship plans were "often unrealistic for the consumer".
"We do need to ensure that energy companies are doing a lot better in the way that they're ... enacting their hardship policies," she said.
Kildonan is one year into a two-year pilot program where people having difficulties paying their bills are offered a range of help and advice to deal with the underlying problems causing those difficulties.
The program, called CareRing, helps people access services such as financial advice, housing and drug and alcohol programs, as well as providing advice on how to reduce their energy and water usage.
The trial is open to customers of ANZ, Western Water, South East Water and Yarra Valley Water, and has so far helped around 1,500 people in 700 households.
Ms Avramopolous said people experiencing financial difficulty should contact their electricity and gas providers before their energy bill was due.
"We want to encourage consumers to talk to their energy retailers as soon as possible," she said.