‘This system does not work’: Why vulnerable energy customers face a battle just to get help | Energy industry
Helen Lord, who is now head of the Vulnerability Registration Service, was shocked at how rapidly her father’s health deteriorated after he contracted Alzheimer’s.
Brian Lord had been a founder director of CCN Systems, which later became credit checking giant Experian. What happened before his death 18 years ago drives her quest to ensure vulnerable Britons are recognised and helped to access basic utilities. But the work of her not-for-profit service – and her own later efforts to help her mother – are being hampered by problems with the registers that are designed to identify the most vulnerable.
The subject of identifying vulnerable Britons has shot up the agenda over the past year as energy prices have soared. It emerged that debt agents for British Gas had ignored signs of vulnerability to forcibly enter homes and fit prepayment meters, regularly cutting people off from heat and power when they failed to pay their bills. A subsequent ban on force-fitting such meters ended last week, with the regulator, Ofgem, under pressure to show that it has improved the process. The system of mass approval for home entry warrants by magistrates has also been described as a rubber-stamping exercise that fails to properly analyse personal circumstances.
Calls for a “social tariff” to cut the cost of energy for low-income households have grown louder. A significant thread of the debate has been how to identify those in need of help, and campaigners argue there is a key tool that could offer help but is being badly managed: priority services registers (PSRs).
The hidden register
Gas, electricity and water firms are obliged to maintain PSRs as a free support service to ensure extra help is available to those who need it. Those eligible include pensioners, people with a disability or mental health condition, people with young children and those who struggle to get help in an emergency. It also covers those with no sense of smell, which could be fatal in a gas leak.
People on the registers are entitled to advance notice of scheduled power cuts or engineering work and high-priority support in an emergency, and should be able to jump the queue when calling a network operator. Suppliers will come to read their meter and people on the register can nominate someone they trust to handle their communications.
However, public awareness of the registers appears very low. In 2013, Ofgem found just 24% of the population were aware of PSRs. A new survey of 2,006 adults for the Vulnerability Registration Service showed less than 20% of adults had heard of them.
An Ofgem response to a freedom of information request by the Observer reveals that the number of people on PSRs has fallen, from 7.35 million to 6.99 million for electricity between 2021 and 2022, and from 6.27 million to 5.94 million for gas.
And research has exposed flaws in the signing-up process for a system intended to be ultra-accessible. Lord, who lives in Nottinghamshire, recently gained power of attorney for her mother, 91. After struggling to sign her up to PSRs, Lord conducted extensive research into the UK’s 17 largest energy retail businesses. She found their processes labyrinthine and unclear, reliant on digging online or lengthy phone calls.
On 13 of the suppliers’ websites, Lord found PSR details “very difficult” to find, with phone numbers or links not easily accessible. On seven sites, registering for a PSR could only be done online or by downloading a form and sending it back. On seven other sites, registering for a PSR was enabled only through an existing online account. Just three websites – SSE, EDF and Green Energy – had a dedicated phone number for vulnerability or PSR-related queries, with most offering general numbers, undermining the notion of priority support.
Lord’s experiences included a lengthy hunt through the British Gas website, then the use of an online chat and form; finding PSR information buried on a page entitled “legal terms explained” at Sainsbury’s Energy; and having to resort to web searches to find SSE’s PSR page. (The industry body, Energy UK, does at least collate some of the data here.)
Lord says these “exasperating” processes were difficult enough for an industry expert, but “for a vulnerable person, who may be struggling to cope with day-to-day tasks, this can be highly stressful”.
Ofgem’s chief executive, Jonathan Brearley, recently told MPs that consumers give up waiting before 50% of calls to E.ON are answered. “How do you tell a company you’re vulnerable if you can’t get through on the phone?” he said.
The register also exposes issues around data sharing. The industry has form in this area: British Gas cited data protection rules after it failed to inform social services that it had cut off an elderly couple who were later found dead in south London in 2003. However, campaigners argue in favour of automatic transfers on to PSRs if a customer switches supplier.
Lord also wants a major change in the use of PSRs, with people over 80 automatically signed up and options for financial support wrapped in.
Lord calls for suppliers to proactively identify vulnerable customers. “The most effective way to ensure vulnerable people know about the PSR is for energy providers to actively find out who they are, then help them to register. It’s not difficult to do,” she says.
However, energy firms say defining vulnerability is not a simple task. Bill Bullen, chief executive of prepayment meter specialist Utilita, says: “If you maximise Ofgem’s criteria of vulnerability, 90% of our customer base will be classed as vulnerable”. Bullen also argues his firm, whose PSR customers must sign up to prepay by choice, uses the register proactively. “If they’re on the PSR, and have some life-threatening issue and they disconnect by not topping up their prepayment meter, we will phone them within minutes of going off supply”.
Citizens Advice argues there is a significant duplication of effort between companies in identifying vulnerability, when sharing data could save time for consumers and companies. It cited the case of a decorator forced to stop work due to Covid-19 and struggling with mobility problems as he awaited a hip replacement. An adviser seeking breathing space for him on mortgage repayments, water and energy bills had to contact a string of credit providers, and was assessed using different definitions of vulnerability each time.
A year-long review into the handling of vulnerable energy customers in 2019, chaired by Labour peer Lord Whitty, found suppliers needed to improve their methods of identifying vulnerable customers and revamp their communications. But the energy crisis, linked to soaring wholesale costs, subsequently pushed almost 30 suppliers out of business and put a strain on the remaining firms in the market, which have taken on thousands of stranded customers. Last November, Ofgem said all 17 suppliers were failing vulnerable customers, with five companies showing “severe weaknesses”.
An Ofgem review into the British Gas debt agents is due this summer, while a wider study into vulnerability and prepayment meters will come later in the year.
Lord believes government needs to intervene, to expand the registers’ scope to helping those in financial difficulty and allow data sharing. “Companies are scared of getting massive fines for breaching data law.” she says. “This needs an overarching plan: it’s not just energy debt, but council tax, housing, people struggling with financial services, insurance, online gambling. If you’re vulnerable, sitting in the corner with your head in your hands, struggling with mental health, this system does not work.”