Chris Lees, Research Officer, Money and Mental Health Policy Institute

What telecom providers need to do to support people struggling to pay

17 May 2022

Across the UK right now lots of people are worried about how they will be able to afford essentials like food and pay their bills. A lot of focus has rightly been on the recent devastating climb in energy bills. But many telecom providers – e.g. broadband and mobile companies – have increased their prices above inflation (the rate at which prices across the economy rise). With the cost of living rocketing, it’s likely that if someone is struggling to pay one bill, they’ll be struggling to pay others. 

We know from our research that those of us with mental health problems are four times more likely to be behind on telecom bills compared to people without mental health problems. So we were glad to see Ofcom, the regulator for the telecoms market, propose changes to its guidance on the fair treatment of vulnerable customers. If introduced these will help customers struggling to pay get the right support.  There are some ways Ofcom can push firms to do more, but overall these are positive steps. 

Proactively emphasising support

One of the main changes that Ofcom has proposed is to make it clear that firms should proactively tell customers who are in debt or struggling to pay about available support. Telecom providers often have support options for customers such as payment plans or a social tariff (cheaper tariffs available for people receiving certain benefits). The problem is that people often don’t know about this support and so don’t get in touch to ask for help – something that can be made even harder if you are struggling with your mental health. 

“If I have a problem, it is very difficult to ring someone to sort it out… I can’t always understand what I am being asked or told. I avoid making contact, as I am afraid of not being able to deal with it.”  Expert by experience

We were pleased to see Ofcom recommend that providers make the information about support easy to find on their websites. Common symptoms like low motivation and short attention spans can make navigating website menus significantly more difficult when you’re unwell. 

Ofcom has also suggested changes to say that providers should take people’s preferred communication channel into account when getting in touch about missed payments. We know that many people with mental health problems struggle with channels like the phone and letters, and can avoid answering calls or reading letters when unwell. Small changes like asking what works best for someone and then using that channel can make a huge difference. 

Service restrictions and disconnection

When someone has fallen behind on bills, providers often take steps to get them to pay. This includes introducing service restrictions which limit how someone can use their phone, e.g. not allowing outbound calls. We welcome Ofcom’s proposed change that providers should avoid introducing service restrictions for vulnerable customers. But, we think that Ofcom has added unnecessary complication by saying this would only apply to vulnerable customers “who are particularly reliant on their communications services”. This might make it harder for those of us with mental health problems who struggle to speak to providers about how important being connected is. 

The internet can often be a lifeline for people with mental health problems when they are too unwell to leave the house, allowing them to still access services and connect with friends. Given this, we were disappointed to see that Ofcom has not proposed a requirement for providers to not disconnect vulnerable customers. We know that being disconnected can have a devastating impact on someone and we think Ofcom should intervene if there is evidence of significant harm.

“I don’t think I could handle being cut off from phone or internet, a lot of support comes from family and friends.” – Expert by experience

Moving forward

At a time of rising costs, and considering the impact this is having on people’s mental health, Ofcom’s proposed changes are needed more than ever. There are still areas we think Ofcom could improve on but nevertheless this is an important starting point. Telecom providers should be thinking about how they can implement any changes Ofcom takes forward and our Mental Health Accessible programme can help firms to understand what these would mean for people with mental health problems.

You can read our response to Ofcom’s consultation here. To find out more about Mental Health Accessible, click here or email [email protected]