Energy suppliers in the UK must be doing more to identify and support vulnerable customers, according to an independent report.
The Commission for Customers in Vulnerable Circumstances was launched last year by the industry trade association Energy UK and was independently chaired by a former Labour minister, Lord John Whitty. The report has come up with a number of suggestions to help improve standards when it comes to dealing with vulnerable customers.
The report found that the level of support offered by energy suppliers varied hugely, in some cases within the same supplier. Lord Whitty said that the quality of support that elderly and disabled customers receive ranges from “really good practice to examples of seriously insensitive treatment that fall far short of acceptable”.
Some of the evidence provided to the report revealed that one man suffering with mental health problems was given a bill of £1,900, and he complained that his energy supplier was ‘intimidating and harassing’ towards him. Meanwhile, another pensioner had to pay £1,000 more than she should have because of a broken meter.
“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,” said Lord Whitty. “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.”
Some of the proposals put forward by the report include the introduction of an independently monitored code of conduct that all energy suppliers should follow. It also said that frontline staff need to be properly trained in identifying vulnerable customers and offering them support, and that all energy firms should be contactable on a free telephone number and by post.
“Nobody likes to think of themselves as ‘vulnerable’ but any one of us could become vulnerable in a heartbeat,” said Lord Whitty. “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.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “This government strongly believes that everyone has the right to a reliable and reasonably-priced energy supply, and wants to protect consumers from rip-off deals. This is why we are making sure two million low-income households get money off their winter energy bills, as well as protecting 11 million households with our energy price cap. We are also giving extra money to pensioners through the winter and are committing £6 billion to upgrading the energy efficiency of the homes of the most vulnerable.”