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Energy providers admit more action needed to support vulnerable customers

  • 08/12/2016

Some of the country’s leading providers, including all of the ‘big six’ energy companies, have admitted more action is needed to support vulnerable customers. The admission took place at a landmark meeting held this week where they agreed to work together to fight fuel poverty.

The meeting, organised by national poverty charity Turn2us, comes as new figures released by them reveal that support for vulnerable customers is not getting through to those who need it most.

A survey of over 4,000 Turn2us users found that 53% of those seeking help were not aware that support was available from energy providers. The research also found that 46% of those interviewed had cut back on heating as a result of fuel costs, with that figure going up to 55% for those over the age of 55.

At the meeting, Turn2us and representatives from charities and the energy regulator Ofgem, urged energy providers to do more to tackle the problem.

The attendees agreed that they would form a ‘working group’ that would aim at joining up the support on offer in the hope that assistance can be made more accessible for those who find it hard to engage with providers.

Steve Crabb, Director of Consumer Vulnerability for Centrica, who are the parent company of British Gas, told the meeting: “We’re in listening mode. We can’t solve this problem alone, we have to do this in partnership.”

Steve Hayfield, Customer Services Director at EDF Energy, agreed: “There are lots of good things to offer but reaching out is the challenge that we have. We have to ask, ‘How can we be better at joining the dots?’”

The meeting was the first time that the ‘big six’ energies companies had come together in this way to discuss working together in support of vulnerable customers.

“This research highlights something that we have been aware of for some time,” claimed Siobhan O’Loughlin from npower, who added that the sector needed to look more closely at “partnership working.”

There are currently a range of options available to vulnerable customers who are concerned about the cost of heating their home. However, many are missing out on the support available to them because of a lack of awareness.

“It can be one incident that causes them to spiral into vulnerability,” commented Helen Sanders from energy provider SSE. “I’m not sure an energy provider would be the first port of call.”

“We’ve spent a lot of money on finding customers to help. I wonder if we could spend that money more effectively,” added Steven Hayfield.

Turn2us are campaigning to combine the efforts of energy providers, alongside charitable organisations and other providers of support, to make it easier to access the help that they are eligible.

“An easy win would be to have a central repository of where people’s deadlines are,” said Jake Beavan from Citizens Advice, commenting on how the application process for hardship grants differs between providers.

“We need one entrance point,” said Vanessa Northam from E.on, “Could we find a single point, agnostic of supply?”

Polly Mackenzie, Director of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, highlighted how more needs to be done to help those with mental health problems. “The part of you that’s ill is the part that makes decisions,” she commented. “There will be situations where a bailiff comes to fix a pre-payment meter and it can trigger hospitalisation if they didn’t know in advance.”

Simon Hopkins, Chief Executive of Turn2us, commented, “Our research released this week shows the extent to which a lack of awareness is pushing vulnerable people into the most desperate of situations. I am delighted that the energy sector has taken this important first step and admitted not only that there is a problem, but that they cannot tackle it alone. With over half of those who come to us unaware that energy providers can give assistance, there is clearly a role that charities like us can play too. What we need to do now is back up the rhetoric and quickly turn these ideas into a reality for those who will be suffering in a cold home this winter.”