The Money Advice and Budgeting Service (MABS) Submission to. The Commission for Energy Regulation. Proposals on a Roadmap for Deregulation

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1 The Money Advice and Budgeting Service (MABS) Submission to The Commission for Energy Regulation on Proposals on a Roadmap for Deregulation January 2010 Vulnerable Consumers Energy Market - Submission Q13. Respondents are invited to comment on Proposal 7, Section 10.3 that ESB PES, ESBIE and any other supplier will be required (through licence) to offer tariffs to vulnerable and other groups of domestic customers, as defined by the Commission, on principles acceptable to the Commission. Are you in favour of the proposal? Outline reasons for agreement or disagreement. Are there any other specific consumer measures required with the removal of price controls?

2 Table of Contents 1. Introduction: MABS Submission: Defining Vulnerability: Relevant International Definitions Vulnerability and Lack of Capacity: Vulnerability and Personal Circumstance: Vulnerability and Energy Supply: Vulnerability and income Appropriate Tariffs: Conclusions and recommendations:

3 1. Introduction: The Money Advice and Budgeting Service (MABS) was established in 1992 to help people on a low income to cope with debts and take control of their own finances. It is a free, confidential and independent service. It currently comprises 53 MABS Services, located in over 60 offices nationwide. MABS is funded and supported by the Citizens Information Board. 1. MABS National Development Limited was established in 2004 to further develop the MABS Service in Ireland. It provides training and technical support to MABS staff nationally. MABSndl also assists the MABS service in providing educational and informational supports as well as assisting in highlighting and working to address policy issues that arise in the course of the money advice work on behalf of clients. MABSndl has responsibility for the ongoing development of the MABS website and for providing the MABS national helpline service. 2. MABS Statistics: During 2009, the number of clients approaching MABS with utility debts as their primary concern grew to 3492 from 2771 in This increase is indicative of the pressures people on a reduced income are under to maintain their commitments to creditors and service suppliers. It also highlights the importance, from a domestic budgeting perspective, to be able to avail of the lowest tariff possible. 2. MABS Submission: The Money Advice and Budgeting Service has, as part of its remit, a special focus on consumers who are dependent on a low income and/or are vulnerable or disadvantaged 1. These consumers need particular consideration in order to protect them from the missselling of goods and services as well as securing delivery of basic services such as shelter, heat and light. In Ireland, there has been little debate on what constitutes vulnerability other than that surrounding the definition adopted by the Commission and used by the electricity and gas industry. While this definition (which covers the elderly, those with communications difficulties and those dependent on medical equipment) is welcome, in MABS experience it is too narrow in focus and allows many consumers in vulnerable situations to be deprived of energy services. We are, therefore, of the view that the definition of vulnerability needs to be revisited. We are of the view that energy suppliers should be mandated to offer tariffs to vulnerable and other groups of domestic customers, as defined by the Commission. However, we 1 Our contacts with other voluntary and statutory sector organisations indicate that there are also many potential clients who are heavily reliant on ongoing support which subsidises their energy costs. 2

4 believe, that in the first instance, an adequate definition of vulnerability must be arrived at and a tariff designed to reduce fuel poverty put in place. 3. Defining Vulnerability: Many structures and policies relating to the provision of basic goods and services regard all consumers as the same. Where admitted, vulnerability is defined very narrowly. In MABS experience, there are a number of ways in which the concept of vulnerability applies. People from, for example, an ethnic background, having a mental/physical disability or having literacy or numeracy difficulties are, more often than not, at a disadvantage in acquiring and understanding key information about the acquisition and management of payments for particular goods and services. Those on a low or uncertain income are also vulnerable to small changes in their circumstances; such changes can undermine the household s capacity to manage their budget for essential goods such as food, housing and utilities. Consumers highly dependent on the supply of energy are vulnerable (older people, people with a disability or illness people who are housed in sub-standard accommodation etc.), and are therefore at risk of being harmed or disadvantaged if their vulnerability is not recognised. 4. Relevant International Definitions Within relevant international policy and practice, two important dimensions of vulnerability can be identified: a person s mental and physical capacity a person s circumstances including income, class, age, parental status, ethnicity, health etc. More detail in relation to the application of such definitions is provided below. 4.1 Vulnerability and Lack of Capacity: The UK Better Regulation Taskforce defines vulnerability with reference to individual capacity and circumstance. It proposed that these factors need to be considered separately and in combination in order to help determine the degree of vulnerability in individual cases. Its view is that full capacity will not always mean there is no vulnerability (as for example in the case of a skilled lone parent, who because of the lack of affordable child care, is unable to work) and that circumstances do not necessarily lead to higher vulnerability (as in the case of an immigrant family). 2 UK Social Services in their Policy and Procedures state that the term 'vulnerable adult' refers to any person aged 18 years and who 'is or may be in need of community care services by 2 Better Regulation Taskforce (UK) Protecting Vulnerable People. September 2000, Page 13 3

