A mechanism needs to be found to protect pay-as-you-go customers from having their gas or electricity disconnected, the Tánaiste has said.
Leo Varadkar told Solidarity TD Mick Barry he would speak to the Ministers for Environment and Social Protection about finding a way to protect such customers after the Cork North Central TD highlighted the case of one woman whose gas and electricity supplies are cut off if she runs out of credit.
Mr Varadkar said gas bills especially could be particularly high, while electricity prices may fall or at least stabilise because of changes in EU rules on how electricity is calculated.
A moratorium on electricity and gas disconnections is in place for the winter, applying to most consumers from the beginning of December until the end of February and from October to the end of March for vulnerable customers. Mr Barry said such a moratorium was welcome, but he questioned whether it applied to some 200,000 customers on the pay-as-you-go system.
Raising the issue in the Dáil during Leaders’ Questions, Mr Barry cited the case of Noreen, a woman who lives in Cork with her husband and three children. She spends €100 a week on electricity, gas and heating her home including €20 a week on blocks and briquettes for the stove. Her electricity pay-as-you-go costs €50 a week and €30 for gas, which she tops up weekly at her local supermarket.
“When she is down to the last €2 on her credit a beep goes off in the house,” he said. “When she is down to zero, the beep goes off again. She is then allowed €10 emergency credit. If this runs out before she tops up she is disconnected.”
He asked if Noreen’s emergency credit would be extended if she could not afford to top up her payments. If such credit is extended “will it be extended without limits? Will she and others in the same situation be cut off?”
Mr Varadkar said that “ideally” the moratorium “should apply to everyone”. But “it is difficult to know how one would apply that in the case of pay-as-you-go customers just because of the nature of how pay-as-you-go works”.
He highlighted the additional fuel allowance payments, double social welfare and children’s allowance payments along with a double working family payment.
The Tánaiste said this along with the €600 in energy credits would help people a lot with their essential bills, but he did not think it would be “reasonable or right” to cover energy costs “without limit”.
The Solidarity TD said he was “gobsmacked” at the Tánaiste’s response that “ideally” the moratorium should apply to everyone. “That implies, as you clearly indicated, that it does not apply to everybody.”
Those who would not benefit “are the people who have been disconnected in the past and put onto the meters and are, in many cases, the lower-income people in society. Many of them are vulnerable individuals.”
He said the moratorium on disconnection should apply “not for some but for all”.
The Tánaiste acknowledged that Mr Barry “makes a fair point”. He pledged to examine the issue with the Ministers for Environment and Social Protection.
“We need to find a mechanism to protect pay-as-you-go customers,” he added. “It is gas bills in particular that will present a difficulty over the next few months. We may see electricity prices falling or at least stabilising. The changes in the European rules around how electricity is calculated will help, as will the energy credit. However, gas bills could be particularly high over the next couple of months.”