Supporting customers struggling with their bills

Given the essential nature of energy, using our remit to lower bills for consumers is one of our key objectives as a regulator. Our work complements government’s wider work on affordability and fuel poverty. We do this through regulating companies that consumers interact with directly, for example by putting in place price protections, rules around debt management and monitoring compliance with the delivery of schemes such as the Warm Home Discount and the Energy Company Obligation.

Consumers on low incomes and those in other vulnerable situations often feel the impact of high energy bills the most. Being unable to afford an acceptable level of thermal comfort may have serious health and psychological consequences.

Affordability

We have put in place price protections for consumers on standard and prepayment tariffs. Price caps ensure consumers who prepay or who are on poor value ‘default’ energy deals pay a fairer price for their energy, and are protected from being overcharged.

Find out more information on price caps.

Debt

We require suppliers to offer certain options and services for customers who are in payment difficulties, and to take all reasonable steps to ascertain the customer’s ability to pay when agreeing the duration and value of a repayment plan, whether through direct debit or a prepayment meter. Accompanying this are the ‘Ability to Pay’ principles which we expect suppliers to adhere to when engaging with customers in payment difficulties.

In October 2020, we published our decision to incorporate and update the Ability to Pay principles in the supply licence conditions, which will give the principles further prominence and emphasise consumer protection for customers who are in potential and actual financial difficulty.

The principles are:

  1. Having appropriate credit management policies and guidelines
  2. Making proactive contact with customers
  3. Understanding individual customers’ ability to pay
  4. Setting repayment rates based on ability to pay
  5. Ensuring the customer understands the arrangement
  6. Monitoring arrangements after they have been set up
  7. Re-engaging with the customer after an initial occurrence of a failed repayment arrangement (new principle consulted on).

Disconnections

Disconnection due to debt should only be considered as a very last resort by suppliers. It is now extremely rare that anyone is disconnected from their energy supply because they are in debt.

Energy companies must not disconnect a domestic customer who has not paid their bills unless they have first taken all reasonable steps to recover those charges. Suppliers are also prohibited by their licence from knowingly disconnecting during winter consumers that are of a pensionable age, or solely live with people that are of a pensionable age or under 18. Additionally, they must take all reasonable steps during winter to avoid disconnecting those that are disabled or chronically sick.

Energy UK’s Commission for Customers in Vulnerable Circumstances sets out plans to build on the  “Safety Net”, a pledge by a number of suppliers to never knowingly disconnect a vulnerable customer at any time of the year.

Find more information about consumer advice on Energy supply disconnection and prepayment meter rules

Find more information about our work on supporting Prepayment meter customers

Backbilling

A backbill is a ‘catch-up’ bill sent to you by your gas or electricity supplier when you haven’t been correctly charged for your energy use. Such bills can leave customers in debt.

Backbilling protections for domestic customers have been in effect since May 2018. These protections mean a supplier can’t seek additional payment for unbilled energy used more than 12 months prior to the error being detected and a corrected bill being issued.

For more details, see Energy Backbilling project.

Alternative Branding

Alternative branding is where the supplier’s customer correspondence is branded with a name that is not the energy suppliers (e.g. on the letter head), implying that it comes from a different organisation. This can mislead a customer, in an attempt to draw their attention to the money owed.

In 2014, we investigated the use of alternative branding by suppliers. It gave our expectations for suppliers’ communications– that they should be transparent and comply with our ability to pay principles. We want companies to meet and exceed the standards expected of them by their own customers and the public more generally. 

We collect and publish data on affordability as part of our work to make the energy market as transparent as possible.

Chart

Source: Ofgem calculations (ONS family spending data).

Information correct as of: June 2018

This graph shows the percentage of total household expenditure spent on energy for every year since 1993.  Total household expenditure includes housing costs and energy spend refers to spend on electricity, gas and other fuels. It gives figures for households in the lowest and highest 10% of incomes, as well as an average figure for all UK households.

