Sharing information: protecting vulnerable consumers
Protecting and empowering consumers in vulnerable situations is a priority for Ofgem. Under our Consumer Vulnerability Strategy, Ofgem’s aim for vulnerable consumers is clear: no customer should be disadvantaged or receive a worse service as a result of being vulnerable.
Millions of people live in circumstances that could put them at risk of not being able to safely or easily access energy. This includes people with physical disabilities or illnesses that prevent them from reading or topping up their meter, or people with learning difficulties who struggle to read a bill. These consumers can be particularly at risk during emergencies.
Energy and water are essential services. In both of these industries companies offer similar non-financial support, free of charge, to consumers who are in vulnerable situations. For example, both energy and water companies offer early warning support to vulnerable customers where, due to routine work, their supply could potentially be disrupted or cut off.
At the moment, however, too few consumers who need these services actually use them. Only a quarter of energy consumers, for example, even know they exist.
It’s crucial that companies who supply these essential services have good quality, up to date information about these customers. This is particularly the case because people’s circumstances can change quickly, for example when they’re ill. Sharing information can help companies spot when people become vulnerable.
Recently, essential sectors such as energy and water have been looking at how they can work together for vulnerable consumers. Last year the UK Regulators Network (UKRN) published a leaflet to help these consumers identify the free services that are available across these industries. Separately, energy and water companies agreed to point customers in vulnerable situations towards the free, essential services that exist in each other’s sectors too.
Ofgem has now joined up with UK water industry regulator Ofwat and UKRN to explore how the energy and water industries can better share information about consumers’ vulnerability in a sensitive, targeted and proportionate way. You can read more about our progress here.
With Ofwat, Ofgem has reached out to consumer bodies such as Citizen’s Advice, and expert bodies such as the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Consumer Council for Water for their views. Together we’ve also requested information from trade bodies such as Energy UK, some energy companies and all water companies, to find out more about how they gather and process data about vulnerability.
So far, we’ve found that sharing information across industries could provide vital help for consumers who need it. It could save them time and cut down on the number of potentially stressful interactions with utility companies when they need to tell them about their circumstances. Meanwhile companies could better get the information they need to anticipate and respond quickly to the vulnerable customer’s needs, particularly in crises.
At the same time it’s vital that we make sure these consumers’ data and privacy are protected. Consumers must know and consent to how their data is being collected and used, who it could be shared with and why. It’s right that strict rules and regulations govern data handling and protection. We must work together throughout industries to make sure companies have the tools to comply.
So far, we’ve focused on the energy and water sectors. In future, however, vulnerable consumers may benefit when information is shared across the other essential services too.
In the meantime, Ofgem and Ofwat will reach out to more organisations for their views. We’ll keep engaging with the Information Commissioner’s Office. In Spring 2017, collectively we aim to publish our findings about how to take this important work forward.
Demot Nolan is CEO of Ofgem and Chair of the UK Energy Regulators Network (UKRN)
If you have an interest in engaging with us on this work, please contact email@example.com or UKRN@ofwat.gsi.gov.uk by 31 January 2017.
For further information on UKRN please see www.ukrn.org.uk or contact the UKRN.