MSE News

Energy firms told to do more to help vulnerable customers this winter by regulator Ofgem

Energy suppliers have been told to do more to help support vulnerable customers this winter by the energy regulator. Improvements called for include demonstrating more clearly how pre-payment customers, who may be self-disconnecting, are identified and supported. 

Five providers in particular - Good Energy, Outfox, So Energy, TruEnergy, and Utilitawere -  have been described as having "severe weaknesses", according to Ofgem. This means a "significant proportion of their processes and policies were missing or inadequate, or their data indicated they were not achieving good consumer outcomes - something these firms largely dispute."

E Gas & Electricity, Ecotricity, Green Energy UK, Octopus and Shell were described as having "moderate weaknesses", meaning Ofgem found some poor performance, while British Gas, Bulb, EDF, E.ON, Ovo, Scottish Power and Utility Warehouse were described as having "minor weaknesses", meaning some of their policies and processes could be better.

The findings have been published today (22 November) as part of an ongoing series of "deep dives" by the regulator into how 17 of the biggest energy suppliers are helping vulnerable consumers throughout the winter. This includes how suppliers support customers on prepayment meters, whether they give customers the information needed, and whether they offer free gas checks for eligible customers.

If you're struggling to pay for energy, make sure you're not missing out on any support you're entitled to – see our full Energy bill help guide for a comprehensive list, plus where to go for one-on-one support.

All suppliers need to do more to support vulnerable customers

Ofgem has set out a host of key improvements that all suppliers need to make to better support customers, including:

  • Having clearer policies and procedures to identify vulnerable customers.
  • Ensuring customer service staff are trained appropriately to identify and support vulnerable customers.
  • Showing how risks involved with serving vulnerable customers are identified.
  • Making clear who is responsible for making decisions relating to vulnerable customers, and then clearly reporting on these decisions.
  • Demonstrating more clearly how pre-payment customers, who may be self-disconnecting, are identified and supported.

The next market review, expected at the start of next year, will look at customer service. 

If you've been remotely switched to a prepayment meter and are struggling, talk to your supplier

Today's news follows Ofgem writing to all suppliers earlier this month to warn them about the practice of remotely switching customers onto prepayment meters when it isn't appropriate or safe for them.

If you're falling behind with your energy bills, and finding yourself struggling to pay or building up debt on your account, contact your supplier as soon as possible. Under Ofgem rules, your supplier has to help you – usually by negotiating a payment plan that you can afford.

Sadly, your supplier can force you onto prepay to recover any debt that's built up. It doesn't need your permission to do this, and you don't have an automatic right to refuse.

However, the supplier can only put you on prepay where it is "safe, practical and easy for you to use and get to [the meter]". The exact same rules apply whether your supplier is physically installing a new prepay meter in your home or switching your existing smart meter into prepay mode.

See our MSE News story for a full breakdown of your rights if you have been remotely switched to prepay, and how you can protect yourself.

What do the energy firms say?

In response to Ofgem's findings, industry trade body, Energy UK, told us its members had responded swiftly to Ofgem’s review - including providing additional documentation to demonstrate where processes were already in place. It added that firms "will continue to look at all the ways they can make sure people get the help and support they need".

Of the five firms outlined as having "severe weaknesses", Good Energy said it was disappointed that Ofgem had published its verdict "halfway through the evidence gathering process" and that it had provided Ofgem with extensive information which addressed its concerns, which the report does not account for. 

So Energy told us it had never switched a smart meter equipped customer from credit to prepay without their knowledge and that it was "disappointed" that "Ofgem had proceeded on the basis of incomplete information, and in a manner that may now cause vulnerable customers unnecessary concern".

Utilitia added that it is confident that its customers are happy with the support it provides and that Ofgem's report "does not represent where it is as a business today".

We have also approached TruEnergy and Outfox for comment.

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