• Academic research suggests energy companies are failing society's vulnerable

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    November 06, 2019
    More needs to be done by energy companies this winter to address the poor treatment of society's most vulnerable citizens, according to a new report which is being launched in Westminster tomorrow.
     
    Energy firms are not doing enough to help vulnerable citizens when they ring for advice about their fuel bills or cold homes, research has found. This is despite the fact that energy is legally recognised as an essential service and the regulator Ofgem is meant to ensure that everyone has access to the energy services they need.  
     
    The study, entitled Reaching the Hardest to Reach with Energy Advice, was led by Dr Aimee Ambrose, Reader in Energy Policy at Sheffield Hallam University's Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research, and was carried out in partnership with Citizens Advice.
     
    Dr Ambrose and her team spoke in detail to a panel of 26 highly vulnerable and marginalised citizens, including those leading complex and chaotic lives – with disabilities, addictions, dementia and other health conditions – who were struggling to get help with their energy costs.
     
    They found that citizens were only seeking advice when they had received strongly worded communications from energy companies or were under pressure to pay bills they could not afford. When they did ask for help, they felt 'patronised' and 'treated disrespectfully' by energy company call handlers.
     
    For example, one respondent, an 80-year-old woman in the early stages of dementia, rang her supplier when she realised that she was hundreds of pounds in credit and needed the money for other things. After repeated calls for help, she was so upset by the way she was dealt with that she had to ask her son to intervene.
     
    She told researchers that she felt she was dealing with 'robots' and everything was geared towards 'the young' and 'new technology'. She said that her individual circumstances and preferences were not taken into consideration when she made contact with her energy supplier.
     
    The respondents also commented that the automated systems made it difficult to speak with a real person and that, when they did manage to get through, the service offered was not satisfactory. 
     
    For instance, one respondent explained that, despite being registered as blind, she was repeatedly instructed to go into her cellar to read the meter. 
     
    Dr Ambrose said: "We spoke to some of society's most vulnerable citizens who we found after approaching them via foodbanks and homeless shelters, among other places.
     
    "We found that they were only reaching out for help in desperation and, when they did, the advice and support being offered was inadequate and insensitive to their needs. We are asking energy companies and government to do more to ensure our most vulnerable members of society are able to keep warm this winter; access vital energy services at an affordable price; and be treated with dignity and respect."
     
    The report recommendations include: 
    • Energy companies and other service providers should take a proactive approach to making sure everybody has access to services and take positive action to address the needs of those missing out. 
    • The government should update the statutory provisions enshrined within the Utilities Act for addressing the needs of consumers in vulnerable circumstances. These should reflect Ofgem’s current approach to understanding vulnerability and energy market developments, such as the growing number of energy companies, smart meters and decarbonisation policies.
    • Ofgem should encourage all energy companies to meet the BSI inclusion standard, BSI 18477, by putting in place systems that reward those meeting it.
    • Applying the principles of the NHS's Making Every Contact Count initiative, which places the onus on representatives from government agencies who have routine contact with vulnerable people to pass on energy advice and information.
    • They suggest energy companies should work with vulnerable citizens to develop new approaches to understanding the experiences of consumers in vulnerable circumstances to improve service delivery.
    Of the 26 people interviewed, 17 had sought help – with 12 turning to their energy supplier for assistance and five used a third party. Twenty three said they would rather receive advice face to face than over the telephone to ensure they could be heard and understood.
     
    The project was funded by the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) and research took place between 2016 and 2019.
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