Power cut death: Firms 'cannot hide behind contractors'

The gas and electricity complaints commissioner says power firms cannot hide behind contractors as an excuse for not dealing with customers' needs.

Judi Jones said the circumstances were not yet clear in the case of Folole Muliaga, who died on Tuesday two hours after her power was cut off by a contractor working for Mercury Energy.

But she said energy companies could not use outside firms as an excuse for poor service as the contractors were "acting under the company's instructions".

She added on Radio New Zealand today: "If they turn up at the door and are told that there is a vulnerable consumer inside who needs electricity, the very least they should do is phone home and say, 'What should I do in this case?'."

The contractors who cut off the electricity to Mrs Muliaga's Mangere home - VirCom EMS - have been speaking with their lawyers today.

Chief executive Craig Shepherd was not returning calls but a staff member said at lunchtime that he had been in talks with legal representatives since 7.30am, Newstalk ZB reported.

Mercury Energy was due to give a press conference at 3pm.

It was also revealed this morning that police have interviewed the family of Mrs Muliaga, who was on an oxygen machine.

Family spokesman Brenden Sheehan said Mrs Muliaga's husband and sons spent six hours with officers yesterday.

He also said the family felt like the company was calling them liars for disputing their version of events.

Mercury says it was not made aware that Mrs Muliaga, was dependent on the electricity supply for her oxygen machine.

The National Party said today that State-owned Enterprises Minister Trevor Mallard should move quickly to clear up the confusion.

Gerry Brownlee said "a pretty nasty situation" had developed since Mrs Muliaga's death, with conflicting information about whether Mercury Energy knew that cutting off the power would create a life-threatening situation.

"I'm told Mr Mallard has had an interim report, and I find his silence on this somewhat puzzling," Mr Brownlee said on Radio New Zealand.

"I think for us to be now some 24 hours from the event, and there to be still this confusion, is unacceptable."

Mr Brownlee said the company, and other state-owned electricity suppliers, should have protocols in place that covered the sort of situation encountered by the Muliaga family.

"It should be abundantly clear to anyone who saw the machine that something was going on," he said.

"For a debt like $200, wouldn't you think there would have been a phone call to say 'we've got an issue here'?"

Electricity companies are being urged to show compassion to customers struggling to pay their power bills following the death.

Barry Wilson, president of the Auckland Council for Civil Liberties, believes there is a high possibility a serious criminal offence has been committed.

He said Mercury Energy needed to return to the old Auckland Electricity Power Board days, when there was a clear policy of not cutting power to those under financial pressure.

Mr Wilson said anything was better than the "ruthless and heartless" commercialism that now prevails.

Trade unionists and community activists will picket outside Mercury Energy's headquarters this afternoon, following Mrs Muliaga's case.

Solidarity Union spokesman Joe Carolan described the company as corporate bully boys, who prey on the weak and vulnerable of South Auckland.

He is calling for the company's CEO to be sacked.

- NEWSTALK ZB, NZPA, NZHERALD STAFF

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