Unpaid energy bills of €90m racked up by families in pandemic

Temporary ban on cutting off customers’ gas and electricity supply to be lifted on June 1st

According to the CRU, 240,006 households had fallen behind with their electricity bills by February of this year, while 112,833 owed arrears for their gas supplies. Photograph: iStock

According to the CRU, 240,006 households had fallen behind with their electricity bills by February of this year, while 112,833 owed arrears for their gas supplies. Photograph: iStock

 

Thousands of Irish families owe almost €90 million in gas and electricity bill arrears following more than a year of Covid-19 curbs, official figures show.

Regulators will lift a temporary ban on energy suppliers cutting off customers on June 1st, but warn that debts grew during lockdowns which closed businesses and left hundreds of thousands out of work.

Figures from the Commission for Regulation of Utilities (CRU) show that household gas and electricity bill arrears reached €88 million in the first three months of this year.

The total contrasts with the €63 million in arrears that households owed to electricity and gas companies at the beginning of 2020, before the virus outbreak prompted the Government to shut down large parts of the economy.

According to the CRU, 240,006 households had fallen behind with their electricity bills by February of this year, while 112,833 owed arrears for their gas supplies.

The regulator says that a certain level of arrears is normal. The total tends to increase during the winter, when homes use more energy, and fall during the year as consumption and costs decline through the summer.

Arrears reached €69 million in the first quarter of 2019, before falling to €63 million at the end of that year. The CRU counts one unpaid bill as arrears.

Falling behind

However, the commission says that the sharp increase to €88 million stemmed from the fact that increasing numbers of families are falling further behind with their electricity and gas bills.

“The level of debt is higher than it’s been because people are in debt for longer,” a spokesman noted.

Suppliers have already confirmed growing problems with arrears. State-owned ESB, which supplies electricity and gas to homes and businesses through its subsidiary Electric Ireland, has put aside €15 million to provide for bad debts. The group says it will not cut off customers before the end of June.

The CRU temporarily banned suppliers from cutting off customers in arrears in January when the State imposed new virus restrictions, but will lift this ban on June 1st.

In all, the regulator has imposed 42 weeks of moratoriums on disconnections since the Government initially locked down the Republic in March 2020.

While the commission plans to lift the current ban in June, it insisted this week that its suppliers’ code still prevented companies from cutting off customers who contact them in an effort to settle the arrears.

The organisation fears that energy bill debts will reach unsustainable levels, and wants customers and suppliers to agree plans to clear the amounts owed.

Supplier handbook

Its chairwoman, Aoife MacEvilly, pledged that the CRU would “continue to monitor the market to ensure that customers are given the full protections” set out in its supplier handbook.

“Under these, all customers must be offered a reasonable and affordable debt-recovery option which takes account of the individuals’ circumstances. This could be a payment plan or a pre-payment meter,” Ms MacEvilly explained.

However, Darren O’Rourke, Sinn Féin’s spokesman on climate action, communications networks and transport, argued that the commission should extend the ban on disconnections.

“Workers and families are already seeing big hikes in their bills as a result of the increased public service obligation and carbon tax, and the financial difficulties they are facing will not disappear on June 1st,” he warned.

Sinn Féin has introduced a Bill in the Dáil that would give the Minister for the Environment power to direct the CRU to ban disconnections over the winter or any other times that the Government deems appropriate.

“We believe now is one of those other appropriate times, given the very high level of unemployment that remains and huge financial challenges people are facing as a result of the pandemic,” said Mr O’Rourke.