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Citizens Advice Consumer Work Plan 2019-20

27 June 2019

Can the delivery of essential services keep up with consumers’ expectations on price, quality and fairness? Will people support markets and competition to carry on delivering them?

In the last year, these have been the central questions in consumer policy. The loyalty penalty in the energy market proved so unsustainable that the government had to intervene directly to protect consumers. This penalty proved just as large in other essential markets, forcing us to use our statutory super-complaint powers for the first time in seven years to ensure consumers in other markets are protected - a prime example of our cross-cutting consumer role in action.

But while this has been the most prominent consumer debate, it’s far from the only way in which delivery has failed to meet expectations. For too long, energy network companies have been over remunerated by regulatory decisions, at consumers’ cost. Here, it’s welcome that Ofgem and other regulators look set to correct course in consumers’ favour. We remain convinced that the smart meter 2020 roll-out deadline is unrealistic, leading to suppliers installing meters at a pace that can’t guarantee a quality consumer experience.

This work plan [ 300 kb] will mark our fifth year as the statutory consumer advocate for consumers of energy and postal services. That experience has given us a firm answer to these questions: yes, markets can deliver essential services, but they need to be robustly regulated. Public support can only be sustained if companies provide high quality services at a reasonable price and don’t exploit their customers.

This informs our biggest priorities for the coming year, whether it’s making sure that customers aren’t exploited by the loyalty penalty, getting consumers a good deal in the next round of energy network price controls, making it easier for consumers to opt in to paper statements or opt out of marketing mail, or making sure the smart meter rollout enhances consumers’ experience of the energy market.

We’ve also seen how the knowledge we’ve gained as a consumer advocate applies to our other policy priorities. Understanding what a good customer journey looks like, or working out how a service can be delivered fairly and efficiently, isn’t just relevant to essential services markets. We’ve applied these 2 insights across our organisation - from the rollout of Universal Credit to our debt work to reflecting on how we can deliver our own service better.

So one thing we’re committed to in 2019/20 is applying our consumer insights more thoroughly to our other work. The government is set to embark on the next stage of Universal Credit roll-out. This process will affect nearly three million people - a third of whom have a disability or long-term health condition. Our extensive experience of customer journey mapping and our work to make sure consumers in vulnerable circumstances are treated fairly holds valuable lessons for this.

We will also be using our insights to help reduce problem debt and strengthen financial inclusion. Government and utility debt collection practices lag behind the financial service sector, and our insight into those markets gives us a strong foundation to help tackle this. We’ll use our understanding of consumer behaviour to shape the regulation of financial services so that products help people avoid debt and are accessible.

A major way in which consumers’ rights and experiences will be shaped is, of course, our exit from the European Union. Currently it’s still unclear what the final shape of the deal will be. Although it’s impossible to say precisely what will happen, we stand ready to adapt and change our programme of work accordingly.

We are grateful for the 55 responses - formal and informal - that we received to our draft work plan, and really pleased that they were overwhelmingly positive about our priorities and plans for the coming year. The feedback we received has helped us improve and adjust the final work plan. We are publishing, alongside this plan, a summary of responses [ 120 kb] and the changes we have made to reflect respondents’ input.

James Plunkett

Executive Director of Advice and Advocacy

Citizens Advice