It was 2020 when I last attended the Consumer Vulnerability conference in person in Birmingham, just prior to the pandemic. Back then I had only just become Director of Fuel Poverty for Groundwork. Our Green Doctor service was busy but in February we were looking forward to a period of ease in our service as the summer was edging closer.

That of course never happened as the Pandemic hit and since then it’s been a never ending period of overwhelming crisis – energy customers calling us for support and advice. Initially during the pandemic this felt like an interim period to help people access top up meters and emergency credit while they were self-isolating and at increased vulnerability.

As time has gone on the economic situation has worsened. Energy prices in October 2021 were unprecedently high and now 12 months later they’re now double even that figure. So even with the new Energy plan announcement we’re now accepting that the period of overwhelming crisis has become the norm.

So, 2 years later to be sat in a room with the same organisations what were the key messages being addressed?

To be honest, I was more than disappointed to hear the priorities hadn’t changed. And that’s not because the number of people classed as vulnerable has increased (which it has) or that now middle income households are now also struggling (which they are). No, it was because in the interim nothing seems to have moved on. It could still be early 2020.

The key messages from speakers were:

  • The Energy Distribution Network Operators are still trying to reach potentially vulnerable customers to get them signed up to the Priority Services Register
  • There was a huge focus on data and sharing of data, to be the saviour of all the problems when it came to supporting the vulnerable.  There was not much conversation of what that support might be.
  • Octopus Energy were a notable exception to this as they recognised that data was merely a start and that training their staff to understand vulnerability and its complexities was crucial, as is treating people as individuals not statistics.
  • The new Energy Plan is a great start to help people, but a social tariff is still needed to help the vulnerable – given that prices are already too high for them. A social tariff also needs to consider middle income households who are also now struggling.
  • There was a brief recognition that collection of data is easy, sharing of it is possible with data sharing agreements, but acting on it is complex. There was little discussion about how this could be improved.
  • Complex barriers of the various energy, water and power distribution companies is a barrier to aligning data sharing and funding priorities.

The Priority Services Register (PSR) panel provided what I thought was the most insightful conversation. The Priority Services Register is a series of databases held by energy and water companies that people can sign up to if they feel they might be vulnerable. It provides advance notice of power cuts, priority support in emergencies, help with prepayment access, gas safety checks as well as other support required by the regulators Ofgem and Ofwat.

  • Paul Fuller Executive Director of Scope provided a fantastic insight as a blind individual. He noted that the Priority Services Register has existed since 1999 and when he first lost his sight, despite having an already vulnerable mother, he didn’t know the PSR existed.
  • Paul noted that in the 20 years since the PSR was created 50% of people who are eligible for it aren’t aware it exists.
  • Kerry Potter, from SGN noted that people are only driven to sign up for the PSR at a time of crisis when they suddenly recognise themselves as vulnerable, such as during a power cut. As such SGN prioritise partnerships with third sector agencies as a way to reach those who might be in need, to get past that barrier people have as seeing themselves as ‘vulnerable’.
  • There was also a recognition that the PSR needs to provide customers with something more than just regulatory obligations, a way of incentivising people to sign up.
  • There was unanimous agreement that a centralised PSR needs to exist. It was also noted that this needs to take into account the health and charitable sectors who might be better able to reach vulnerable households and they therefore need engaging in the conversation about its creation.

It was a great conference for bringing key individuals together to discuss issues. However it left me wondering how much will change and how quickly.

  • Is one of the issue to progress that those with the data and the ability to help the vulnerable are profit making companies, who obviously don’t prioritise altruistic aims without a regulator pushing them to.
  • Data as the solution was one of the key messages in 2020. When will streamlining of the PSR’s be finally taken centrally, so that the priority can be on what is done to help those who are vulnerable.
  • It was great to hear the recognition that misaligned funding streams are part of the problem and an agreement that central pot would address many of the issues of providing a better coordinated service to the vulnerable. But again there was no discussion about how this might come about.

I hope I don’t have to wait till next year’s conference to find out if progress is being made.

Emily Thompson is the Fuel Poverty & Climate Change Director at Groundwork

September 2022