As you’ll have seen, the Commission for Customers in Vulnerable Circumstances has today published its final report. It represents the culmination of over a year’s work since we launched this project, having given the panel the job of identifying how the energy industry can improve the standards of care and support available to our customers when they need it.
First off, I must thank Lord Whitty and the five commissioners for all their hard work and for publishing such a valuable, wide ranging and thought-provoking piece of work on what is a complex and evolving subject. I’m sure many in the industry will be reading it with great interest and as Energy UK, we’ll be looking to see how we can best respond to their recommendations - most immediately through the new Vulnerability Charter that we’ll be drawing up over the coming months, building on this report and existing voluntary initiatives.
We knew that this report was not always going to be an easy read but we wanted a candid assessment of the industry’s performance - and that’s why we got an independent panel with expertise from the charity and consumer advice fields to carry it out. By doing this, I hope we’ve shown that our sector is genuinely committed to going further and doing more to improve the way it treats vulnerable households. We can only do that by being prepared to face up to where we are falling short and look at how we can do better.
As we’d fully acknowledge, the Commission points out that there is an inconsistency in the treatment of customers in vulnerable circumstances across the sector. There are many examples of excellent practice featured in the report – equally there are less happy incidents where the treatment of customers has been very poor. The quality, availability and accessibility of support can vary widely not just across suppliers - of all sizes – but even within the same company.
This doesn’t, I think, represent a lack of willingness or commitment. As the report says, there have been no shortage of voluntary initiatives, as well as regulatory requirements, in this area. These are probably more extensive in energy than any other sector - as is to be expected when dealing with such an essential product – but we do need to consider whether these are delivering what was intended, what they are failing to address and look harder at what customers need rather than try and work this out on their behalf.
Doing so is a challenge. The report makes it clear that this is a complex and nuanced subject – and our understanding of it is still developing. These previous initiatives have tended to focus on those customers struggling financially but vulnerability can be permanent or transient, encompass mental and physical illness or bereavement and separation and other life events. Even though any of us could become ‘vulnerable’ without warning, few – if any - people would describe themselves as such. So even before offering the appropriate support, there is the challenge of identifying those who might need help even when they’re reluctant to seek it. So it’s not surprising that the Commission have put such a strong emphasis on training frontline staff.
The report also points to societal and economic changes which means the importance of this issue is only going to grow – an increasingly aged population being just one example. A rapidly changing energy market offers great opportunities to improve the lives of all our customers through technology and innovation but we must ensure that this doesn’t leave some behind – those who are most in need mustn’t miss out.
As we’ve shown, this industry is embracing its responsibilities and the challenges these include. But we can’t do it alone, and as the Commission highlights, not only are there wider issues beyond the industry there are also areas where the government and Ofgem must play their part and ensure there is a consistent level of support across all suppliers and for all customers. There will also be a role for charities and consumer groups to lend their expertise and support this work.
As an industry providing an essential product, we know we will be judged on how we treat those customers who most need our help. It’s now up to us to take up the challenge laid down by this report and make this a top priority for the industry over the coming years.