Hundreds of thousands more vulnerable energy customers will be able to access a register to get support with meter readings and identifying supplier representatives from the start of next year, under new Ofgem rules.

The regulator is taking steps to strengthen the existing Priority Services Register for vulnerable customers. Those on the register are entitled to extra support from their suppliers in the form of free meter readings, advance notice of planned power outages and assistance with identifying visiting supplier representatives.

From January 2017 the following changes will take place:

  • Suppliers will be required to take "all reasonable steps" to identify vulnerable customers and offer to place them on the register.
  • Eligibility rules will be broadened so more customers can join the register. For example, mental health issues or physical injuries could now qualify customers for the extra help.

About 3.6 million electricity and three million gas customers (13% of customers for both fuels) are currently signed up to the register, which is open to those who are disabled, chronically sick or of pensionable age.

However, Ofgem research has found that less than a quarter of energy customers know about the support on offer, and this is "partly because... [they] have to ask for it".

What extra help do suppliers provide via the register?

Those on the register currently get extra support from suppliers and power networks, including:

  • A password so they can safely identify representatives who visit their homes
  • Readings for customers who struggle to read their meters
  • Advance notice of power cuts and information on any help available during emergencies

Ofgem believes the change in eligibility rules will mean hundreds of thousands more customers could benefit from being on the register.

What does Ofgem say?

Ofgem senior partner Rachel Fletcher says: "Energy is an essential service. We want to see more consumers in vulnerable situations protected. That's why we're working with energy companies to make changes to priority services so many more consumers get the tailored help that they need.

"Suppliers will also be obliged to take all reasonable steps to identify these customers and offer them the free services. This means picking up on signs of vulnerability from their day-to-day interactions with customers. This is vital as previous research from Ofgem shows that only 24% of consumers are aware this support exists. This is partly because customers have to ask for it."