The Right to Electricity
Is electricity a basic right?
Electricity is a basic commodity required for a dignified, healthy human existence, and in cases of severe medical conditions or extreme weather, peoples’ lives depend on it. Heating residences in the winter; refrigerating food and medicine; operating medical equipment; maintaining basic hygiene; heating water to bathe in the winter; and managing our families’ daily lives – all rely on a regular supply of energy. The necessity of electricity has been recognized in several Israeli rulings. For example, the Haifa Magistrates’ Court ruled that electricity is currently a fundamental right in modern countries, and that living without an electricity supply violates one’s right to human dignity. Even international law determines that the provision of electricity is a condition for the realization of the rights to health and life. It must thus be ensured that children and adults, regardless of their financial state, be entitled to a sufficient supply of electricity for their basic needs.
By law, may the IEC disconnect those unable to pay from their electricity?
The IEC is legally entitled to disconnect consumers who have accumulated debt from electricity, solely in accordance with criteria determined by the Electricity Authority (the regulating body that oversees the electricity sector on behalf of the state). Although the Electricity Authority has established relevant standards, they neither provide nor meet the nature of the regulations required by law: stipulating that anyone may be disconnected from electricity regardless of various social and medical conditions; disregarding fundamental aspects that impact debtors’ rights, such as the manner in which discretion is exercised in the decision to restrict or disconnect electricity; in handling exceptional cases, and restriction or disconnection from electricity.
The standards allow the IEC to disconnect and restrict the supply of electricity to poor debtors rather than collecting debts through more proportionate procedures such as a fair payment schedule or through the court system and Execution Offices.
What are the arrangements regarding disconnecting consumers from electricity due to debt?
The IEC disconnects consumers who have accumulated debt under two arrangements, each of which raises grave human rights concerns.
1. Active Disconnection Arrangement – disconnection from electricity
The Active Disconnection Arrangement includes disconnection from electricity supply to the consumer’s home by an IEC representative. In order to reconnect to electricity, the consumer must contact the company and pay the debt.
What’s wrong with the arrangement?
People may be indefinitely disconnected from electricity altogether.
The IEC, whose primary aim is debt collection, is responsible for deciding whom to disconnect.
The following three groups are the sole populations for whom electricity is deemed essential, and are thus protected from being disconnected: those connected to respirators, artificial hearts, and the elderly who were crippled by Nazi persecution. Everyone else, including patients who require the refrigeration of life-saving medicine; disabled people in electric wheelchairs; people in need of respiratory monitoring; the elderly population at large; families with babies and children; or people with various disabilities who may also require significant, potentially life-saving electricity – are not protected from being disconnected from electricity.
2. Passive Disconnection Arrangement – Prepaid Meter Installation
Passive Disconnection Arrangements are carried out via a prepaid meter also referred to as a “Tokman.” This meter solely provides electricity to homes in which consumers have been charged a prepaid amount of money. The electricity supply is cut off as soon as the amount of money charged to the meter runs out, and will solely be renewed if the consumer recharges the meter. Thus for consumers in debt who lack sufficient means to pay, installing a prepaid meter in their home is equivalent to disconnecting them from electricity.
What’s wrong with the arrangement?
The standards grant the IEC the authority to install prepaid meters, through which they may collect debt as needed, although the Electricity Law does not permit them to do so.
The IEC uses meters as heavy-handed tools to collect debt from consumers who lack sufficient means – rather than using a standard meter to reach an agreement regarding a payment plan that suits respective circumstances. The consumer is posed with impossible circumstances: either be cut off from electricity, or have a prepaid meter installed through which 20% of the debt owed will automatically be deducted from the amount charged each time. For example, if a consumer charges the Tokman with 150 NIS, after offsetting the debt, usage fees and VAT, solely 82 NIS is left for electricity. As a result, consumers who lack sufficient resources find themselves in an incessant loop of disconnection.