5 reason of mental or other disability, age or illness; and who is or may be unable to take care of him or herself, or unable to protect him or herself against significant harm or serious exploitation'. No Secrets' (the UK s Government's Guidance on Adult Abuse) 4.2 Vulnerability and Personal Circumstance: In the context of the UK s Trading Standards toolkit, parameters have been set applying the term 'vulnerable' to consumers who have limited spending power or who may have difficulty obtaining and assimilating the information needed to make informed buying decisions. These consumers generally live independently but may also be receiving services from statutory or non-statutory voluntary agencies in order to live life independently. In addition, they may be exposed to a greater loss or impact on their welfare than other consumers as a result of buying inappropriate goods or services, or failing to buy something when it would be in their interests to do so. These consumers may be: aged from 18+ with no formal educational qualifications the elderly lone parents physically, mentally or learning disabled have a sight or hearing impairment member of ethnic minorities people where English is not their first language 4.3 Vulnerability and Energy Supply: The EU Commission in its document Towards a European Charter on the Rights of Energy Consumers ( ) states that energy is of the greatest importance in ensuring social and territorial cohesion, economic stability and sustainable development. In developed economies, individuals are cut off from society if they do not have access to electricity. Adequate energy provision therefore constitutes one of the key elements towards achieving citizens' successful participation in social and economic life. European energy consumers (with special needs caused by impairments or in a poor financial situation) should benefit from essential energy services specific prices for vulnerable consumers to maintain their physical and mental health and well-being, at reasonable prices or, where necessary, free of charge. Available data suggest that Member States have made only limited use of targeted public service obligations to address vulnerable customers. Member States should adopt and publish a definition of vulnerable consumers to be applied - without further request by the vulnerable consumer - by all suppliers of electricity and gas, where gas supply meets basic 4

6 household needs. The Commission should be encouraged to start infringement procedures against Member States omitting to adopt and to apply this definition. 3 The commission is of the opinion that member states have not sufficiently addressed the problem of vulnerable consumers. Indeed only half of Member States have attempted to define such consumers and only five Member States are considered to have any form of social tariff 4 Ofgem, the UK s regulator of the gas and electricity markets has, under the UK s Utilities Act, as its principal statutory objective, to protect the interests of consumers wherever appropriate by promoting effective competition. The Act also gives Ofgem secondary duties to ensure that: all reasonable demands for electricity and gas are met; licence holders are able to finance their obligations; and The interests of vulnerable consumers, including the sick and disabled, those on low incomes and those in rural areas, are met Vulnerability and income The EU-SILC survey 2007 estimated that there were almost 150,000 households in the Republic that were in fuel povertyi. The survey also indicated that the highest prevalence of households in fuel poverty is found amongst lone care givers with children. Over one-third of these households experienced fuel poverty in 2007 this represents more than 37,000 homes. These findings are in keeping with MABS experience of working with people on a low income. We are, therefore, of the view that a definition of vulnerability should also encompass/address low income consumers capacity to pay for the service in both the short and long terms. New Zealand s Energy Commission in their Guidelines on arrangements to assist low income and vulnerable consumers define low income as those consumers whose low income, whether temporary or permanent, makes it genuinely difficult for them to pay their electricity bills. They define vulnerable consumers as those consumers vulnerable if, for reasons of age, health or disability disconnection of electricity presents a clear threat to their or a member of their household s health or wellbeing. 6 In the Republic of Ireland vulnerable customers are categorised into those vulnerable to supply interruption and those who have special communication requirements 7. This definition covers those dependant on life support equipment, elderly and disabled and those who have a hearing or visual impairment. There is no reference, as in other jurisdictions to &language=EN 4 5 House of Commons Select Committee on Public Accounts Thirteenth Report Guidelines on the arrangements to assist low income and vulnerable consumers Electricity Commission, New Zealand. 7 5

7 low income customers, those with mental illness or learning disabilities or from non-english speaking background. Given what is outlined above, it is our view that, the definition of vulnerability adopted by CER must be revisited, in advance of deregulation, to include a broader categorization of consumers needing protection. 5. Appropriate Tariffs: We are of the view that, that along with initiatives already in place, the creation of a Social Tariff or any similar initiative or scheme which would provide low cost energy to people in receipt of social welfare supports has merit and should be further investigated with interested parties. In the UK, the Government s commitment to eradicate fuel poverty by 2016 has focused the minds of suppliers, and the energy regulator Ofgem, on how innovative tariffs can contribute to this wider policy objective. Consequently there have been a number of tariff initiatives developed by companies to address specific elements of fuel poverty 8. However, we note that the voluntary nature of social tariffs in the UK has resulted in significant variation in the discounts offered, the eligibility criteria, and the approaches taken to the tariffs by energy providers and, as a consequence, there have been calls by consumer groups to legislate a minimum standard to regulate social tariffs. Ireland s cur In this context, we wish to draw attention to some worthwhile international initiatives such as The Energy Efficiency Commitment (EEC) in the UK and The Utility Debt Spiral Project (the Melbourne Model in action) in Australia. The Project is based on the premise that water, electricity and gas bills can be a significant factor in personal debt spirals and the poverty trap. 6. Conclusions and recommendations: Adequate energy provision constitutes one of the key elements towards achieving citizens' successful participation in social and economic life. There is, therefore, an obligation on society in general and the regulation of the energy industry in particular, to protect the supply of energy to vulnerable domestic consumers as de-energisation has considerable social and health consequences. We therefore: propose that the issue of vulnerability needs to be revisited to more comprehensively deal with this complex issue as outlined above support the proposal to offer special tariffs to vulnerable and other groups of domestic consumers suggest that a social tariff needs to be adequately structured to impact positively on fuel poverty. i Central Statistics Office. EU Survey on Income and Living Conditions (EU-SILC). Dublin: Central 8 6

8 Statistics Office; Available from: 7

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