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UK energy providers will set up special phone lines for vulnerable households

Photo by Ian Sanderson on Unsplash

Energy suppliers will be forced to offer vulnerable households dedicated phone lines in a drive by the regulator Ofgem to improve poor treatment of the most disadvantaged customers.

The regulator is planning a crackdown on suppliers’ conduct after a slump in customer service during the energy crisis with long call waiting times and difficulty contacting companies.

Ofgem will today launch a consultation on methods to improve their service, the Guardian has learned, and the regulator wants to see improvements in place ahead of next winter.

Among the measures it is considering is a new rule requiring suppliers to display customer service data from a third party prominently on their websites.

The measures are Ofgem’s response to the scandal over the forced installation of prepayment meters. The practice was banned earlier this year after it emerged that debt agents for British Gas had allegedly ignored signs of vulnerability to install the meters. Ofgem later announced new rules on their installation, and the ban remains in place.

Its research, conducted with Citizens Advice, has shown that retail customer satisfaction fell from 74% at the end of 2018 to 66% by the end of 2022.

The industry has been stretched by a crisis, which began after the pandemic in 2021 and was exacerbated by the invasion of Ukraine, and has seen nearly 30 energy suppliers fail.

Ofgem wants suppliers to quickly offer advice and default payment plans for households struggling to pay bills, and it wants to prevent suppliers demanding minimum repayments when customers fall behind.

Those in vulnerable circumstances are struggling to get through to their supplier quickly enough, Ofgem has found, and it wants companies to offer them a dedicated hotline.

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The regulator hopes to create new universal standards to protect consumers and beef up its own monitoring of customer service to become more proactive.

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