During the Covid-19 pandemic our focus is on protecting the interests of consumers, particularly the most vulnerable.
We published the initial steps that we had taken on 20 March and now provide an update. In providing this update we are mindful that the full impact and the longer-term implications of the pandemic for both domestic and business consumers, and the industries we regulate, are unclear at this stage. The immediate and longer-term impacts of the pandemic on all consumers is something that we will be considering in all aspects of our regulatory work and we are ready to take any further action as necessary.
Working with government
During this unprecedented time we are working closely with other parts of government to respond to the pandemic.
On 16 March 2020 we sent an information request to licensees . On 26 March 2020 we established a working group with the Department for the Economy (DfE) (also including the Consumer Council (CCNI)) to engage with energy suppliers and network companies. The group’s focus has been on steps that can be taken to assess the impact of pandemic on the energy sector and consumers and further protect vulnerable consumers where possible.
As part of this work we have also put in place Covid-19 impact monitoring arrangements. These are aimed at understanding the effects of the pandemic on energy supply companies, the impacts on their customers and also to understand the feedback being received from their customers. Additionally, we are assisting DfE and the industry with data gathering and analysis to identify any emerging issues and risks with network companies and/or suppliers. We have also established regular meetings with network companies and generators to assess service resilience.
We have been working closely with our regulatory colleagues in the Irish Commission for the Regulation of Utilities to ensure the ongoing stable and effective operation of the Single Electricity Market. Working together, and in conjunction with industry representatives and market participants, our collaborative approach is helping to ensure our generators and control rooms remain operational, efficient and able to react to changes in the market such as a reduction in demand. We are also progressing temporary administrative changes to the market that will provide some further protection for suppliers.
Working with industry
We are also working closely with regulated companies. Given the challenging times we are grateful for the efforts of regulated companies and their staff which are critical to keeping essential electricity, gas and water supplies flowing. We have regular engagement with the generators, SONI and DfE and do not consider there to be any immediate risk to security of supply, although this is something we will continue to monitor closely.
Ultimately our focus, and that of regulated companies, is about ensuring consumers experience a safe and reliable service, which ensures continuity of the electricity, gas and water supply and protects both the general public and utility company staff.
In recognition of these priorities we have been engaging with regulated companies to identify ways that we can help them focus on essential business activities during the pandemic.
We have written to licence holders indicating that, given the very difficult and challenging circumstances, we will take a proportionate and reasonable approach to any licence breaches that have occurred as a direct result of the pandemic. On the 15 April we also published a statement on how we will be dealing with complaints and disputes during the Covid 19 pandemic. We have to prioritise our resources and that this may have a bearing on how we handle complaints/disputes referred to us for determination. Therefore, the practice and procedure set out in our 'complaints policy' is 'suspended' and we will let individual complainants know of the practice and procedure to be followed in respect of their particular complaint.
We also recognise that, during this time, restrictions introduced by Government to address the public health emergency, may also impact on the business activities of regulated companies.
For that reason we published a regulatory letter setting out our position in terms of access to the Job Retention Allowance Scheme by the network companies, the associated regulatory implications and our expectations around record keeping and the provision of information that arise from uptake of the scheme by the companies.
Protecting consumers and providing up-to-date advice
We have been working with energy suppliers, network operators and consumer representative groups to ensure that consumers (particularly those who are in vulnerable circumstances and/or self-isolating) continue to receive high levels of consumer protection. Suppliers have confirmed to us that they are committed to working sympathetically with their customers on a case-by-case basis if they are experiencing difficulty paying their bills at this time.
We are mindful of the challenges for some consumers of paying their utility bills at this time. A review of Power NI’s regulated electricity tariffs is underway and there are some major cost uncertainties, largely related to the very significant fall in demand. We will make sure, as ever, that bills reflect actual costs through our comprehensive scrutiny. The implications of the collapse of much of the business sector is something we need to take account of as we conduct this review.
We have also worked with the Department for Infrastructure and other stakeholders to identify ways of supporting NI Water’s business customers at this time. This has led to a postponement in the issuing of water and sewerage bills until July.
Along with consumer representatives we have worked to make sure consumers have easy access to all relevant information. We have published accessible information and key questions for consumers on our website. The advice includes information for energy consumers who are struggling financially and tells them what they can expect from their electricity or gas supplier.
We are also working with the Department for the Economy, CCNI and the Department for Communities to enable gas prepayment consumers who are self-isolating or ill to access local community support to help them top up their meter.
We also continue to receive daily queries from consumers about a range of consumer issues and we will aim to respond to all these queries promptly.
Our working arrangements
In line with government advice, our employees are working remotely to protect them and their families. This has meant that we have had to adapt to new ways of working and have published details of how you can contact us during this time.
We have also published our Forward Work Programme for 2020-21 but recognise that some of these projects may need to be reassessed in light of the ongoing pandemic. We will continue to liaise closely with government, industry, stakeholders and consumer groups as we focus on our priorities over the coming months.