PN 03/16 Many water customers in situations of vulnerability don’t get the help they need - new report finds

  • Sector needs to understand and respond to all customers and help those who ‘suffer in silence’ by offering an inclusive service for all
  • Report challenges sector to move beyond ‘vulnerable customer’ labels
  • Support crucial to tackling bad debt problem which adds £21 to every bill
  • Despite a 69 per cent increase in those signing up to major support schemes, over four years, many more customers are likely to need support

A new report from Ofwat shows that there has been a big increase in support for water customers who are potentially in circumstances that make them vulnerable, yet the sector still has a long way to go to meet customers’ needs.

The research, published today, shows that company performance is mixed when it comes to offering effective and inclusive support. Ofwat is challenging companies to understand the circumstances of their customers and better tailor support. This approach is essential to good company performance and benefits everyone, as unpaid bills are an increasing problem, and currently cost every water customer around £21 on their bill.

The report shows that vulnerability can take many forms. It could relate to age, numeracy or digital literacy, a change in circumstances such as losing a job, or the effect of financial strain on mental or physical health. As people can move in and out of circumstances of vulnerability, companies should focus on understanding all customers, and not simply equate vulnerability with certain types of people such as the elderly or those on benefits.

Half a million customers in England and Wales have signed up for major schemes which target those who are either struggling to pay their bill or in a position of vulnerability – an increase of 69 per cent over four years.2 Yet the number of customers requiring targeted support is likely to be much larger, as the research shows that those in a position of vulnerability are often unlikely to reach out for support. This could be because of feelings of shame, denial or helplessness, or they may be struggling to find and use the right information to access help.

Cathryn Ross, Ofwat Chief Executive, said:

“Customers who find themselves in circumstances that cause them to be vulnerable often don’t get the support they need and sometimes don’t know how to ask. Today’s report shows it’s absolutely essential water companies don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach, and actively understand and respond to each customer’s specific needs.

“We are giving companies a clear message to focus on what their customers want rather than ticking regulatory boxes. There has been good progress, but there is still a long way to go. Many customers don’t get the help they need as they suffer in silence.

“Getting better at dealing with this issue is not only the right thing to do, but will benefit everyone as it will bring down the costs associated with unpaid bills. The single most important thing that companies can do is get to know their customers and understand their circumstances. They can then target services appropriately and build customer trust and confidence.”

Ofwat’s report says that in order for companies to be able to better identify and target support at customers in circumstances that make them vulnerable, the sector needs to:

  • aspire to provide inclusive and excellent service to all customers;
  • use data effectively; and
  • work more closely with other utilities and organisations.

It suggests that the range and quality of support available varies, and highlights examples of good practice, such as:

  • Wessex Water working with charities to train call centre staff to identify signs of mental health problems or financial difficulties;
  • Southern Water using specialist advisers to visit 14000 homes to talk to customers in person and help them access support;
  • Welsh Water creating links to the Welsh Government’s energy efficiency scheme, so that when energy assessments happen, if a customer might also need help with water payments, they are directed to Welsh Water; and
  • Yorkshire Water targeting and helping customers in debt through the effective use of credit agency information.


Notes for Editors

  1. The Water Services Regulation Authority (Ofwat) is the economic regulator of water and sewerage companies in England and Wales. Its role is to help the sector build trust and confidence with customers and wider society. It exercises its powers in a way that it judges will protect the interests of consumers, promote value and safeguard future resilient water and sewerage services by allowing efficient companies to carry out their functions properly, and finance them.
  2. Between 2011/12 and 2014/2015, the number of customers signing up for major schemes affordability or vulnerability schemes rose from around 295,000 to 500,000. This takes account of the average number of customers on three separate measures. These are the:


  • WaterSure tariff – lower bills for customers who receive certain benefits and have either three or more children, or have someone living in the household who has a medical condition that may require high water use
  • Social tariff – reduced charges for individuals who would otherwise have difficulty paying their water bills
  • Special assistance register – customers can sign up to this register so companies can tailor specific support to them. This could include customers with sight problems, who are deaf, wheelchair users, home users of a dialysis machine, or who may be vulnerable to bogus callers.
  1. Media enquiries to Ofwat Press Office on: Benedict Fisher 0121 644 7642 / [email protected]