Protection if you are vulnerable or in a vulnerable situation
Vulnerability is complex, can be transient and is caused by a combination of factors, including personal characteristics and unique environmental circumstances. It can be temporary or permanent. Vulnerable customers are at particular risk of being treated unfairly, exploited or financially abused. Individual circumstances can vary, and people may move in and out of vulnerable categories, or be vulnerable under more than one heading. In recent years, regulators of the energy sector have increased their focus on principles-based regulation, ensuring that suppliers pay attention to the needs to vulnerable consumers. In doing so, greater obligations under licencing conditions have been introduced that offer vulnerable people further protections, and these should be raised with suppliers.
Ofgem defines vulnerability as when your circumstances and characteristics combine with aspects of the market to create situations where you are:1Ofgem, Consumer Vulnerability Strategy, October 2019; Ofgem, Consumer Vulnerability Strategy, 4 July 2013
- significantly less able than a typical consumer to protect or represent your own interests; and/or
- significantly more likely to experience detriment, or for that detriment to be more substantial.
Ofgem further takes into account the needs of people of pensionable age, those with a disability or chronic sickness, on low incomes and those living in rural areas.2Ofgem, Consumer Vulnerability Strategy, 4 July 2013 Statute also expects suppliers to consider the specific needs of other groups of consumers.3s3A (3) EA 1989; s4AA (3) GA 1986 Energy UK defines a customer as vulnerable if, for reason of age, health, disability or severe financial insecurity, s/he is unable to safeguard her/his personal welfare or the personal welfare of the household.4Energy UK, The Energy UK Safety Net: Protecting Vulnerable Customers from Disconnection, February 2016 Potentially, vulnerable categories also include those listed in paragraph 77 of Taking Control of Goods: National Standards (see Appendix 3) as well as those included under SLCs 27 and 28B (see here). Suppliers may also have their own definitions and codes of practice which you should consider before contacting them. Under the Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Act 2007, a vulnerable customer is defined as one whom a consumer advocacy body to which a complaint is referred is satisfied that it is not reasonable to expect to be able to pursue the complaint on her/his own behalf (see Chapter 14).5s12(2) Consumers Estate Agents and Redress Act 2007 The National Audit Office defines vulnerable people with characteristics or circumstances which can impair their ability to engage with or benefit from different services.6National Audit Office, Vulnerable Customers in regulated industries, 31 March 2017
Ofgem further recognises that vulnerability is transient and a number of characteristics and situations can exacerbate vulnerability and risk detriment, including:7Ofgem, Consumer Vulnerability Strategy 2025, October 2019
•living with physical or mental health conditions;
•literacy or numeracy difficulties;
•English as a second language;
•being on a low income or unemployed;
•being a lone parent;
•being a full-time carer;
•experiencing relationship breakdown;
•living in private rented accommodation;
•having a certain meter type – eg, prepayment or dynamic tele-switching meter.
If you fit within the definitions of a vulnerable consumer, you are likely to get one of the following benefits:
•disability living allowance;
•employment and support allowance;
•income support (IS);
•IS with disability premium;
•income-based jobseeker’s allowance;
•retirement state pension;
•personal independence payment (or, in Scotland, adult disability payment);
If you are entitled to such benefits but there has been a problem with your claim or your benefit has been sanctioned or suspended, quote these provisions in initial correspondence with a supplier.
Are you in a vulnerable circumstance?
Typical examples of you being in a vulnerable circumstance include the following.
- You are a carer for a sick, disabled or elderly person.
- You are dependent on medical equipment or machinery that is operated or maintained by electricity – eg, dialysis machine, feeding pump, stair lift, electric ventilators, oxygen concentrator or refrigerated medicine.
- You have a mental health or a developmental condition.
- You have no recourse to public funds and have inadequate means and capital.
- You are unable to communicate in English.
- You have recently faced life-changing events, such as a redundancy, bereavement or relationship breakdown.
- A support worker, care co-ordinator, social worker, health visitor or physician has indicated that a member of the household may be vulnerable.
If the supplier does not respond properly to the information about vulnerability, ignores information it holds, or if there is delay, you should consider raising a formal complaint, particularly as there is a potential breach of licence conditions. Also inform Citizens Advice consumer service, which may refer you to the Extra Help Unit (see here).