An independent report 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.

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.

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.”

Peter Tutton, Head of Policy at StepChange Debt Charity, said “This report highlights that many vulnerable customers still aren’t getting the support they need from their energy company.”

“We consistently see a clear link between vulnerability and financial difficulty, and StepChange clients who had an additional vulnerability were more likely to be behind on their household bills than our clients who did not.”

“The Commission are right to call for Ofgem and suppliers to revisit the question of social tariffs. We believe there is a need for a wider Government review of fuel affordability as part of a strategy to ensure that no household with a vulnerable person has to resort to credit or fall into debt to pay their bills.”

“We are also pleased to see the Commission’s support for the Government’s breathing space scheme, which we have long campaigned for, as well as the recognition that bailiffs should never be used to chase debts from clients in vulnerable circumstances.”

Peter Earl, Head of Energy at comparethemarket.com, said “The report from the Commission for Customers in Vulnerable Circumstances is timely. We are approaching a crisis point whereby many vulnerable customers – particularly older people – are not only suffering financially but also health-wise due to increasingly unaffordable energy costs. Our own study found that during the last winter an estimated 2.7 million over 65s were forced to ration their heating due to fears of affordability.  More concerningly, nearly one in ten (8%) say their health suffers because they limit the amount of heating they use.”