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  • Public law
  • 28-11-2017

The disconnection policy for gas, electricity, and heating consumers who fail to pay their bills is aimed at preventing as many people as possible from being left without utilities. Suppliers are bound by the requirements of the Rules Governing the Disconnection Policy for Electricity and Gas Consumers [Regeling afsluitbeleid voor kleinverbruikers van elektriciteit en gas] and the Heating Regulations [Warmteregeling], both of which will be amended with effect from 1 April 2018: after that date, suppliers who intend to disconnect a customer’s service will be obliged to provide customer data all year round (rather than just in the winter) to debt-counselling agencies. In order to obtain information from all parties involved prior to the amendments, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy [Economische Zaken en Klimaat] (‘EZK’) has initiated an online consultation procedure. You will have the opportunity to submit an opinion on this matter until 18 December 2017.

Current rules: customer data provided to debt-counselling agencies in the winter months
Electricity, gas, and heating are primary necessities and small consumers are primarily responsible for paying their own energy bills. Not everyone can do so, however, which can result in disconnections from utilities. For vulnerable groups, disconnection can subsequently lead to debt problems. For example, fees are charged for both disconnection and reconnection, which can be a blow to the budgets of those who have very little to spend in the first place. Debts, in turn, lead to psychosocial problems such as stress, tension, anxiety disorders, and depression. In other words, disconnecting consumers from utilities can negatively affect their health as well as the health of the persons with whom they live.

Currently, the premise is that health problems are generally to be expected when utilities are disconnected in the winter months. This is why mandatory reporting is included in the current rules: during the colder months, suppliers must report the contact details, customer numbers, and debt amounts of non-paying consumers to debt-counselling agencies (after sending payment reminders, referrals to debt-counselling agencies, and making personal contact). If these efforts do not result in contact or payment, the supplier is required to forward the information to a debt-counselling agency. A debt-counselling agency can proactively offer the consumer help in finding solutions for past-due payments. Making mandatory reporting part of the disconnection policy therefore indirectly contributes to protecting the health of those who are most vulnerable.

Changes: mandatory reporting expanded to cover the entire year
In practice, energy suppliers and municipalities – parties that work together mainly to prevent citizens from finding themselves unable to meet their debts – have indicated that customers whose utilities are disconnected outside the winter months generally go unnoticed by debt-counselling agencies. Energie Nederland, several municipalities – including the G4 comprising Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Utrecht, and The Hague – as well as the NVVK (an industry association for debt-counselling and social banking), and Divosa believe that limiting the provision of this data to just the winter months makes it more difficult to identify problematic debt at an early stage. These agencies therefore requested the Minister of EZK to make it mandatory for suppliers to report consumer information to debt-counselling agencies throughout the year, and not just during the winter. By amending the Rules Governing the Disconnect Policy for Electricity and Gas Consumers and the Heating Regulations on this point, the information will also have to be reported during the summer months.

Consequences
First, complying with these rules will entail costs for energy suppliers. According to Energie Nederland, debt-counselling agencies receive between 4,500 and 5,000 reports per month. The number of mandatory reports could double once suppliers have to report this information to debt-counselling agencies throughout the year.

Given the increase in the exchange of information that will result from this legislative proposal, the possible impact on privacy must also be discussed. The Minister has weighed the value of the right to privacy in one’s personal life against the specific interests that will be served by infringing that right, including the interest of safeguarding health. The Minister believes that the restriction of the right to privacy is justified because it will be codified into law and because it will satisfy a ‘compelling social need’. Given that this proposal will not result in new types of data being collected – but simply larger quantities of the types that are already being collected – it is also expected to withstand scrutiny in connection with a Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA).

If you need assistance or a second opinion on the opinion you wish to submit in the consultation procedure, feel free to contact us.

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