‘Change will hinder help service’

Charles Brown.
Charles Brown.

IT will take longer for people to get help under the recent changes made to the Hardship Utilities Grant Scheme (HUGS), says Financial Counsellors’ Association of WA executive officer Charles Brown.

The State Government scheme provides financial assistance to help people with financial difficulties pay water, gas and electricity bills to avoid supply being cut off.

Previously, financial counsellors would assess and recommend HUGS applications but the system implemented on October 1 means grants are now accessed directly from utility providers.

“It’s going to take longer for people to get help and they’re going to get frustrated or discouraged and in some cases, they’ll stop trying to fix things – it just becomes too much,” Mr Brown said.

“Utilities are going to spend more time negotiating with consumers and they’ll probably have more ‘repeat offenders’ because there are less avenues for people to use to get help and advice.”

Department for Child Protection and Family Support acting director-general Kay Benham said utility providers had been assessing and recommending HUGS applications since 2011.

“Financial counsellors and other third-party agencies can still assist their clients with the HUGS application process and utility providers will continue to refer clients to financial counselling services, or other relevant community services depending on their needs,” she said.

But Mr Brown said due to the recent funding cuts to financial counselling services, which are now the responsibility of the Department of Local Government and Communities, it could take at least a month to see a counsellor.

He said 14 financial counselling providers across Perth had closed, including the City of Joondalup, and the number of financial counsellors in the north metropolitan are had been reduced from 12 to four.

“The financial counsellors that are left after the funding cuts have waitlists a month long,” he said. Mr Brown said the grants worked as a bandage and without financial counsellors, it could fail to treat underlying problems.

“Once the immediate issue was solved, the financial counsellor would then work with you to develop a strategy that would enable you to pay your bills in the future,” he said.

“HUGS functioned as a gateway to solving the issues underlying someone’s inability to pay their debts.”

Ms Benham said there had been no change to HUGS grant funding, with $10.5 million available in 2015-16.