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Refunding utility bills? - Michael Briguglio

Before parliamentary business stopped for a summer recess, Energy Minister Joe Mizzi announced that a review process on utility bills would be taking place. 

Many people expect a fair deal with respect to the more frequent and costlier utility bills they are receiving.  Public knowledge of this situation has been in place at least since 2017, when a court case was opened by two consumers on the method used by ARMS to calculate energy consumption.

Some months ago, some experts raised awareness on this matter and consequently civil society took up this issue through the ‘Up in ARMS’ campaign. In the meantime, the Nationalist Party and the independent media ensured that the illegal billing system becomes an issue of national importance.

Maltese law clearly states that such bills should be based on “a consumption tariff based on a cumulative consumption per annum”, but what is actually in place is a bimonthly billing system with accumulating interest rates and threats to remove consumers off the grid if they do not pay. The system is controlled by government monopoly Enemalta which employs ARMS – another monopoly – to issue the bills.

By now, many readers are aware of the way the billing system is robbing them. Indeed, every two months they are being cheated out of yearly quotas through bills which are split up into shorter periods, meaning that consumers quickly start to pay at much higher rates than the promised 10c5. Annual quotas of tariffs of 2,000 units at 10c5 and 4,000 units at 12c9 are being cut up into smaller quotas within actual bills.

Therefore, if one’s consumption is within the total annual quota, one can end up receiving bills at higher bands. Some consumers are paying at rates six times higher because of this system – at over 60c per kwh. Should the current system have been in conformity with the law, consumers whose consumption is within the total annual quota would be refunded for extra payments – as is the case with Malta’s tax system.

One hopes the billing system in place is not being used to finance the government’s non-transparent dealings in the purchase and generation of energy

It is also pertinent to note that many households are also being deprived of their eco-reduction. A family of five and a single resident both get the same 2,000 units at 10c5. But whereas the former used to get a discount if consumption is within an annual quota, this too can be lost with the method currently in place.

In the meantime, ARMS is also profiting through the bi-monthly billing system through a strong cashflow from payments and interests at the expense of consumers. The least it can do is return extra payments to consumers.

The current billing system also features other problems, such as the fact that many tenants are paying domestic rates rather than residential rates, resulting in higher bills, and photovoltaic generation of energy which is not being registered.

All of the above favour ARMS at the expense of the consumer. Larger families, pensioners and people living in rented property, including thousands of foreigners, are the worst off, yet the government is dragging its feet.

Indeed, the Regulator for Energy and Water Services and the Malta Competition and Consumers Affairs Authority have been conspicuous by their absence on the whole matter. Compare this to the latter’s immediate public statement regarding the increase in the price of pastizzi.

The situation is clear, but the public is being given either scant information or vague promises of a government review. The least the government can do at this stage is declare that it will refund people who have been cheated, and subsequently state the exact amount once individual household workings have been finalised.

Failing this, further action will have to be resorted to through existing legal and political avenues. One hopes that the situation is resolved sooner rather than later and that the billing system in place is not being used to finance the government’s non-transparent dealings in the purchase and generation of energy.

In the meantime, cost of living in Malta keeps increasing. Fuel is the latest example: Again, a government monopoly is involved, and its financial situation is lacking transparency.  

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