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Energy firms "under the spotlight" to improve support for vulnerable customers

An independent report has called for urgent action to be taken by energy companies, regulators and the government to better identify customers in vulnerable circumstances and improve the help and support given to them.

The Commission for Customers in Vulnerable Circumstances, launched last year by Energy UK and independently chaired by Lord Whitty, highlighted that, despite examples of good practice, the energy sector as a whole is not consistently meeting the needs of customers. It found that the quality and availability of support varies widely across the industry – even sometimes within the same company.

 

The report makes several recommendations to ensure the needs of vulnerable customers are better met. They 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.

Joanna Elson OBE, chief executive of the Money Advice Trust and member of the commission, said: “Significant work is needed to improve support for energy customers in vulnerable circumstances. As the report notes, there is good practice out there, but this support is inconsistent and varies greatly across the sector.

 

“Training frontline staff to identify customers in vulnerable circumstances is a crucial first step, while actions such as committing to not use high court enforcement officers, can also make a big difference for the most vulnerable.

 

“There is an important role for the third sector to play alongside suppliers through greater partnership working. This could be through signposting to debt or energy saving advice, and helping people access financial help and other essential costs. We look forward to building on our work with energy firms to help them put into practice the recommendations from the commission’s report.”

 

Commission chair Lord Whitty said: “Nobody likes to think of themselves as ‘vulnerable’ but any one of us could become vulnerable in a heartbeat. 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.”

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