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Lack of translation services leaves some energy consumers out in the cold

People working in a call centre.

Understanding the complexities of energy services is an uphill battle when language barriers stand in the way.

Recent research reveals that only two of the UK’s 12 largest energy suppliers offer translation services to customers who need them. This leaves thousands of consumers struggling to communicate their needs, get the support they need from their energy supplier or understand what tariffs they sign up for.

The Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE) believes that this represents a failure by the energy companies to meet the guidelines set out by Ofgem, the regulator. These state that suppliers are required to take steps to meet the accessibility needs of their customers.

CSE calls for better communication standards

According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), around 1.5% of people living in the UK say that they speak English poorly, and 0.3% (around 160,000 of the population) say they don’t speak English at all.
This puts them at a disadvantage when communicating with energy companies. This is especially the case on the phone, where the customer can’t pick up the physical clues that are available in face-to-face communication. For a native English speaker, navigating energy bills and services can be daunting can be difficult; for a non-native speaker, it can feel impossible.

As a consequence, many non-English speakers rely on organisations like the us and Citizens Advice to bridge the gap. But why is it up to already stretched charities to do what energy companies themselves should be doing?

We consider that when it comes to consumer protection, energy companies are something of a special case since it is almost impossible not to use their services. As a consumer, expecting suitable communication channels with your provider isn’t unreasonable.

In particular, consumers need to feel confident that they understand the terms of their contracts that they sign up to.

Charities use limited resources to ensure service users have a better experience

CSE has a diverse workforce and our energy advisors speak nine languages other than English. This means we can advocate effectively for many non-English speakers, but it by no means covers the range of languages spoken in the UK.

Currently, we fund translation services when they’re needed to solve an issue between a consumers and their energy supplier. But this typically adds £50-70 to the cost of a call, putting a huge strain on our resources.

Suppliers can shoulder these costs much more easily and should to ensure that their customers receive the best possible service.

At the moment, Ofgem does not require suppliers to offer translation services. But it’s existing guidance does require energy companies to understand their customer needs and provide adequate services. We would argue that providing translation services is a prerequisite to doing this.

Support provided by CSE to non-English speakers

These real-life stories demonstrate where CSE has provided support that energy suppliers should offer as a matter of course. Names have been changed for privacy.

Mr Kalif

Mr Kalif is a refugee from Somalia. He was living on low income and has post-traumatic stress disorder. Due to a miscommunication when he signed up with a new supplier, he now finds himself £1,700 in debt.

Mr Kalif thought he had signed up for a prepayment account but had in fact signed up for a credit account. Before agreeing to the contract, he had asked for a translator to join the call so he could make sure he had understood everything. But his supplier decided that a translator wasn’t necessary.

When Mr Kalif realised he was being charged monthly he repeatedly called his supplier. Each time he was told the same thing: ignore your bills; your prepayment card will arrive soon; don’t worry about the cost of any energy you use in the meantime.

After six months he’d racked up a debt of £1,700. It was then that he contacted CSE and was only when our caseworker and a translator contacted the energy supplier that we discovered the root of the problem. Mr Kalif would never have used this much energy if he knew he was paying for it. Had the supplier provided a translator as requested, it would have saved him a lot of money, time and stress.

Mr Aziz

Mr Aziz is a Syrian refugee who moved to Bristol with his family, none of whom speak fluent English. His supplier told him he owed £1,350 and his direct debit had been set to £750 per month. Mr Aziz couldn’t understand where this debt had come from as he’d been making regular payments.

One of our caseworkers and a translator took on the case and found that the debt had happened when Mr Aziz changed supplier and an estimated meter reading had been used to set up his new tariff. Mr Aziz decided to pay the debt over the next few months, causing financial hardship.

After Mr Aziz made the final payment, he received another bill for £7,500. Luckily our caseworker could prove to the energy company that the meter was faulty, but without the help of translators we couldn’t have understood from Mr Aziz what was going on, or instruct him to take regular photos of his meter.

There are likely many other households like Mr Kalif and Mr Aziz who can’t understand their bills or resolve other issues with their supplier due to a language barrier.

Share your feedback with Ofgem’s Future Retail Policy Team

Join us in calling on suppliers to provide translators and on Ofgem to add this requirement to suppliers’ code of conduct. If you think energy supplier translation services aren’t adequate, email your stories and evidence to Ofgem:

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