Spanish Court: Catalan Government not allowed to help families that can’t afford utility bills

Spain’s Constitutional Court has ruled that Catalonia’s government has no say on the matter and has invalidated part of a Catalan law which aimed to ensure that no Catalan families got their utilities cut off for non-payment

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Pobresa energètica: inadmissible i evitable

The Spanish Constitutional Court has struck down part of Catalonia’s legislation on energy poverty, a bill meant to guarantee that struggling families would not see their gas and electricity cut off for non-payment. In October 2014 the Constitutional Court (CC) had suspended the law, following a formal complaint by the Spanish government. Now it has ruled that the Catalan government has no authority to decide whether a utility may or may not be cut off and, therefore, has found the Catalan law “unconstitutional”.

The ruling claims that the Catalan legislation infringes on the powers of the central government, which passed a law establishing that “vulnerable consumers will be protected by means of subsidies on their electricity and gas bills, rather than by banning power cutoffs”.

The CC’s arguments

In a plenary session, the CC has partly allowed the appeal by the Spanish government against the Catalan 2/2013 Act (dated December 23rd) on energy poverty, which amended Catalonia’s Consumers’ Bill passed in 2010. Specifically, the Court has ruled that paragraph 2, section 6 and section 7 of Catalonia’s Consumers’ Bill —which was amended by a decree— are “unconstitutional and void”. Article 7 established that families who can attest that they are struggling financially “shall remain protected from any utility cut-off between November and March, inclusive” and adds that payment of any accrued debts must be “postponed” and families have “the right to pay off any outstanding debts in full or installments between the following April and October”.

The Court emphasises that Spain’s domestic law is in accordance with EU legislation on the subject, whereby “in the general public’s best economic interest, member states may choose to impose public service obligations on distribution companies, which might reflect on the price of the utility service”. The ruling goes on to say that the Catalan law contravenes Spain’s because “it imposes on companies the distribution of gas and electricity despite non-payment” and this is “incompatible with basic provisions, which establish that vulnerable consumers will be protected via price subsidies”.

Rajoy’s government appealed against the Catalan law on 26 of September 2014, arguing that it meant that Catalan consumers were the subject of positive discrimination and that it infringed upon Spain’s powers on matters pertaining to energy.