Unlike the active disconnection arrangement, the meter procedure does not specify consumers for whom electricity is essential. Additionally, collecting debt via the meter bypasses all means of collection put forth by the state, which offer significant protections for poor debtors, and determine which creditors are prioritized (e.g. children who require child support).
How many disconnections does the IEC carry out?
Nevertheless, each year the IEC continues to carry out tens of thousands of disconnection operations for private consumers. We have received inquiries indicating that cases of disconnection from electricity also include the homes of impoverished persons, or who have medical conditions that require connection to electricity.
The following are official figures from the Electricity Authority, which indicate that electricity disconnection under an active arrangement constitutes a routine and frequent means of enforcement:
In 2015, 57,882 consumers were disconnected from electricity.
In 2016, 45,486 household consumers were disconnected from electricity, and an additional 30,556 consumers were connected to meters.
In 2017, 33,296 household consumers were disconnected from electricity, and an additional 31,774 consumers were dependent on prepaid meter services.
Up-to-date data from 2018 is yet to be released. The IEC does not collect information on the amount of disconnections experienced by those connected to meters and the periods of time that they subsisted without electricity.
Disconnecting a household from electricity harms all family members residing in the home. There are thus hundreds of thousands of people who are annually disconnected from electricity, or who live under the constant threat of disconnection, and intermittently subsist without electricity due to their connection to meters.
How can the situation be rectified so as to protect consumers’ human rights?
Electricity is an essential commodity and basic right. First and foremost, we are of the opinion that the legislature and the Electricity Authority must prohibit the IEC from leaving people without a sufficient electricity supply for dignified subsistence. Additionally, disconnection actions must be prohibited as draconian means of debt collection. In parallel, fair arrangements must be made for debt collection, such as fair distribution of payments, absolvement of debt in difficult cases, and freezing interest on debt. As a last result, debt may be collected through the Execution Office system, but not by disconnecting electricity. Efforts must also be made to expand the circles of those entitled to a social tariff and to reduce electricity tariffs.
What can the IEC do?
The IEC’s capacity to change the situation is limited, as it must operate in accordance with criteria established by the Electricity Authority. With that, the IEC is not required to disconnect consumers and may reach fair payment arrangements with them, which suit their life circumstances and are consistent with the basic right to live in dignity. The IEC may also collect debt from those who do not comply with payment arrangements, through more proportionate means than disconnecting electricity, such as through contacting the Execution Office system.
What can the Electricity Authority do?
The Electricity Authority must declare that no household in Israel may be left without electricity, and that debt collection must be carried out through proportionate legal means.
The Electricity Authority must stipulate that solely state authorities may reduce poor consumers’ electricity supply due to outstanding debt. The decision should not remain in the hands of the IEC, due to the potential violation of basic rights.
Criteria must reasonably define populations for whom electricity is essential, and who will receive immunity from electricity reduction or disconnection.
What can the government do?
The Minister of National Infrastructures and Energy is responsible for the electricity sector among the government. The Minister has the authority to institute regulations on the issue of power outages, and must promptly act to regulate the issue through detailed criteria, as noted above. This criteria will serve as the basis for an arrangement to be determined by the Electricity Authority on the matter.
Where do things currently stand?
Determine that decisions regarding disconnection, reduction, or restriction of electricity supply to household consumers in debt may not be made by the IEC, but rather by approval from state authorities, following individual examination and the right to plea and appeal.
Prohibit consumers in debt from being disconnected from electricity (including automatic disconnection of prepaid meters) without the provision of sufficient electricity to exercise the right to a dignified existence, unless it is determined that the consumer has the means to pay debts and is unjustifiably evading doing so.
Establish a list of consumers for whom electricity is essential, as detailed in clause 7(c) of the Book of Standards, which is currently unreasonably restricted.
Annul the possibility to collect electricity debt through automatically deducting the amount due from the prepaid meter, unless requested by the consumer.