Did you know that over 1.4 million people in the UK are over 85 and that number is projected to triple in the next 30 years? Or that half the UK population born after 1960 is expected to be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lifetime?
Big numbers. Startling numbers.
It really puts it into perspective that – whether its age, disability, illness, bereavement or something else – there are times when we can all find ourselves in circumstances that could make us vulnerable. And it’s at times like those that water and wastewater services may be one of the furthest things from your mind.
But imagine for a second how you’d feel to get a warning letter for non-payment of water bills having just lost a loved one. Or how daunting it is to grapple with the detail of your bill when you are one of the 16 per cent of the population that has a reading age under 11. Or, like 7.1 million adults, how difficult it is to find out who to ring about a water leak if you have never used the internet.
Not a pleasant thought.
Now imagine if you wanted to help. These are such large and complex problems, where would you start? How could you recognise the signs? And when someone is facing some massive changes to their personal circumstances, would they tell you?
These were just some of the issues discussed with more than 90 delegates at our ‘Towards inclusive service for all – Ofwat’s Vulnerability Focus report’ event on 18 February 2016 to launch our report and Practitioners pack – following our affordability and debt report in January. The event also brought together an array of speakers from inside and outside the water sector to help answer the central question: how do we make services inclusive for all?
First the good news.
Water companies are in a strong position to identify and provide support to those customers who find themselves in situations of vulnerability. And the issue of vulnerability is not unique to the water sector, so there are many examples of partnership working, sharing of information and good practice among water companies and in other sectors to draw on.
But here’s the ‘but’.
Water companies need to recognise that ‘vulnerability’ is more about the circumstances that people find themselves in. And labelling people as ‘vulnerable’ can be really damaging itself. It will take leadership from the top and a real change in culture for companies to understand and reflect all customers’ needs into every aspect of the way they plan and deliver services – and to be sensitive enough to pick up on the signs that individual customers may be in circumstances of vulnerability.
It won’t be easy. And it will take time.
At Ofwat, we will be playing our part by challenging water companies to deliver the services their customers want and willing to pay for every day. And that includes customers who are unfortunate enough ever to find themselves in vulnerable circumstances. We want customers – all customers –to be at the centre of everything in the water sector.
Senior Director, Customers and Casework