The Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP) has called on telecommunication companies providing telephone and internet services to introduce clear guidelines and a consistent approach for dealing with customers in difficulty during the Covid-19 crisis.
SVP says that these guidelines should include a ban on disconnections which would ensure that no households are left without access to vital communication services while we all need to remain at home. They are also asking that suppliers engage proactively and compassionately with customers that may be faced with large bills in the coming weeks. The charity says extending limits and caps on usage is the right thing to do in these unprecedented times.
Kieran Stafford, SVP National President said, "Our members have heard from isolated older people and lone parents who have recently been issued with a disconnection notice from their communications provider. As we are asked to practice physical distancing, it is more important than ever that vulnerable and marginalised groups can stay connected with loved ones and access up-to-date health advice. We are also concerned that children in low income families will fall behind on their schoolwork if they do not have access to internet services.”
The Society has contacted the Communications Regulator, Telecommunication Industry Ireland and the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment on the issue.
The Communication Regulator has told SVP that it is actively monitoring the disconnection policies of suppliers and that the industry has processes in place to deal with these exceptional circumstances. It also said that suppliers will engage sympathetically with their customers if they are in difficulty.
The Minister for Communications has indicated that a Charter of Fair Practice is being developed for the telecommunications industry during the Covid-19 crisis.
Kieran Stafford said, "The ongoing work of the Regulator and the Department to address this issue is welcome. However, we are concerned that without clear messaging and a consistent approach from all suppliers, there is a real danger that vulnerable customer will fall through the cracks. Publicly communicating a moratorium on all telecommunication disconnections will provide reassurance to customers and protect the most vulnerable in our communities from experiencing further distress at this very difficult time.”
Since the crisis began SVP has worked closely with Utility Suppliers and Commission for the Regulation of Utilities, who have put in place measures for customers on pre-paid electricity and gas meters who may be unable to top up their meters, either due to illness or self-isolation or a sudden drop in income. The measures put in place include: a moratorium on all energy disconnections; an increase in emergency credit on meters; and workable solutions for bill customers experiencing payment difficulties.
"These interventions make a real difference to those that are struggling in energy poverty. We now need a similar response from the telecommunications industry.” said Kieran Stafford.