We know that affordability is a big concern for all our customers. But those in need require additional support. That’s why no energy supplier goes further than we do to help customers in difficulties. We work systematically to understand our customers’ needs, and to gather insights from them and from expert bodies, so that we can continuously improve our service and develop new ways to make sure all customers are treated fairly, no matter what their circumstances. We’re calling on all suppliers to serve vulnerable customers better.
Finding out who needs our help
We can’t support those customers who need it if we don’t know who they are. So, identifying customers in vulnerable circumstances is a huge challenge for our business and we make it an absolute priority.
Our agents are trained to listen to and recognise the signs of customers who may be falling into financial difficulties or other vulnerable situations. We share credit data with other organisations which helps us to identify external factors which may be affecting customers. We encourage customers to contact us and talk to us for more help. We receive referrals from charities such as StepChange and the Money Advice Trust.
What we do
Once we have identified those who need our help, we have a wide range of tools at our disposal to support them and, most importantly, the experienced and dedicated staff to use them:
- Debt: We have a specialist debt centre, where dedicated advisers proactively call, and take calls from, customers who are having difficulties paying their bills, to see if they can help. In 2016,
- more than 250 British Gas debt employees set up more than 424,000 manageable repayment plans for customers. We have a relationship with the StepChange debt charity, offering a transfer service to provide customers with wider financial advice and support. Since 2013, we’ve referred over 13,500 customers directly to StepChange.
- British Gas Energy Trust (BGET): This is our own charity which offers grants to help clear energy debts and pay for new appliances, as well as funding debt advice in local communities for those harder-to-reach customers. We have donated over £106 million to BGET since it was established in 2004, and in 2016 the trust provided more than 13,500 grants. The trust also gives debt relief grants and awards to non-British Gas customers, and it funds a nationwide network of debt advisers embedded in organisations including Shelter and Citizens Advice.
- Warm Home Discount: This is a Governmentmandated scheme which provides rebates of £140 a year to customers on certain benefits. We have some of the broadest eligibility criteria in the industry and last winter (2016/17) more than 650,000 of our customers received the discount. Our Warm Home Discount Broader Group reaches a wide range of customers at risk of financial hardship and helps to relieve some of the pressures of winter fuel costs. We also proactively offer energy efficiency advice and have improved thousands of homes through our ECO (Energy Company Obligation) programme.
- Priority services: We have nearly 2.3 million households on our Priority Services Register, which offers additional help for people of pensionable age, disabled or chronically ill customers. That’s an increase of over 350,000 households in 2016. This increase is partly due to better awareness among our agents of customers in vulnerable situations, together with other programmes such as Dementia Friends and our growing number of referral partnerships.
- Prices and bills: When we increased our prices, we protected our most vulnerable customers, crediting their accounts with the increase. We offer a range of payment options such as direct debit, pay-as-you-go (PAYGE) meters and magnetic cards. We can support customers who fall into difficulties with a PAYGE meter by offering discretionary credit or fuel vouchers to ensure they stay on supply. This is growing due to the roll out of Universal Credit.
- Low consumption standing charge rebate: In 2014 Ofgem granted us the ability to rebate the standing charge to gas customers on low incomes who consume low volumes of gas. In the two years we have completed so far, we have rebated £5 million to 53,000 customers, and the third year of this programme is underway.
The Dementia Challenge
Dementia is a huge issue for our customers. Over 850,000 people live with dementia in Britain today. We estimate that at least 100,000 British Gas customers are living alone in their own homes with dementia, and a further 100,000 are living in the community with other people, many of whom have chronic health conditions including dementia. In 2015 we therefore decided to accept an invitation from the Prime Minister’s Dementia Challenge Group and become one of 10 leading companies committed to modelling what it means to be fully dementia friendly.
As part of this, we created a bespoke Dementia Friends module for British Gas, working with the Alzheimer’s Society in England and Wales and with Alzheimer Scotland. To date over 20,000 of our people have become Dementia Friends. As a result of our work in this area we were asked by the Prime Minister’s Dementia Challenge Group to lead the creation of best practice guidelines for the whole of the utility sector, including water and telecoms as well as energy.
Leading the industry
In 2014 we adopted a company-wide definition of vulnerability which aligns with those of Ofgem and the Financial Conduct Authority. It says: “A customer is vulnerable if, due to their personal circumstances, they may be unable to safeguard their personal welfare or that of other household members”. This recognises that customers can be vulnerable for temporary reasons as well as age, health or disability.
In May 2017, British Gas achieved verification from the British Standards Institution for meeting its requirements to ensure that inclusive services are accessible to all customers equally, regardless of their circumstances. Citizens Advice announced that it will use this standard as the measure of how seriously energy suppliers take vulnerability. BSI has asked us to be the energy supplier representative on its working group on turning the standard into a fullyfledged kitemark.
Many other suppliers do not provide the sort of help that we do for those who need it. But we believe that supporting vulnerable customers is not an optional extra. It is a moral, social and commercial obligation. Energy suppliers cannot opt out. All suppliers must demonstrate that they can serve those who are most in need, with no exemptions. In fact, this is part of every supplier’s operating licence conditions and it should be properly enforced. In addition, we ask Ofgem to agree a more sophisticated way of identifying vulnerable customers so that help is focused on those who need it.