New rules aim to improve customer service and provide better support for people struggling with bills.
Energy providers must do more to support vulnerable customers and those who are struggling to pay their bills. That's the key message from new rules announced by energy regulator Ofgem.
Under the new regulations, energy firms will have an obligation to support those customers who risk falling into debt with their bills.
Companies will also have to make it easier for people to get in contact with them and provide more flexible payment options, including a priority access line for fuel poverty charities.
Despite a reduction in the energy price cap, the number of people sliding into debt with their payments is rising. Data from a comparison website found that almost one in seven people say they have gone from being in credit with their energy firm a year ago to owing money.
Ofgem's new rules come after an extended consultation period in which they spoke with customers to understand their concerns and how they feel energy companies should be doing more.
The result led to a new set of rules published on 18th October that aimed to improve the support given to vulnerable customers and overall customer service in general.
Firms will be asked to make it easier for customers to contact them. They will have to be open at times customers need them, and make sure they can be contacted by customers' preferred method and that they are open when customers need them, namely outside normal office hours of Monday to Friday 9-5.
Energy companies would also have to provide better support for customers who are struggling to pay their bills. That means prioritising contact from those who are experiencing financial difficulties, being proactive in offering flexible payment options and offering payment holidays when appropriate.
Lastly, they would have to take more general measures to improve customer satisfaction, including publishing their Citizens Advice star rating performance.
The new rules will come into effect from 14th December this year. Energy providers will be expected to implement these changes by then, although Ofgem say they'll be on hand to help any providers who are struggling to meet the deadline.
Reaction from fuel poverty providers has been mixed. A spokesperson for End Fuel Poverty Coalition said, "Thousands of hours of advice time is wasted each year by charities waiting on hold to speak to energy firms about the problems faced by the people they support. We expect energy firms to make good on the promises they made to MPs on the Commons Energy Select Committee before this winter."
Jonathan Barry of Fuel Poverty Action, meanwhile, felt the new measures don't go far enough. He said, "Ofgem's proposals are a weak response to the awful treatment that many customers suffer. Vulnerable people are forced to battle for months, causing enormous harm," he said. "Rather than punishing them for their failures, Ofgem may even allow energy firms to increase their already bloated operating cost allowances."
Ofgem's new rules may be a step in the right direction but with prices continuing to rise thousands of people will be struggling to pay. However, for those who are struggling to pay, there are a number of support options to help you out. Energy grants may also be available for people struggling to pay their bills.
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