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Energy firms told they must do more for vulnerable customers

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An independent report has warned energy firms that they must work harder to identify and help vulnerable customers.

The report, which was commissioned by trade association Energy UK and produced by the Commission for Customers in Vulnerable Circumstances, found the quality and availability of support provided to vulnerable customers varied within the same company and across the sector.

Vulnerable customers include those on low incomes, who may also be unwell or elderly.

In light of its findings, the commission has suggested that energy suppliers follow a code of conduct to improve the quality of support that is provided for customers who find themselves in challenging circumstances.

Energy UK is also calling for suppliers to provide customers with a range of communication channels, including a freephone number.

The report concluded that energy companies, regulators and the government are failing to provide adequate and consistent support for vulnerable customers. The commission suggests that suppliers do more to recognise the realities of fuel poverty and debt by revisiting the provision of social tariffs.

The report also supports the government’s consultation on ‘breathing space’ – where someone who is in debt is given the right to legal protections while they receive debt advice.

Approaching “crisis point”

Peter Earl, head of energy at comparison site comparethemarket, commented: “We are approaching a crisis point whereby many vulnerable customers – particularly older people – are not only suffering financially but also health-wise due to increasingly unaffordable energy costs.”

A recent study carried out by comparethemarket estimates that 2.7 million over-65s were forced to ration their heating during the last winter due to fears of affordability. In addition 8 per cent said their health had suffered because they limit the amount of heating they use.

Peter Tutton, head of policy at StepChange Debt Charity, echoed Earl’s sentiments.

“The commission is right to call for Ofgem and suppliers to revisit the question of social tariffs. We believe there is a need for a wider government review of fuel affordability as part of a strategy to ensure that no household with a vulnerable person has to resort to credit or fall into debt to pay their bills,” he explained.

“We are also pleased to see the Commission’s support for the government’s breathing space scheme, which we have long campaigned for, as well as the recognition that bailiffs should never be used to chase debts from clients in vulnerable circumstances,” Tutton added.

Earlier this month, charity Citizens Advice called on the energy regulator Ofgem to do more to help vulnerable energy customers.