Lawrence Slade, Chief Executive, Energy UK

The Commission for Customers in Vulnerable Circumstances - Energy UK’s new initiative

The energy market is changing. One in six customers switched electricity supplier last year and the number of competing suppliers is also at record levels. But despite this, it remains a major concern that some customers are unable to take advantage of the available competition and choice because of personal circumstances.

Support has long been in place for some customers who find themselves in vulnerable circumstances through schemes such as the Warm Home Discount, which provides financial assistance totalling nearly £2 billion a year.

As the industry’s trade body, we’ve introduced a number of voluntary initiatives to establish good practice when dealing with those customers facing difficulties, such as the Energy UK Safety Net. Since its introduction in 2004, the number of disconnections has dramatically reduced. We’ve also set up a dedicated vulnerability group which led to the Money Advice Trust publishing a guide last year for front-line staff dealing with customers with mental health issues.

It's a good start

But there is much to do, both for us an industry supplying an essential service and for companies across other sectors, to improve how we identify and best support those customers in who need it. That’s why we’ve launched a new Commission for Customers in Vulnerable Circumstances to explore how standards of care and support could be improved.

The Commission is independently chaired by Lord Whitty, and is comprised of commissioners from across the business, charity and consumer advice communities; namely Joanna Elson, Chief Executive of the Money Advice Trust, Simon Crine, Director of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, Caroline Wells, co-founder of the disabled access review website MeIncluded, Janet Morrison, Chief Executive of Independent Age and Audrey Gallacher, Director of Retail Energy Supply at Energy UK.

The challenge ahead

Defining vulnerability is a complex and challenging task. Vulnerability can be something you live with every day of your life, or be transient – we can all be at risk through a wide range of circumstances that go beyond financial difficulties. It can include physical and mental health problems, disability and life changing events, like a death in the family, all of which can make dealing with day-to-day issues like paying bills or switching suppliers more of a challenge.

We’re delighted that a renowned consumer advocate like Lord Whitty has agreed to be the independent chair. Together with the other commissioners, we expect a report that will challenge our industry – and others – on what we can do better.

Determined to make change

Drawing from this report, which the Commission aim to complete by the end of the year, Energy UK’s retail members will draw up a Charter, that will build upon existing commitments to ensure energy suppliers are doing all they can to meet the varied needs and situations of their customers. It will be crucial that the Charter group reflects the range of suppliers amongst our membership – from the larger established companies, to the growing number of small and medium providers.

There won’t necessarily be easy answers or solutions, but it shows our determination as an industry to do more to provide help and support for customers when it is required, and get things right the first time for customers who find themselves in vulnerable circumstances.

You can help get mental health on the agenda

The Commission recently published a call for evidence seeking views from a wide range of organisations, before holding a series of hearings around the UK to listen to those directly involved. We of course expect mental health to be one of the areas that the Commission looks at, especially with Simon Crine being a very welcome addition to the Commission.

We very much hope that the mental health sector will take active part in this process and support this important work – and help us improve the capacity of all companies in customer-facing markets to help those most in need.

You can find the call for evidence here – we welcome responses by 30th May 2018.