Following what it called an upsurge in complaints from members of the public against the electricity sector (ES), the Utilities Regulation and Competition Authority (URCA) is seeking to provide greater consumer protection with its Consumer Protection (Amendment) Regulations, which also impacts the electronic communications sector (ECS).
According to URCA, the level of complaints of unresolved issues in the ES and ECS it has received indicates that consumers are largely dissatisfied with the quality of service level and customer care received from electricity service suppliers.
The proposed amendments – which were released this week in a consultation document – are expanding the regulations to also apply to electricity service providers and introduces new provisions that address services providers’ obligations to vulnerable customers.
“Vulnerable customers” means electronic communications customers or electricity customers who require protection against disruption or termination of electronic communications services or electricity supply due to low income, being of pensionable age, disability, chronic illness or other vulnerabilities, URCA explained.
“While access to both electronic communications and electricity services have become essential services, URCA is cognizant that loss of electricity can have a profound impact on quality of life and even lead to significant health issues. Accordingly, the concept of vulnerable customers has been added to ensure that provisions can be put in place to address the needs of persons for whom affordability of electricity service may be a challenge,” the consultation document states.
URCA is also seeking to regulate how service providers issue bills to vulnerable customers, given that many are now using electronic billing as a primary means of customer billing notifications.
“URCA recognizes that there are customers who may not have access to or are unable to monitor their bills through electronic means. Therefore, URCA is proposing that service providers provide alternative means for billing, so as to protect those customers who may be disadvantaged by the new electronic billing process,” the document states.
“URCA’s proposed amendment also seeks to ensure that service providers, particularly electricity service providers, make the necessary provisions to address the needs of consumers who cannot afford electricity. URCA requires electricity service providers to set a basic tariff rate that is accessible and affordable for all persons. Electricity service providers are required to have tariff settings that ensure accessibility by all to the monthly essential requirements of a household consumption.”
The regulators are also proposing that service providers be mandated to ensure that vulnerable customers are provided with an alternative means of communication for billing purposes (by paper form sent by regular post); and are informed of the right to appoint a person to act on their behalf as a contact point (a relative, family member or friend).
URCA also proposes to cut down on the time a service provider has to resolve a customer complaint, from 30 to 14 days, before the matter is escalated to URCA.
“URCA holds the view that all consumer complaints should be resolved within the shortest time period possible, thereby minimizing any adverse impact to the consumer. URCA believes that the shorter time frame will not only result in a quicker resolution of a matter, but will also provide a prompt referral of the matter to URCA in the event the consumer is not satisfied with the resolution provided by the service provider,” the document states.
Other major proposed changes are that a service provider shall ensure that its contract does not unfairly lock in customers and must include reasonable provisions to allow the customer to cancel the contract; must not automatically renew a contract without the customer’s consent or charge customers unfair fees to end a contract before the minimum contract period; and shall not tie its services in a way that forces a customer to purchase services that the customer does not require.
As it relates to fault repair and service interruption, URCA wants to mandate that a service provider only charge for services that are actually delivered to the consumer; meaning bills should not reflect charges in respect of periods when service delivery to the consumer was interrupted.
“Service providers must automatically credit customer accounts for the duration of an outage. A service provider may not require a customer to lodge a complaint in relation to an outage unless the service provider could not reasonably have been aware of the outage. This is notwithstanding any event of force majeure,” the consultation document notes.
“URCA believes that where Service Providers have failed to provide services to consumers, Service Providers should not be able to charge for the undelivered service. Additionally, in instances where there is non-provision of services due to force majeure URCA maintains the position that consumers should not be charged. By proposing such approach, URCA believes that Service Providers will act more expeditious in repairing service s to consumers.”
URCA is encouraging members of the public, licensees and other stakeholders to submit written comments in response to the consultation document before May 29, 2020.