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Supply and final demand: Improving support for energy consumers in vulnerable circumstances who fall behind on their bills

22 May 2019

In recent years the number of people who are falling behind on their energy bills without a plan to repay has been increasing. Energy companies can use prepayment meters (PPMs) to collect debt from consumers who owe them money. But this isn’t a safe solution for some consumers in vulnerable circumstances. We’re concerned that if suppliers don’t take steps to support them, consumers who fall behind on bills and stay on credit meters are at risk of building up unmanageable debts.

This research [ 3.1 mb] explores the experiences of consumers in vulnerable circumstances in arrears and why they can struggle to engage with their supplier about debt.

The research finds:

  • Consumers in vulnerable circumstances experience specific barriers to engaging with their supplier about their situation

  • Debt collection methods perceived as ‘aggressive’ by consumers may exacerbate their vulnerability and deter engagement

  • Support is often framed in a way that sounds generic and unhelpful

To tackle these issues we think all suppliers should:

  • have a comprehensive package of support to help people to see a way out of their situation and be involved in decisions

  • be consistent across their communications and emphasise the benefits of engagement.

To ensure this is delivered, we’re calling on the energy regulator, Ofgem, to use its upcoming Vulnerability Strategy to set an ambitious vision of support for people in vulnerable circumstances who fall behind on their energy bills.

We’d like to see Ofgem:

  • set targets for the sector in relation to debt,

  • strengthen the rules to ensure suppliers are considering what their customers can afford to pay,

  • compel suppliers to trial new approaches to debt communications if suppliers fail to do this voluntarily.

Our report is based on qualitative research by Collaborate Research. They produced a separate report [ 4.8 mb] and infographic [ 220 kb] to present their findings.