UK energy suppliers are failing vulnerable customers, says Ofgem

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Energy companies are failing vulnerable customers, Britain’s energy watchdog said, calling for urgent improvement ahead of a cold winter.

Ofgem told all 17 energy suppliers in its third review into the sector to improve their support for customers, in particular vulnerable ones. It found “severe weaknesses” in five suppliers – Good Energy, Outfox, So Energy, TruEnergy and Utilita.

“Moderate weaknesses” were found in five other companies – E (Gas & Electricity), Ecotricity, Octopus, Shell and Green Energy UK. “Minor weaknesses” were discovered in seven companies including the biggest supplier, British Gas, as well as Bulb, EDF, E.ON, Ovo, Scottish Power and Utility Warehouse.

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Neil Lawrence, the director of retail at Ofgem, said: “From eligible customers who are missing out on free gas safety checks through to companies not identifying vulnerable customers to be offered obvious support on the priority services register, this robust review has highlighted that suppliers need to do more to support consumers.”

Ofgem said examples of poor practice included suppliers not reading the meters of vulnerable customers who could not do so themselves; setting debt repayment rates so high that vulnerable customers self-disconnect because their pre-payment meters run out; and vulnerable customers not being able to get through when they are off supply to top up their meter or request additional support credit.

Households are paying an average of £2,500 a year, which will go up to £3,000 a year next year, under the government’s energy price cap.

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Jonathan Brearley, the Ofgem chief executive, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “That is an incredible amount many, many families have to deal with. What we’re seeing across the board is the need for improvement [at energy suppliers].

“The most important thing for me is ensuring that when you’re applying for help as a customer you’re consistently treated by your company. What we’re finding, particularly with those five [companies with severe weaknesses] is basically pot luck. You might get a good adviser, you may also get someone who doesn’t do the things that are needed.”

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He said for example, an elderly customer was cut off through the smart pre-payment meter and was left for almost two weeks without power. “He didn’t know what was going on, he thought he was experiencing a blackout. That’s the sort of thing we don’t want to see,” Brearley added.

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Brearley advised people to get in touch with their energy supplier for help, saying a recent poll had shown that more than half did not know how much support they could get, as well as charities and NGOs.

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Gillian Cooper, the head of energy policy at Citizens Advice, said: “Given the enormous pressures facing people this winter, energy suppliers should be doing everything in their power to identify and support struggling customers.

“Citizens Advice sees day in, day out the heartbreaking consequences when this support falls short. People cutting back on food and essentials to cover energy debts and living in cold and dark homes when they’ve simply run out of money to top up their meter. Ofgem is right to hold energy companies to task; it must now ensure this review leads to concrete action.”

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