Ofgem has been urged to set out how it will better support vulnerable energy customers who fall behind on their bills.
Consumer group Citizens Advice said the regulator must detail an “ambitious vision” in its forthcoming vulnerability strategy, as it revealed almost half of those it helped with energy debt problems last year had long-term health conditions or disabilities.
The service said it assisted 43,232 people with energy debt last year, a 12% increase compared with 2017.
Some 48% of those given help had long-term health conditions or disabilities.
A report from the charity lists a number of common problems experienced by vulnerable customers once they have fallen behind on their bills, and said suppliers’ approach to debt collection is often seen as aggressive and could make people’s problems worse.
It also found vulnerable customers are unlikely to engage with support unless it is “clearly framed as a way out of their problems”.
The report includes the experience of one mother of a nine-year-old who has autism. She suspected her son may have turned the immersion heating on, resulting in a much larger than expected gas bill.
While her supplier was understanding when she called, she later received a strongly-worded letter that did not acknowledge the phone conversation and left her feeling anxious.
Citizens Advice is calling on Ofgem to to use its vulnerability strategy to make a number of reforms, including the setting of clear targets for the sector’s performance on debt, for example to cut the number of people in arrears without arrangements to repay, or for the average level of debt repayments to decrease.
It also wants the introduction of a licence requirement that suppliers follow principles to assess a consumer’s ability to pay when setting debt repayments.
Citizens Advice chief executive Gillian Guy said: “The regulator needs to set an ambitious vision for how suppliers should support and protect vulnerable people who fall behind on their bills.
“Both Ofgem and suppliers need to take action and help people get over the barriers that stop them from seeking help and getting the right advice and support.
“The package of support that’s on offer needs to be sensitive. Aggressive collection practices and demands for unaffordable payments only serve to make people’s lives more difficult.”
An Ofgem spokeswoman said: “Protecting consumers, especially the vulnerable, is at the heart of what Ofgem does as Britain’s energy regulator.
“We have nearly eradicated disconnections for debt and put in place price caps for consumers on prepayment meters and on standard tariffs, which ensure most vulnerable consumers pay a fair price for their energy.
“We welcome Citizens Advice’s important contribution to the debate on what further action we can take to protect consumers, and we will be consulting on our new strategy setting out further measures to help vulnerable customers later this summer.”
Energy UK, which represents the industry, said: “We agree that more should be done to support those customers most in need, which is why we launched an independently-chaired Commission for Customers in Vulnerable Circumstances last year which has been looking at how standards of care and support can be improved.
“This is due to report back shortly and will be followed by a new Vulnerability Charter to strengthen and extend the existing voluntary commitments.”