Commission says urgent action must be taken to improve support for vulnerable customers
An independent report published today says urgent action is required by all energy companies, regulators and government as well as price comparison websites (PCWs) - with support from consumer groups and charities – to better identify customers in vulnerable circumstances and improve the help and support given to them.
The report by the Commission for Customers in Vulnerable Circumstances, launched last year by Energy UK and independently chaired by Lord Whitty, has highlighted that, despite examples of good practice, the energy sector as a whole is not consistently meeting the needs of customers, with the quality and availability of support varying widely across the industry – even sometimes within the same company.
The Commission makes a number of recommendations, including roles for the regulator and government, to ensure the needs of customers in vulnerable circumstances are better met today and in future.
- Creating an independently monitored Code of Conduct for suppliers to drive up standards of support for customers in vulnerable circumstances.
- Systematic training for all frontline staff to identify and proactively offer support to vulnerable households.
- Strengthening Ofgem’s licensing regime to ensure all suppliers operating in the market are equipped to support customers in vulnerable circumstances.
- Industry working together to raise awareness and the effectiveness of the Priority Service Register.
- Suppliers ensuring that a range of contact routes remain available to customers, including freephone numbers and paper-based communication.
- Strengthening and streamlining partnerships between suppliers and charities to ensure people get access to all the help they need.
- Households served by heat networks and those using fuels like LPG and heating oil getting the same regulatory protection as those using gas and electricity.
- Retaining a social tariff for low-income vulnerable customers after the current default price cap ends.
- The Government introducing a state-funded energy efficiency scheme for England to help tackle fuel poverty, matching those already in place in Scotland and Wales.
Chair of the Commission for Customers in Vulnerable Circumstances, Lord Whitty, said:
“Nobody likes to think of themselves as ‘vulnerable’ but any one of us could become vulnerable in a heartbeat.
“Vulnerability and the need for support is not just a question of customers struggling to pay bills, but of individuals and households facing a wide range of difficulties – any of which can make the requirements of day-to-day living a challenge. A safe, reliable and affordable energy supply is such a fundamental need that it warrants particular focus, especially given the stress and anxiety it can cause when there are problems.
“From listening to those on the front line, it’s very clear that there are huge variations in the way energy suppliers deal with those in need – ranging from examples of really good practice to examples of seriously insensitive treatment that fall far short of acceptable. This applies both for the established ‘big six’ and for challenger companies.
“It can’t be right that in such a highly regulated industry, it can be a matter of chance how - or if - you get the support required. That’s why our recommendations seek to make sure there is a consistent level of support across all suppliers and for all customers.
“We also cannot ignore how changes in society are leaving increasing numbers of households in difficulty, often isolated and struggling to afford the essentials. There are, therefore, wider problems that must be tackled, which we have highlighted in our report.
“But our focus has been on what the energy industry can do itself, and in commissioning this report the industry has recognised the importance and challenge of improving standards in this area. We now hope that they - together with government, the regulator and consumer bodies - will take the further step of putting our recommendations into practice and committing to making the support of all those in need a top priority.”
Notes to Editors
- Link to report and recommendations
- Energy UK launched the Commission for Customers in Vulnerable Circumstances in February 2018, with Lord Whitty as its independent chair, to explore how standards of care and support could be improved across the energy industry. Five Commissioners from across the business, charity and consumer advice sectors were subsequently appointed along with the publication of a call for evidence, which invited submissions from a wide range of organisations – such as charities and businesses that have experience working directly with people in vulnerable circumstances - to help them identify the full range of issues as well as highlighting good practice within the energy and other sectors.
- The Commissions consists of Lord Larry Whitty (Chair), Simon Crine (Former Director of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, and former Ofgem Director), Joanna Elson (Chief Executive of the Money Advice Trust), Audrey Gallacher (Director of Policy at Energy UK), George McNamara (Director of Policy at Independent Age) and Caroline Wells (Director of Different Petal Consulting Limited).
- As well as receiving 45 responses to the call for evidence, the Commission held hearings in Newcastle, Cardiff, Glasgow and London where 24 organisations have given evidence including Citizens Advice, Age UK, Energy Saving Trust, StepChange, Glasgow City Council, Welsh Fuel Poverty, Community Action Northumbria as well as suppliers and regulators.
- Drawing on the work of the Commission, Energy UK will be separately developing a new Vulnerability Charter to build on existing voluntary commitments and go further to support those customers most in need.
- Energy UK set up its own Vulnerability Group in 2017, publishing a guide with the Money Advice Trust on helping customers with mental health problems and also initiated existing voluntary supplier commitments, such as the Safety Net and Prepayment Principles to support customers in need.
- For further information on the Commission, including biographies of the Commissioners, visit https://www.energy-uk.org.uk/our-work/commission-for-customers-in-vulnerable-circumstances.html