Social Justice

Vulnerable people face 'mental distress' to get on the priority services register

Many people don't even know it exists. Ofgem is calling for a universal priority services register so vulnerable people don't have to face unnecessary distress

priority services register

People may be able to get on the priority services register if they are elderly, disabled, pregnant or with young children, have mental health conditions or long-term ill health. Image: Unsplash

Vulnerable people face “distress” when trying to get onto priority services registers to ensure they can access emergency help from their energy and water suppliers. Many more are not even aware the service exists. 

The energy regulator Ofgem is calling for better protections for these people with a new universal priority services register across the energy and water sector. 

The current system is that energy companies and other utility services including water have their own database of customers who are considered vulnerable. 

These people can access priority services in an emergency such as hot meals and advance notice of scheduled power cuts, and if necessary a trusted family member can receive bills and deal with the supplier on their behalf.

But only one in three consumers are aware of the Priority Services Register, according to the chief executive of Ofgem Jonathan Brearley. 

“It is time to concentrate our efforts and resources on those who are most vulnerable and who struggle most to get what they need and deserve from our energy system,” he said. 

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Recent research from the Vulnerability Registration Service shows that 63 per cent of vulnerable people, who potentially could be eligible for the service, are not aware it exists.

Helen Lord, the chief executive of the service, said at the time: “It’s being made far too difficult for people who are at their most vulnerable and struggling to cope with day-to-day tasks to find and understand what support they are entitled to.”

Even those who are aware of the priority services register face difficulties when trying to access it. Peter Smith, the director of policy at National Energy Action (NEA), said the current priority services register “fails to capture financial vulnerability in a consistent way”.

“This is resulting in customers having to give the same, often very sensitive, information about their financial circumstances every time they call their supplier,” he said. “This can cause a lot of mental distress and is very time consuming, especially if they are paying for the call or don’t have time to deal with long wait times. 

“Greater consistency and standardising the register’s ability to capture financial vulnerability will help drive up customer engagement and can help support follow-up communications with those who have been signed up to the register to make sure they understand what the priority services register is and what services it can offer.” 

Ofgem’s calls for a universal priority services register would tackle some of these issues. It would be a joint register, not just between water and energy, but include wider sectors and potentially local and national government. It would work in much the same way as data held by the Department for Work and Pensions. 

“Ideally, this joint register would be based around a ‘tell us once’ principle – where families who have vulnerabilities tell one agency about this and, with permission, this is shared across the others with a single, reliable source of data to anticipate, identify and respond to the needs of those customers,” Brearley said.



Campaigners and charities welcomed the calls for a universal priority services register at Ofgem’s vulnerability summit on April 24, but they also warned that more needs to be done to support the most vulnerable. 

“Plans for a coordinated and beefed up priority services register are absolutely the right step forward,” Simon Francis, coordinator of the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, said. “But as energy industry leaders were warned at the Ofgem vulnerability conference today, this register needs to ensure there is a broad approach to defining vulnerability. 

“This means it includes not just those who have a risk of being cut off from supply, but also includes those who are financially vulnerable because they can’t afford to use the energy they need to keep themselves safe and warm.”

NEA is proposing that Ofgem should consider whether existing services for the priority services register should be reviewed or enhanced. 

Suppliers are required to offer free gas safety checks to low-income and vulnerable households, for example, but the volume of these checks has historically been very low. 

This means people are at risk of carbon monoxide exposure, which is particularly worrying for vulnerable people who might be more susceptible to adverse effects because of their age or health. The charity wants free carbon monoxide alarms to be provided to low-income households. 

NEA is also calling for better communications to address barriers for people with mental health issues, literacy and numeracy issues, English as a second language and those with audio and visual impairments. 

Brearley added: “There are complex issues here, both policy and technical. Indeed, this ambition may not be possible, at least in the short run. However, if we can achieve this, my view is that we will much more effectively serve the needs of those who need the most help.”

Disability campaigners are calling for further protections for disabled people.

Mikey Erhardt, Policy and Campaigns Officer at Disability Rights UK said: “Many of us are reliant on electricity for health and mobility-related equipment. Being cut off from the supply would have devastating consequences for our health and well-being. 

We need to see the regulator step up and ensure that disabled people can inform their energy companies about their health and mobility needs for a continuous supply of energy and ensure that their requirements are recorded on Priority Service Registers held by the companies.

“Additionally, disabled people must be able to request reasonable adjustments as required by the law to ensure information, communication and appropriate payment methods are accessible.”

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