‘Urgent action’ required to help vulnerable energy customers

The energy sector must take “urgent action” to better identify customers in vulnerable circumstances and improve the help and support given to them, according to a new report.

‘Urgent action’ required to help vulnerable energy customers

The independent report by the Commission for Customers in Vulnerable Circumstances published today said that, despite examples of good practice, the sector as a whole is not consistently meeting the needs of customers.

Launched last year by Energy UK, 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.

These include:

  • 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.

Commission chair 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.”

Jamie Stewart, energy spokesperson at Citizens Advice Scotland, said: “This is an important report that energy companies, regulators, the government and price comparison sites should pay close and careful attention to.

“The Scottish Citizens Advice network helps hundreds of thousands of people all across Scotland each year – and we see concerns about energy supply and affordability as a problem almost daily. 

“That is why we have worked closely with the Commission to help develop proposals which, if implemented, will improve outcomes for consumers in vulnerable situations in Scotland.

“A key recommendation that we are happy to see is for the energy industry to work together to improve awareness and up take of additional support services that energy companies provide.

“We think the sign up process for the Priority Services Register, the system that suppliers use to ensure the correct support is given to its most vulnerable customers, should be simpler.

“Cross sector collaboration is needed to explore whether a single registration process can be developed to make it easier for people.

“Beyond signing up to additional support registers, we agree with the Commission that customers should be supported to make use of the services on offer which we know people are often unaware of.

“It is also essential that support services delivered by different companies are consistent across the country so that no one misses out.”

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