Industry voices have reacted mainly positively to recommendations made in the independent report by the Commission for Customers in Vulnerable Circumstances which called for “urgent action” to be taken in the energy sector.
The report, released today (31 May), makes several recommendations for the sector including creating an independently monitored code of conduct for suppliers to drive up standards of support for customers in vulnerable circumstances.
Following its publication a number of industry voices have given their support while, at the same time, expressing their concerns over the issues the report raises.
Alex Prentice, sector lead at regulatory experts Huntswood, said:“Evidently there needs to be a huge shift in the way the sector works to provide more robust protection to ensure vulnerable customers are not being taken advantage of.
“Firms should take steps to get ahead of the recommendations in this report by undertaking an assessment of their operational policies and procedures so that they can identify vulnerable customers and intervene as early as possible.
“It’s also crucial that utility companies invest in high quality training so that frontline staff are adequately prepared to spot the signs of vulnerability and respond in an effective and responsible way.
“Customer vulnerability is a complex area with multiple challenges – financial hardship, advanced age, physical or mental health and disability can all contribute – requiring firms to deliver the best possible outcome for their customers and avoid potential escalation down the line.”
Joanna Elson, chief executive of the Money Advice Trust, who served as a member of the Commission, said: “The Commission’s report puts the energy industry firmly under the spotlight. 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.”
Peter Earl, head of energy at Compare the Market, 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 per cent) say their health suffers because they limit the amount of heating they use.”
Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, 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.
“We agree with the Commission that the government must protect people on heat networks just the same as any other energy consumers. Companies should be inclusive, giving customers a range of ways to contact them, including by telephone.
“We also welcome the Commission’s wider recommendations: continuing to protect vulnerable customers once the price cap is lifted and introducing a new energy efficiency scheme to tackle fuel poverty. This will help to make energy more affordable.
“There are areas where the industry and Ofgem need to go further, including preventing people on pre-payment meters from self-disconnecting.
“While smart technology will allow suppliers to better monitor pre-payment meter customers in vulnerable circumstances, this is not enough. The regulator should set clear targets for suppliers to end self-disconnection once and for all.”
Matthew Vickers, chief executive at the Energy Ombudsman, said: “This report makes some worthwhile recommendations and represents a timely and significant contribution to the debate on vulnerability in the energy sector.
“The idea of a new, independently monitored vulnerability code of conduct for energy suppliers is an interesting one and something that’s worth exploring.
“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.
“Using the experience and insight we have in the communications sector as well as energy, we hope to play a valuable role in bringing together key stakeholders, sharing cross-sector insights and facilitating better consumer outcomes.
“Internally, we are currently reviewing and updating our approach to vulnerability. Ensuring that all consumers can access our service, regardless of their circumstances, is a key priority for us.”
Stephen Murray, energy expert at MoneySuperMarket, 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.”
Richard Neudegg, head of regulation at Uswitch.com, 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.”
Utility Week is hosting its Consumer Vulnerability conference in London on 27 June. You can find out more here.