The number of people having their power disconnected because they can't pay their bills is too high, Energy Minister Simon Bridges agreed today following criticism from Labour.
His comments came after Labour's energy spokesman David Shearer released a statement condemning "record high'' levels of disconnections in the first three months of this year, which he said showed the minister was out of touch with ordinary households.
Data collected by the Electricity Authority showed 8967 homes were disconnected between January and March. That compared to 9620 in the first quarter of 2013, and 9897 in the last quarter of 2013.
Mr Bridges said disconnection figures were higher than he would like.
"While the numbers for the last quarter have fallen, and we are at the lowest level in two years, I remain concerned about the high levels of disconnections.
"I have written again to retailers to ask what tangible actions they are taking to bring disconnection rates down,'' he said.
"It is clear that proactive customer management - including the provision of better information to customers about payment plans and making personal contact at an early stage - is the most effective way of avoiding disconnections.
"Some in the industry are doing much better than others. What we need to see is less variable performance across the sector.''
A change in Meridian's reporting method - from notifications of disconnections to actual disconnections - had created an artificial dip in the figures this quarter, Mr Shearer said.
"Mr Bridges can't deny that the number of disconnections remains unacceptably high,'' he said.
"I would have thought, taking aside the Meridian issue, in summer when electricity bills go down pretty dramatically, that you would have seen a much bigger tail off as a result and it seems to me that the indication it didn't fall shows that, one, budgets are constrained anyway, and two, as we're heading into winter we can anticipate that people will have much more difficulty paying their bills in the future.''
Disconnection rates were at similar levels to what they were when Folole Muliaga died in 2007 after her oxygen machine stopped when her power was cut, Mr Shearer said.
"Too many Kiwi families are simply not able to pay their power bills, which have increased more than four times the rate of inflation under National.''
He described Mr Bridges as "out of touch with what is happening around the country''.
Since 2006, the highest number of disconnections during the first quarter of the year occurred in 2007, when 11,743 homes were cut off. The figures fell dramatically in 2008, with the first quarter seeing only 2097 homes disconnected.
However, the numbers have been steadily rising since then.