Urgent action is required to improve the support for vulnerable energy customers, according to a new report from industry body Energy UK.
Energy firms, the government, regulators, price comparison sites, consumer groups, and charities must all work to better identify and assist vulnerable customers, the Commission for Customers in Vulnerable Circumstances has urged.
The commissioned, launched last year and chaired by Lord Whitty, advocates for an independently monitored code of conduct for gas and electricity suppliers, after it found that the quality and availability of support for vulnerable customers varied widely across the sector and even within the same company.
The report also recommends firms implement systematic training for all frontline staff so they can better identify and support vulnerable households. The industry should also improve the Priority Service Register, a scheme that gives vulnerable households priority support in emergencies, advance notice of power cuts, password protection to help them identify legitimate energy firm contacts, and accessible bills, among other free services.
Firms should also keep open a range of contact methods for customers, including post and free phone lines, to ensure they’re not deserting those who don’t have internet access.
When the government’s current default price cap expires in 2023, it should be replaced by a social tariff for low income customers, the report advocates. The government should also institute a publicly funded energy efficiency scheme to tackle fuel poverty in England, where 11.1% of households meet the legal definition being fuel poor.
Meanwhile, Ofgem should strengthen its licensing regime to ensure energy firms are capable of serving all customers adequately. This recommendation follows a series of failures of small energy firms, some of which were censured the energy market regulator for poor customer service.
Households using alternative heating systems, including LPG and heating oil, which are disproportionately in vulnerable circumstances, also require greater regulatory protection.
Lord Whitty said there were “huge variations” in the treatment of vulnerable customers across the sector, ranging from “really good practice to examples of seriously insensitive treatment that fall far short of acceptable.”
“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,” he went on.
“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.”
Lawrence Slade, chief executive of Energy UK 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.”
Consumer watchdog Citizens Advice welcomed the report. “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,” said chief executive Gillian Guy.
In response to the report, the government affirmed its commitment to protecting energy customers, saying it “strongly believes everyone has the right to a reliable and reasonably-priced energy supply.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said: “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.”