The Consumer Advocacy Council was born out of the 2019 Electricity Price Review, which found residential and small business electricity customers were struggling to make their voice heard within the sector.

In early 2020 the Government committed to setting up the council, which would operate as an independent ministerial advisory committee, with its own board and supported by a secretariat.

It would represent approximately two million residential consumers and 530,000 small businesses.

However, despite the commitment more than two years ago, the council does not have any members, nor does it have a finalised terms of reference.

Changes to legislation that would allow the council to be established and funded through sector levies has also not been finalised, despite being introduced in 2019. 

Its chairperson, Deborah Hart, was appointed in July 2021 and has been working with the secretariat to get things moving.

“It will make things easier when the other council members come onboard,” she said.

“It will be good to be able to bounce ideas around and I look forward to them being appointed.”

The lack of a team had not stopped Hart from beginning the workstream.

Alongside Consumer NZ, work had begun on investigating how power bills could be standardised, with the aim of making them easier to understand.

Consumer NZ chief executive Jon Duffy said it was surprising the appointments had not been made.

“They’ve appointed the chair and she’s got things cracking… but it is frustrating that she’s kind of woman alone without any support.

“We would have expected [the set-up] to be well and truly done and dusted by now,” he said.

He said there was a lot of work to do and the sooner the council could be running at full-throttle, the better.

“We’ve seen widespread price increases come on stream in April and we’re also seeing an increased reliance on the electricity sector, as more and more reports and legislation come down from central government aiming at decarbonising the economy.

“That all relies on the electricity sector and consumers are at the end of that. So it is a very important time for us to be having good advocacy in the space. So I would encourage Government to get a wriggle on.”

FinCap policy advisor Jake Lilley said consumer representation in the electricity sector had been “thin on the ground” and the agency was looking forward to the council being up and running.

“Because there’s so much going on in energy and getting a proper consumer view in the room, when decisions are made just improves the quality of those decisions greatly.

“So it will be great especially when there’s particular expertise and really technical parts of the energy system saying, hang on a minute, that’s not what consumers want.”

He said while the council was much-needed, FinCap wanted its mandate to broaden.

“It’s really electricity-focused and it would be great if it covered the gas market as well, because it seems a bit wild west and also there’s a lot of issues that could arise with gases as we exit from that system, who bears the cost… all those sorts of things.”

Lilley said the work the council has committed to so far looked promising, particularly with regard to the prepaid electricity system.

“They’re looking at problems with the prepaid market or people just locked out of electricity in general.

“There’s not really many standards around helping people out when they have no way to pay, particularly when they’re pushed into the prepaid market… and there’s no real visibility of when people automatically disconnect because they’ve run out of money on prepay, which is pretty alarming because it’s an essential service. We really need it for health.”

Commerce and Consumer Affairs Minister David Clark, who is in charge of appointing the members, anticipated being able to provide more information soon about the finalised terms of reference and the appointment of members.

He said the council was making good progress regardless.

Emma Hatton is a business reporter based in Wellington.

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