Brits in need are being let down because everyone from energy firms, regulators and comparison sites have gaps in how they find them.
That’s according to a new report from the Commission for Customers in Vulnerable Circumstances.
The report, launched by Energy UK and independently chaired by Lord Whitty, said the quality and availability of support varied not just across the sector, but even within the same company.
The commission has recommended an independently monitored code of conduct for suppliers to drive up standards of support for customers in vulnerable circumstances.
Other ways problems could be addressed include training for all front line staff to help them identify and offer support to vulnerable households and the industry working together to improve the effectiveness of the Priority Service Register.
Firms should also make sure customers can contact them by phone, for free and by letter.
Citizens Advice chief executive Gillian Guy said: “It’s critical that energy customers in vulnerable circumstances get the right support at the right time, and this report rightly highlights a lack of consistency across the sector.”
Lord Whitty said it was clear there were “huge variations” in the way energy suppliers, the Big Six and challenger companies, deal with vulnerable customers, ranging from “really good practice to examples of seriously insensitive treatment that fall far short of acceptable”.
He said: “Nobody likes to think of themselves as ‘vulnerable’ but any one of us could become vulnerable in a heartbeat.
“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.
“We also cannot ignore how changes in society are leaving increasing numbers of households in difficulty, often isolated and struggling to afford the essentials.
“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.”
It was a call echoed by charities.
James Taylor, from disability equality charity Scope, said: “We back this call to drive up standards, and encourage all energy companies to get better at serving their disabled customers.
“Many disabled people have no choice but to consume more energy because of their condition, often resulting in sky-high energy bills.
“It’s time that the Government, regulators and energy suppliers recognise the needs of disabled people and work together to improve the energy market.”
What the energy watchdogs have to stay
Watchdogs and energy officials said that, while there was more to do, they were already working to ease the plight of vulnerable customers – and plans were being drawn up already.
Energy UK’s chief executive, Lawrence Slade, said: “Our sector is genuinely committed to going further to improve services for all customers, particularly those in the most vulnerable circumstances, which is why we established this independently-chaired commission and we have already committed to bringing forward a new vulnerability charter, that we’ll be drawing up in coming months, to build on this report and existing voluntary initiatives.”
Matthew Vickers, chief executive at the Energy Ombudsman, said: “Despite the inconsistencies highlighted in this report, the energy sector as a whole is making good progress on vulnerability and there is every reason to think this can be accelerated.”
What about comparison sites?
Comparison sites highlighted the measures they already have in place, as well as how they thing officials could go further to help.
Richard Neudegg, uSwitch.com head of regulation, said: “It’s absolutely right that people in vulnerable situations are provided with all the support they need to easily understand and access better energy deals, as well as other products or benefits they may be entitled to.
“Price comparison services have an important role to play in simplifying the energy market. That’s why at uSwitch we offer a range of ways to contact us, including a free-phone UK contact centre and postal based service. Our consumer roadshows also help us reach more people in communities with support and advice.
“We have previously campaigned for enrolment in the Warm Home Discount to be automatic for eligible households and to be available through all suppliers, as well as promoting the Priority Services Register, and will continue to do so in partnership with industry.
“However, there also needs to be reform of market intervention so that instruments such as price regulation are targeted specifically at those who need the most help.”
MoneySuperMarket energy expert Stephen Murray said: “We remain committed to supporting vulnerable customers. However, the challenges are in both encouraging vulnerable customers to engage in the energy market and then identifying them to provide the support in a non-intrusive manner.
“In order for this to work, we need to make consumer engagement easier for these customers and improve the availability of data to aid information sharing between suppliers, price comparison websites and third party intermediaries.
“We welcome any opportunity to better understand the indicators of vulnerability. Our ability to support and help vulnerable customers will only be as strong as the level of information and data we receive.
“We have an existing framework in place, to ensure we meet the needs of those customers visiting MoneySuperMarket (primarily by phone) who are identified as currently vulnerable.”
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