Almost everyone will need some degree of help and support at some point in their lives.

For some, this will be a situation that passes soon, a short-term problem yet one you may struggle to get through without a little help. For others, the support needed is long-term or required for life.

As the cost-of-living crisis has highlighted, businesses and other organisations are supposed to identify people who may need more help and support and offer them practical, realistic solutions to get by and afford their bills. We often hear the term ‘vulnerable’ mentioned in this context. But what does that mean? Does it apply to you or someone you know? And what help is available?

I’m going to answer those questions in this column. But for me, this subject is deeply personal. This is why.

Christine and Evie’s story

My sister Christine is a full-time carer for my niece, Evie (10 years old). Evie has a life-limiting condition that requires full-time, 24-hour care. I’m a proud uncle, it goes without saying and I adore the time I get to spend with my niece. We want Evie to have the fullest quality of life she can. But that requires support – not just for practical things, like education and the cost of her care itself.  But assistance with higher than average bills for necessities like utilities bills. It is a constant battle.

This is because though Government guidance, rules, regulations and laws are already in place to help people who are more vulnerable, they are not always followed, or applied correctly or effectively.

Take energy bills. Evie’s care relies on a greater consumption of energy, from heating to making the machines that improve the quality of her life run. I know from my sister’s experience – and thousands of other people in her position – that though these higher energy bills are supposed to be addressed by energy companies, often the help evaporates, leads to massive debts or does not address the underlying problem.

In order to effectively help in these situations, businesses need to dramatically up their game.

Who is considered to be vulnerable

There’s no definitive definition of vulnerability, which explains why the help that’s offered to people can vary so much. But the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) have a pretty good overview, saying on their website that a vulnerable person is “Someone who, due to their personal circumstances, is especially susceptible to harm, particularly when a firm is not acting with appropriate levels of care”.

As a very general rule, vulnerability can be sometimes be related to things that you might receive benefits, Government support or other assistance for. This includes:

  • People with disabilities
  • Carers
  • Older people
  • People with health issues that prevent them from working
  • Unemployed people

However, this is a very blunt tool as it reduces people’s needs to very specific categories, which means businesses run the risk of failing to help anyone outside of these definitions.

In addition, not everyone in these categories may want or need extra help or support. Others may not want to discuss things like their health or personal circumstances.

I spoke to my fellow TV expert, Caroline Wells, who advises businesses on how to recognise and support vulnerable people, to get a broader definition. Caroline suggests the following categories are more all-encompassing:

  • Ongoing health conditions
  • Social exclusion
  • Financial resilience
  • Unexpected events

Financial resilience and the ability to cope (or not) with unexpected events are essential markers of vulnerability – especially as we face the problems posed by the cost-of-living crisis. Huge numbers of people don’t qualify for benefits, work full time or might seem to be getting by. But if you have less money coming in each month than you do going out, or you are scraping by but can’t afford any unexpected costs, then you meet the definition of ‘financial difficulties’. And that means businesses have to come up with tailored solutions to help you through these challenging times.

What help and support can vulnerable people expect

As a general rule, if a business sector is regulated they have obligations to help and support their customers if they are vulnerable or in financial difficulties.

I’ve spoken to all of the main regulators about this subject over the last year and all have detailed rules, guides and instructions for businesses that cover the various support options that should be made available to people who may need them.

It’s good to have these guides handy when dealing with a lender, or an energy company, for example. Knowing your rights makes it easier to push back if the person you speak to isn’t helping.

Not all the help that’s around is obvious or easy to find though. For example, if you receive benefits then you could qualify for a broadband deal of just £10 a month. Or if you can’t afford your water bill, there’s the possibility of going on a reduced tariff, even if you have a smart water meter billing you for your actual water consumption.

The Priority Services Register and StepChange

The Priority Services Register (PSR) is a free services that helps utility companies identify and support vulnerable people. The PSR covers gas, electricity and water businesses. It’s really easy to join and the range of support options – from 24 telephone numbers to emergency services – is fantastic. Sign up here.

Let’s not forget the fantastic free debt charity, StepChange. As I’ve often mentioned, StepChange can step in and come up with a simple debt management plan for you, will negotiate affordable payments with the people you owe money to and can give you other advice and tips to get back on top of your finances.

Charities and consumer organisations

Supporting people who are vulnerable isn’t just about reducing bills, though that’s the main priority at the moment. It also involves how businesses adapt their services so they are accessible to everyone. That means ensuring they communicate with you through an appropriate method. It means adapting their services to support your needs. And it means having trained staff available who can help you if you need it.

However, if you’ve tried to contact certain businesses lately will know that simply getting to speak to a human can be something of a challenge. The good news is regulators seem to be clamping down on these lax levels of service. Both the FCA and Ofgem have introduced new rules recently that compel businesses to be much more ‘contactable’, to proactively recognise and support people who are vulnerable and to get better at sorting out complaints. We’ll see how that goes…

In the meantime, there are some frankly amazing charities and consumer organisations that have excellent guides to benefits, grants and support. There are just a few here:

I’d point out that it’s nearly Christmas, so if you can afford it, show a charity that matters to you some love. When people fall through the cracks, they are the often the only services left that can offer some help.

Why vulnerable people aren’t getting the support they need

Despite this vast array of support options, grants and regulatory requirements, far too many people are failing to get the help they are entitled to when they contact businesses and explain their situations.

Caroline Wells told me, “If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that life happens, and things can happen to any of us at any time that will knock us clean off our feet – even for those of us who think we’ve been smart and have everything covered.

And, when those things come along and make things difficult for us (and they will, we just don’t always know when, what or how), consumers need the businesses and organisations they have to talk to have flexible products and services with the realities of life in mind, and to have well-trained and empowered colleagues who are there and ready to help. “

To take a look at just one sector, energy bills – along with housing costs – are the single biggest concerns for people throughout the UK at the moment. Yet energy firms are expected to be much more proactive about the help that they offer than many are being.

James Taylor, Director of Strategy at disability equality charity Scope, told me: “Businesses should be in regular contact with their disabled customers. They have smart meter and other data and know instantly when disabled customers are in debt – and should be offering them options of support. Customer service staff need to have better training to know how to work with disabled people and give the right support at the right time.

“We all need to understand that life costs more if you are disabled, and many don’t have the option of turning off live-saving equipment to save money. We’d like utility companies and government to recognise that while we have social tariffs for water and broadband it’s time that during in a cost-of-living crisis we had one for energy as well”.

I’m particularly worried by recent research that suggests up to 8 million people might be forced to borrow to pay their bills this Winter. Getting in to more debt is not the answer to this situation. So not only to businesses need to take a much more active and decisive role in supporting vulnerable people. The Government needs to recognise that millions of people are now classed as vulnerable – and the only way to effectively help them is to come up with wide-ranging and potentially challenging solutions if this crisis is going to be averted.

Featured in Times Money Mentor – Martyn James

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