Katie Evans, Head of Research and Policy, Money and Mental Health

Setting the Standards - Minimum standards and best practice

Last week we were delighted to launch our new research on accessibility and mental health, thanks to funding from the Cabinet Office and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and support from Nesta (you can see a few pictures from the event below). Over the last two years our research has consistently shown that people experiencing mental health problems find it much harder to choose, use and pay for essential services like water, broadband, energy and financial products. As a result, they often pay more, for a poorer service.

We have met many firms who are keen to understand the challenges their customers with mental health problems face, and to do something to help. So when we had the chance to apply to the Inclusive Economy Partnership, it seemed the perfect opportunity to extend our research and best practice recommendations for firms into something bigger. Over the coming months we’re using this research to develop a set of practical standards that will help firms keep track of how well they are serving customers with mental health problems, and celebrate successes.

Our most recent research, Access Essentials, suggests that these standards won’t just help people experiencing mental health problems, but the 23% of us experiencing ‘admin anxiety’ about contacting essential services providers. By supporting customers with greater needs, firms should improve service across the board.

The bigger picture

These standards, though, are just part of the story. A quarter of people experience a mental health problem in any given year, so this is a big issue. Some firms are trying hard to meet the needs of this customer group, others are rather more reluctant. To further complicate things, often people experiencing mental health problems won’t feel comfortable telling their essential services providers about their illness, or may not even be aware that a mental health problem is the reason why they’re finding it tricky to shop around or complain when things go wrong, so even for the firms trying their best, sometimes it can be hard to know what’s the right thing to do.

For a challenge of this scale, a multilateral approach is needed. As well as helping willing firms to raise the bar on what best practice looks like, we also need action from regulators and government to bring up the rear. Late last year we recommended that the government should introduce minimum standards for people experiencing mental health problems across essential services markets, and we were delighted that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy indicated their willingness to do this in their recent Consumer Green Paper.

Why do we need two sets of standards?

Our firm level standards will provide practical, detailed support for individual firms who want to go above and beyond for their customers. But mental health problems affect people’s consumer behaviour and their access needs regardless of whether their provider has signed up to a set of standards or not.

We also know that people are experiencing consistent problems across essential services markets, from telecoms to energy and financial services, and are confused by the variation in support they’re currently entitled to. As well as encouraging the best firms to do more, we need to make sure that we prevent the practices that cause most harm by making clear to all firms what they must do as a minimum.

Regulators like the Financial Conduct Authority and Ofgem already set standards for suppliers in their markets – but, until recently, mental health has often been overlooked and standards have instead focused on what suppliers must do to meet the needs of people with physical and sensory disabilities, or those in financial difficulty. As our understanding grows of the ways that mental health problems can affect people’s ability to navigate essential services markets, it’s right to extend these protections. And, as essential services are increasingly bundled and sold through intermediaries like price comparison websites, the consistency that minimum standards can offer becomes all the more important.

Two sets of standards – one with regulatory teeth, providing a consistent safeguard and protecting people from harm, and one with ambition, pushing firms to go further and raising the bar, can work together to create real change, rapidly.

Next steps