Urgent action is needed to improve help for vulnerable energy customers, according to an independent report.
Energy companies, regulators, the Government and price comparison sites must better identify vulnerable consumers and improve the support given to them, the Commission for Customers in Vulnerable Circumstances recommends.
The report, launched last year by industry body Energy UK and independently chaired by Lord Whitty, said the quality and availability of support varied widely across the sector, and even sometimes within the same company.
The commission has recommended an independently monitored code of conduct for suppliers to drive up standards of support for customers in vulnerable circumstances.
A safe, reliable and affordable energy supply is such a fundamental need that it warrants particular focus, especially given the stress and anxiety it can cause when there are problems
Other recommendations include systematic training for all frontline staff to help them identify and offer support to vulnerable households, and the industry working together to improve the effectiveness of the Priority Service Register.
Firms should also make sure customers can contact them by phone, for free, and by letter.
Lord Whitty said it was clear there were “huge variations” in the way energy suppliers, the Big Six and challenger companies, deal with vulnerable customers, ranging from “really good practice to examples of seriously insensitive treatment that fall far short of acceptable”.
He said: “Nobody likes to think of themselves as ‘vulnerable’ but any one of us could become vulnerable in a heartbeat.
“A safe, reliable and affordable energy supply is such a fundamental need that it warrants particular focus, especially given the stress and anxiety it can cause when there are problems.
“We also cannot ignore how changes in society are leaving increasing numbers of households in difficulty, often isolated and struggling to afford the essentials.
“But our focus has been on what the energy industry can do itself, and in commissioning this report the industry has recognised the importance and challenge of improving standards in this area.
“We now hope that they, together with government, the regulator and consumer bodies, will take the further step of putting our recommendations into practice and committing to making the support of all those in need a top priority.”
Energy UK’s chief executive, Lawrence Slade, said: “Our sector is genuinely committed to going further to improve services for all customers, particularly those in the most vulnerable circumstances, which is why we established this independently-chaired commission and we have already committed to bringing forward a new vulnerability charter, that we’ll be drawing up in coming months, to build on this report and existing voluntary initiatives.”
Citizens Advice chief executive Gillian Guy said: “It’s critical that energy customers in vulnerable circumstances get the right support at the right time, and this report rightly highlights a lack of consistency across the sector.”
James Taylor, head of policy and public affairs at disability equality charity Scope, said: “We back this call to drive up standards, and encourage all energy companies to get better at serving their disabled customers.
“Many disabled people have no choice but to consume more energy because of their condition, often resulting in sky-high energy bills.
“It’s time that the Government, regulators and energy suppliers recognise the needs of disabled people and work together to improve the energy market.”
A Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy spokeswoman said: “This Government strongly believes that everyone has the right to a reliable and reasonably-priced energy supply, and wants to protect consumers from rip-off deals.
“This is why we are making sure two million low-income households get money off their winter energy bills, as well as protecting 11 million households with our energy price cap.
“We are also giving extra money to pensioners through the winter and are committing £6 billion to upgrading the energy efficiency of the homes of the most vulnerable.”
Matthew Vickers, chief executive at the Energy Ombudsman, said: “Despite the inconsistencies highlighted in this report, the energy sector as a whole is making good progress on vulnerability and there is every reason to think this can be accelerated.”