As I write this month’s message, we are entering the end of year season, in the midst of adjustments coming with re-opening and ‘living with COVID’. Consequently, the financial counselling sector, like many others, is experiencing even greater uncertainty than normal. Some of this relates to vaccination requirements, and how agencies manage their obligations to staff and the community around public health, while also being compassionate, non-judgemental, and inclusive with clients. Looking ahead to the next few months, financial counsellors and agency managers suspect there is a lot of pent up or deferred demand that will start emerging as people are freed from lockdown, the few remaining supports are wound back, and ongoing financial impacts from the pandemic become clearer and more concrete to individuals, families, and small businesses.
Planning continues for our Conference to be held in February 2022, and excitement is growing now that an in-face event is looking more and more certain to take place. I was very happy to attend the FCVic Western Region Network met in Geelong on 18 November for the first in-person network meeting in close to 2 years – albeit half the participants attended by Zoom. Such hybrid meetings will doubtless continue as a valuable means of enabling participation without losing time to travel.
FCVic continues to actively participate in the Essential Services Commission (ESC) review of the Energy Payment Difficulties Framework (PDF), which sets out the obligations gas and electricity retailers have in supporting customers unable to pay their bills. ESC’s latest data from the end of September 2021 shows at that point there were 57,000 retail electricity customers were receiving some kind of payment assistance – deferral, payment plan, a Utility Relief Grant – and another 290,000 were simply in arrears. About one third of the 57,000 customers receiving assistance could not afford to pay for ongoing usage, and for these customers the average level of arrears was over $1,900. For small business, the figures are respectively just under 3,000 receiving assistance and a further 43,000 otherwise in arrears. These are very large numbers. FCVic is working through our Utilities Working Group to advocate for better systems of support for clients with energy debts, including an increase to the capped amount available in the Utility Relief Grant Scheme.
Lastly, 2022 will see both a Federal election (likely March or May) and a Victorian State election (scheduled for November). FCVic looks forward to contributing to robust policy debates during the campaigns that will hopefully see all major parties committing to building stronger and more effective and inclusive government supports for vulnerable people, and protections from/recompense for predatory lending and credit practices.