PIAC’s Energy + Water Consumers’ Advocacy Program (EWCAP) team joined forces with delegates from the community sector, industry, the Ombudsman, government and regulators on 9 October 2013 to discuss what could be done to make energy and water services more accessible to consumers across NSW.
A recurrent theme at EWCAP’s conference, Creating fairer energy and water markets for all, was that certain groups cannot access consumer protections such as emergency assistance. For instance, people buying water in rural and regional areas receive much lower levels of assistance than those in metropolitan areas because concessions are particular to water providers. Larger water providers have scope to fund payment assistance schemes and bigger rebates, unlike smaller providers who cannot achieve economies of scale.
The challenge for energy and water providers is how to address the needs of these, and other specific groups, to make markets more equitable overall.
Keynote speaker, Dr Richard Denniss, Executive Director of the Australia Institute, provided a lively critique of the use of economic theory being applied within energy and water markets. Dr Denniss also spoke about whether competition was positive in markets where consumers could not choose whether to consume or not.
Attendees also heard from Victorian energy and water advocates, Gavin Dufty from St Vincent de Paul Society and Jo Benvenuti from the Consumer Utilities Advocacy Centre about their experience of energy markets without price regulation. Their presentations covered tips and traps for energy consumers looking for better deals in the market and the need for clear and simple information to guide consumers to informed choices. This was timely advice with consideration of the continuation of energy price regulation afoot in NSW.
PIAC’s Carolyn Hodge presented research on the social impact of utility disconnection, Cut Off IIIdiscussing actions industry and government could take to improve consumer outcomes in this area. Alison Peters from NCOSS and Kerry Edgecombe from Sydney Water were part of a panel on whether social policy could deliver equity to utility markets.
The afternoon panel session included Alan Kirkland from Choice, Oliver Derum from PIAC and Scott Gregson from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission talking about safeguards to protect consumers and provide them with access to the benefits of energy and water markets.