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Charities warns power bill increase will hit struggling families

A hike in electricity bills sparked by increased fuel prices will make life tougher for families that already struggle to cover the basics, a charity head warned this week.

Sandy De Silva, the executive director of Family Centre, said some families lived paycheque to paycheque and could not build up savings to cover $20 a month extra on power bills.

She added: “This additional $20 on the bill means a couple of less things in the grocery bag. Is it a significant amount? It is when you live paycheque to paycheque.”

Dr De Silva was speaking after power firm Belco announced the increase to the fuel adjustment rate would come into force this month.

She said electricity, rent and food were “the basic needs that continue to be struggles for families”.

Dr De Silva added families under pressure turned to charity meals or food programmes as a way to stretch their budgets.

She said Family Centre “absolutely does get requests for Belco support”.

But she added that struggling households tended to make shelter and food the top priorities.

Dr De Silva said: “Families will prioritise one thing like the rent, to have shelter over their heads.

“What we find is that leaves families asking ourselves and other non-profit for grocery support.”

Belco said the fuel adjustment of 16.61 cents per kilowatt-hour meant an average residential customer who used 600kW hours a month would get an extra $18.75 on their monthly bill.

Dr De Silva said some families would be forced to decide what they were giving up.

She added: “Something like this is going to mean one less carton of milk going in the grocery bag – one less box of cereal for children.”

Belco said the increase was a knock-on effect caused by a surge in global oil prices.

Dr De Silva said families were creative in coming up with ways to reduce their electricity consumption.

She added: “People share these tips and tricks with one another. I have to give them kudos for that.”

But she said the increase in people staying at home because of the Covid-19 pandemic could lead to higher electricity bills.

Dr De Silva added: “The losses to Covid-19, the deaths, can leave gaps in some families.

“The younger the individual dying, the more likely it is that they are going to leave behind an income gap.

“Maybe it’s a family that hasn’t struggled in the past but now they’re faced with it and they have no idea how to go about it.”

She said Family Centre was able to put families in touch with Belco to discuss a payment plan if they ran into trouble.

Dr De Silva added: “Belco did offer a grace period during the pandemic, although for some families that means a debt racking up.”

Kelly Hunt, the executive director at the Coalition for the Protection of Children, said the charity’s number of client households had nearly doubled since April last year to “just under 400 families”.

She added: “For our clients who are already struggling, this is certainly an unwelcome increase.”

Ms Hunt said Financial Assistance could be adjusted take account of increased electricity bills.

She agreed with Dr De Silva that requests for help with food was the Coalition’s “number one inquiry”.

Ms Hunt said: “We also hear a lot about housing insecurity. But utilities are pretty high up there as well.

“We get one to three calls a week for electricity, sometimes when it’s a crisis and it’s getting shut off.”

Ms Hunt said power was a basic need, particularly for people with children.

She added: “I can’t tell you how many times we have had to negotiate with Belco to turn a household’s power back on without the penalty fee.”

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Published October 06, 2021 at 7:43 am (Updated October 06, 2021 at 7:43 am)

Charities warns power bill increase will hit struggling families

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