Energy firms accused of failing struggling customers ahead of 'challenging winter'

energy A homeowner turns down the temperature of a central heating thermostat in Basingstoke, Hampshire. Ofgem is expected to announce that the energy price cap is to rise by 50 percent because of soaring wholesale gas prices, meaning the average bill could hit �1,915. Picture date: Thursday February 3, 2022.
UK energy suppliers are failing vulnerable customers, says Ofgem. Photo: PA (PA)

Energy companies are failing vulnerable customers, Britain’s energy watchdog said, as people face a cold and costly winter.

Ofgem said failings included customers missing out on free gas safety checks, vulnerable customers not being offered the support they need, and ensuring those on prepayment meters are identified and supported.

Regulator Ofgem said that a review had identified “severe weaknesses” at five suppliers: Good Energy, Outfox, SO Energy, Tru Energy and Utilita.

It comes as all 17 suppliers who submitted data to the regulator were told they had to improve their practices.

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The regulator said some of the worst examples of poor practice included suppliers failing to read the meters of customers who could not do so themselves.

It also found that some vulnerable customers were unable to contact their supplier to top up their meter or to request support credit.

“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.

Ofgem’s director of Retail Neil Lawrence 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.

“We welcome the cooperation from suppliers and action taken so far, and, although we are seeing some very good practice in parts of the industry, we can see there is still much more to be done.”

He said that “most suppliers” take their responsibility to protect vulnerable customers seriously and that they have launched many new initiatives.

But despite some improvement, he said: “We’ve seen a number of failings across the board which need to be urgently addressed.

“It’s going to be a very challenging winter for everyone and customers must be confident they are getting the help and support they need.

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“My message to suppliers today is simple – be proactive. Help your customers to know what support is available, and then deliver it.”

It is Ofgem's third review into various aspects of suppliers' treatment of customers. The first demanded action on soaring direct debit demands and the second found more help was needed on payment plans for those struggling to pay.

Rocio Concha, Which? director of policy and advocacy, said: “It’s hugely concerning to see Ofgem has found that so many energy firms are falling short on the support they provide to their most vulnerable customers.

“Energy firms must urgently up their game and do everything they can to support their customers through this crisis, especially those most in need.”

This Thursday, the energy regulator will announce the energy price cap level coming into play on 1st January.

Watch: Why are gas prices rising?