Citizens Advice response to The Commission for Customers in Vulnerable Circumstances - CALL FOR EVIDENCE
Citizens Advice welcomes the opportunity to respond to this call for evidence on vulnerability in the energy market. We should start by recognising the progress that has been made by the industry in this area over recent years. Through initiatives such as the Energy UK safety net, the prepayment commitments and investment in customer service we have seen a recognition by the industry of their social obligations as providers of an essential service.
The significant increase in the number of new providers entering the market has brought new challenges to this consensus. Some have entered with express objectives to help vulnerable consumers while others have simply sought to compete on price. We believe more can be done to reinforce obligations around vulnerable customers at the point companies enter the market but also see an important role for this commission in re-establishing a consensus around the responsibilities of an energy supplier.
However the major challenge for the industry now lies in closing the gap between the help that most suppliers are willing to offer and those that need it. Our recent research into the problem of self disconnection found that 9 in 10 households who could not afford to top up their meter contained a child or someone with a long term health condition. We know that most suppliers will now offer help with topping up if requested and that this vulnerable group would be treated as a priority. However just 9% of these households had contacted their supplier.
This disconnect between help on the one hand and those that need it on the other is also evident in other areas where customers most need support. The priority services register, ECO, Warm Home Discount and smart meter support are all examples where suppliers are willing to provide help if asked at the right time and in the right way. However too often the barriers involved in the process mean people go without. This is also true when it comes to engagement with the energy market more generally where the vulnerable consumers most likely to suffer detriment from high prices are the ones paying them.
It is time for all of us to think how we can bring help closer to those who need it. In particular, how we can make asking for support and engaging in new opportunities easier for those who would benefit most. An important first step would be the creation of a clear set of meaningful commitments from the industry to the consumer on how suppliers will respond if and when people ask them for help. This would give people confidence that reaching out will be worthwhile. We hope the commission will consider how this can be achieved.