Merlyn Holkar, Senior Research Officer, Money and Mental Health

A call for action to improve how the energy sector treats vulnerable customers

11 June 2019

“Urgent action” is needed to improve how vulnerable people are treated by the energy sector. This is the stark message from the final report of the Commission for Customers in Vulnerable Circumstances (published at the end of last month), a group of experts who have been examining energy industry practice over the past year.

The Commission was set up by Energy UK, the trade body that represents most gas and electricity providers, and includes our former Director Simon Crine along with other leading experts. Despite some good practice, the Commission found “far too many instances” of people in vulnerable circumstances being treated poorly, including those with disabilities, experiencing mental health problems, or who have recently been bereaved. The Commission set out a number of steps that energy providers, the energy regulator, Government and others can take to help.

The challenge for people with mental health problems

Money and Mental Health research has found that people with mental health problems commonly experience difficulties choosing energy providers, using their services and paying for energy. This can be a real source of stress, and can result in people with mental health problems paying over the odds for energy or missing payments. This contributes to the fact that people with mental health problems are three and a half times as likely to be in problem debt as those without.

Common challenges for people with mental health problems include:

  • Choosing a provider – Symptoms of mental health problems can make it harder for people to compare different energy tariffs, choose a provider that suits their needs and organise a switch.
  • Communicating with providers – People with mental health problems can experience difficulties communicating with their providers, making it harder to get help if problems occur.
  • Dealing with bills and payments – Mental health problems can also make it more difficult to understand complex energy bills and to make payments on time. Some people choose expensive prepayment meters, to retain control over their spending.

“I am far from being a simpleton, but bills are often so entangled with legal jargon to cover the company’s backs that it is too easy to misunderstand the basics that the customer needs to be able to understand.”

Improving standards

Branding current practice in the energy sector as “inadequate and inconsistent”, the Commission set out two broad measures to improve standards:

  1. Strengthen regulation from Ofgem, the energy regulator
    The Commission calls for a more robust approach from Ofgem. Ofgem set the principles and rules that all energy providers must follow, but there are concerns that they aren’t going far enough to ensure compliance and protect vulnerable people. In particular, the Commission felt that some new providers are falling short of what is expected of them, and that Ofgem should apply stricter tests before authorising a provider.
  2.  Introduce an industry code of conduct
    Beyond these regulatory expectations, the Commission also calls for a new providers’ Code of Conduct to drive up standards of support for customers in vulnerable circumstances. This would be a voluntary agreement designed to boost consistency by setting out clear commitments that providers must follow.

These are both promising measures, which could drive up standards and improve consistency across the sector. The industry code of conduct should include a commitment to make providers’ services more accessible for people with mental health problems.

Communication is key

We were also pleased to see the Commission specifically highlight the need for providers to meet the needs of people who struggle to use some communication channels. This is a common accessibility problem that can lead to serious harm if a customer can’t get in touch in an emergency.

Many people with mental health problems struggle with certain forms of communication, but this can vary from person to person, so providers need to offer a range of options to ensure their service is accessible. Money and Mental Health research found that half (54%) of people who have experienced mental health problems find it stressful or difficult to engage with providers by telephone, while others are phobic about post and struggle to open letters, or find it difficult to deal with providers online.

“I have massive anxiety about talking to strangers on the phone. I frequently end up feeling at best exhausted or at worst suicidal afterwards.”

The Commission is clear that “a multi-channel approach is an essential foundation for supporting customers in vulnerable circumstances” and we agree. Everyone benefits from having a range of communications channels through which to contact their energy provider, but for many people with mental health problems choice is a fundamental accessibility requirement.

Our report, Access Essentials, highlights common challenges that people with mental health problems can face when dealing with essential services, like energy, and explores what providers can do to make their services more accessible.

You can also read the full Commission for Customers in Vulnerable Circumstances report here.