Growing numbers of West Australians are struggling to keep their lights on, with figures revealing the number of households needing help to pay power bills almost trebled last financial year.
State Government statistics show that even before an 11 per cent hike in electricity prices came into effect on July 1 the number of people battling to afford their utility bills had rocketed.
According to the Department of Communities, the number of applications made by Synergy customers soared from 10,266 in 2015-16 to more than 27,000 last financial year.
As a result, the amount of money paid out under the Hardship Utility Grant Scheme to Synergy customers rose from just $4.3 million in 2015-16 to $11.4 million in 2016-17.
The department said there were almost 40,000 applications to HUGS — which covers electricity, gas and water bills — in the 12 months to June 30, compared with 19,986 in 2015-16.
Under the scheme, eligible householders are entitled to grants of $581 a year for those living south of the 26th parallel and $962 for those above it.
Last year’s total HUGS payments — about $15.5 million — and number of applications were the highest recorded since the scheme was started in 2009 by the former Barnett government in response to rocketing gas, water and electricity prices.
Financial Counsellors Association WA executive officer Bev Jowle said the “huge” increase was a concern and pointed to WA’s economic woes.
She said that amid moves by the Government to cap the scheme’s cost at $20 million this financial year, there was a real risk it could run out of money and leave people in the lurch.
Ms Jowle warned that unless people were able to access HUGS their power would be disconnected. “We can only see it probably getting worse, to be honest,” she said.
“One of our issues with HUGS is it’s great to give that urgent relief but it doesn’t actually solve the problem, which is the cost of power is going up and the people who can least afford it are paying the most.
“They’re not able to put in the power-saving devices, they can’t have the great fridge or solar panels on the roof, and they’re also people who tend to be home all day because they have a disability or aren’t in the workforce any more. Power is a commodity you can’t live without.
“If you’re on a low fixed income, a slice of that income is increasingly going to one area like your power bill. Where do you think it’s coming away from? It’s coming away from food and other essential items that a family needs like health care.”
A Treasury spokeswoman said the Government had moved to help those in need by topping up the HUGS program and reinstating funding for financial counsellors.
“The financial counselling program, which was scrapped by the former Liberal-National government, will be reinstated with $5.6 million allocated to the program across the forward estimates period,” she said.
“This Government recognises that since the financial counsellors program was cut, the number of people accessing the HUGS program has more than doubled.”