Protecting the vulnerable

The Government has announced some measures to help protect “vulnerable” families from having their power disconnected.

Now there would be very few New Zealanders who would disagree with the intention. As a society there is a wide consensus that every family should be able to afford to have electricity (and food, shelter, clothing, education, some medical care).

Now personally I am a fan of having just one subsidy – the family’s income, rather than dozens and dozens of subsidies for various products. Rather than have special charges for rates, for water, for electricity, for telephones, I believe in having every family with a minimum income so they can afford those essentials. Hence we have benefits and family support/working for families. The more channels you deliver support to low income families over, the more complex it becomes. I’ll blog more on this at some other date.

Now one proposal from the Govt is to have power companies advise people facing disconnection of available assistance from Government and social agencies. In fact this is already recommended best practice and Mercury it seems had not been doing this. This can be done fairly easily by power companies with info on contacting WINZ etc on overdue statements and/or a special pamphlet about routes for assistance being automatically inserted into overdue statement envelopes.

The proposal for power retailers to proactively find out whether their customers are vulnerable or not before they disconnect power is far more problematic. I think it is useful to recall that obligations should be balanced, and that vulnerable families are better placed to let a power company know they are “vulnerable” than the power company can possibly be.

And unclear to me is what does a power company do if a family is vulnerable but still does not pay their bill. If they can never be disconnected for non payment, the number of vulnerable families will increase remarkably.

The notion that no disconnection can happen without MSD/WINZ approval may turn out to be a nightmare because every future disconnection will no longer be seen as a decision of the power company, but of the Government itself.

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