Millions could be missing out on energy support from little-known scheme

Energy regulator Ofgem has called for an overhaul of how vulnerable people are supported by their suppliers. Here's what help is available now and how to apply

Far too few of Britain's most vulnerable people are registering for a range of free energy support services. (Getty)
Far too few of Britain's most vulnerable people are registering for a range of free energy support services. (Getty)

The head of Britain's energy regulator is calling for a complete overhaul of how the country's most vulnerable people are supported by their suppliers, amid fears they are missing out.

Jonathan Brearley, chief executive of Ofgem, warned only one in three people are aware of a system known as the Priority Services Register – a free support service for vulnerable water and energy customers.

Even among those who have heard of it, a "significant minority" who could be eligible for the vital help still aren't registered, he said.

In fact, recent research from the Vulnerability Registration Service suggests 63% of those who could potentially be eligible are unaware of the service.

Currently, individual suppliers and network companies are required under Ofgem rules to use their own priority services registers to help their customers.

However, with a lack of any universal database, customers with a range of complex needs can find themselves in a bit of a minefield when trying to register for this support.

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Speaking at the Ofgem vulnerability conference earlier this week, Brearley questioned if the current system to manage, track and store information on vulnerable customers is "really fit for the 21st century".

Claiming the industry can "do better", he proposed a joint database of vulnerable people, built by water and energy suppliers, local authorities and central government.

Families of these people in need would only have to get in touch with one agency, and from there, with their permission, all details would be shared across all other agencies, making it far easier to maintain support in the future.

"Winter is fast approaching, and, particularly with the consultations involved, if we want to change things we need to start work now," Brearley added.

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Simon Francis, coordinator of the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, added: "Plans for a coordinated and beefed up Priority Services Register are absolutely the right step forward.

"But as energy industry leaders were warned at the Ofgem vulnerability conference on Monday, this Register needs to ensure there is a broad approach to defining vulnerability.

"This means it includes not just those who have a risk of being cut off from supply, but also includes those who are financially vulnerable, because they can't afford to use the energy they need to keep themselves safe and warm."

What is the Priority Services Register and what help is available?

CHELTENHAM, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 11: Electrical pylons carry electricity cables across fields on March 11, 2023 near Cheltenham, England. The UK government has published documents with plans for Britain should it have to go ‘lights out’ this winter after the National Grid warned there could be blackouts due to the ongoing energy crisis. There are fears that Russian President Vladimir Putin will restrict gas supplies to Europe and although the UK does not rely on Russian energy supply, it does import from electricity and gas from European countries that do. With many consumers already facing a cost of living crisis with sharp rises in their home energy bills, energy black outs look set to compound their misery this winter. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
Under the current system, customers have to apply for the register every time they change providers. (Getty Images)

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The Priority Services Register is a free support service that makes sure extra help is available to people in vulnerable situations.

Individual suppliers could offer varying support services, so it's worth checking to see what is available, but here are the ways most of them can help.

  • Advanced notice of scheduled power cuts – crucial for those who rely on energy for medical reasons

  • Priority support in an emergency

  • Priority support when calling your network operator

  • An identification or password scheme for callers to abide by if they get in touch, to provide reassurance they are genuine

  • Nominee schemes allowing a trusted person to receive communications and bills from suppliers on a customers' behalf

  • Help with prepayment meter access - such as moving a meter if a customer can't safely access it

  • Regular meter reading services for those who are unable to read them themselves

  • Accessible information, such as account details and bills in large print or braille.

  • Help reconnecting your gas supply

How do I sign up?

Until a more universal system is put in place, customers will have to sign up via their own energy suppliers and network operators.

Applicants should provide their contact details and as much information as they can about their needs, Ofgem advises.

It is especially crucial to make sure your network operator knows your requirements if you rely on electricity for medical reasons, to ensure you're notified about any scheduled power cuts.

If you have a different supplier for your gas and electricity, you need to contact them both, and if you switch to a new supplier, you will have to register again.

'1.7 million missing out on support'

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 07: In this photo illustration a prepay electricity key sits in a prepayment electricity meter in a rented home on February 07, 2023 in Birmingham, England. Ofgem has ordered all UK energy companies to suspend the practice of forcibly installing prepayment meters and will report back to the Business Secretary today. (Photo illusttration by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Researchers warn too many families living in fuel poverty are slipping through the cracks. (Getty Images)

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The concern raised by Brearley this week is just one example of people who are potentially missing out on the support they're entitled to.

A recent report commissioned by the Child Poverty Action Group found that 1.7 million households living in severe fuel poverty will miss out on help because they are not registered to receive certain benefits.

For this reason, these people, including 688,000 households with children, will be excluded from the government's new plans to offer targeted help for the most vulnerable, the charity warns.

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The new support package includes a £900 payment for those on means-tested benefits, £300 for pensioners and an extra £150 for disabled people.

However, researchers warn many fuel-poor households, particularly in London, the North East and North West, will still slip through the cracks.

A Department for Energy Security and Net Zero spokesperson said the government's energy price guarantee scheme will continue to help "the vast majority of households" at the same level of support until the end of June, while support for the most vulnerable will be extended.