Energy spend as a percentage of household expenditure combines two related data points from the Office for National Statistics (ONS); Household expenditure, and spending on electricity, gas and other fuels. It is presented on the basis of income deciles with the households with the lowest incomes in the lowest decile.

Policy Areas:

  • Domestic consumers

Data Table

Energy spend as a percentage of total household expenditure (UK)
YearLowest 10%Highest 10%All households
199311.60%3.00%4.80%
199410.90%3.00%4.60%
199510.30%2.80%4.50%
19969.90%2.80%4.30%
19979.10%2.50%3.90%
19987.00%2.10%3.30%
19996.50%2.00%3.20%
20006.80%2.00%3.10%
20015.90%1.90%2.90%
20025.70%1.90%2.90%
20035.60%1.90%2.90%
20045.50%2.00%2.90%
20055.80%2.10%3.10%
20066.60%2.40%3.50%
20076.40%2.60%3.70%
20088.40%2.70%4.00%
20098.50%3.00%4.70%
20107.30%3.10%4.50%
20117.80%3.10%4.60%
20127.80%3.20%4.70%
201310.40%3.30%5.10%
20149.80%3.20%4.90%
20159.70%2.90%4.40%
20168.40%2.60%4.00%

More information

At-a-glance summary

In 2016, UK households were spending on average 4.0% of their total expenditure on energy, up from approximately 3% in the early 2000s. In 2016, households in the lowest income decile spent nearly 8.5% of their total expenditure on energy, this is down from the 10.6% observed in 2013 but well above 5.5% in 2004.

In 2015 the ONS changed how it reported data, from reporting the calendar year to the financial year. It reported both figures for 2014. From 2015-16 the chart reflects financial years rather than calendar years.

Relevance 

Energy is an essential service required for health and wellbeing. Consuming below the level of accepted thermal comfort may have serious health consequences, while worrying about how to meet fuel bills can also have psychological effects

Through the publications and update feed below you can access our publications and outputs produced in relation to supporting customers who are struggling with their bills.

Publications and updates

  • Published: 1st Oct 2014
  • Reports and plans
  • 1 Associated documents
This research report provides views from our Consumer Panel on the affordability of household energy, in the context of household bills more widely. It also provides their views on the elements of their bills relating social and environmental schemes.

  • Published: 22nd Sep 2014
  • Open letters and correspondence
  • 1 Associated documents
We have reviewed energy companies’ use of alternative branding to communicate with indebted customers. This letter details our findings and sets out our expectations of energy companies’ debt collection communications and our next steps.

  • Published: 7th Dec 2013
  • Open letters and correspondence
  • 1 Associated documents
This letter summarises data provided by suppliers following a request by Ofgem, relating to their back-billing of micro-business customers between April 2012 and March 2013.

  • Published: 20th Dec 2012
  • Open letters and correspondence
  • 1 Associated documents
A review of suppliers’ approaches and our good practice expectations, when dealing with non-domestic debt and disconnection.

  • Published: 5th Oct 2012
  • Open letters and correspondence
  • 1 Associated documents
Open letter updating Ofgem’s position on non-domestic back-billing

  • Published: 24th Jul 2012
  • Agendas, minutes and presentations
  • 3 Associated documents
.

  • Published: 30th Mar 2012
  • Closed: 25th May 2012
  • Consultations and responses
  • 1 Associated documents
This paper outlines Ofgem’s intention to develop a new Vulnerable Consumers’ Strategy.

  • Published: 6th Dec 2011
  • Open letters and correspondence
  • 1 Associated documents
Ofgem's response to ERA and ICOSS following the development of draft Standards to address non-domestic back-billing

  • Published: 7th Feb 2011
  • Reports and plans
  • 1 Associated documents
Research into customer reactions to alternative disconnection methods for credit customers and alternatives to self disconnection for those who run out of credit on a PPM

  • Published: 8th Sep 2010
  • Decisions
  • 5 Associated documents
Modification Direction for the insertion of Standard Licence Condition 27.11 (A) obliging licensees to take all reasonable steps to ascertain the status of a customer and the occupants of any affected domestic premises before disconnection.

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