Some people’s ability to participate in communications markets and society is affected by factors such as their age, disability, income or geographical location. Life events such as bereavement or illness can temporarily reduce people’s ability to participate in society and/or increase their dependence on certain communications services.
Vulnerability is about people’s circumstances, which can change over time. In relation to communications, it can have a range of negative consequences:
Ofcom has specific duties under the Communications Act to take account of particular groups of citizens and consumers who may be vulnerable to harm. These include the requirement for Ofcom to have regard to the needs and interests of those who are disabled, elderly, on low incomes or living in rural areas, as well as to the vulnerability of any others whose circumstances appear to put them in need of special protection. Examples of where Ofcom has intervened to promote participation and address consumer vulnerability of such consumers include:
Ofcom also has a duty to promote media literacy under Section 11 of the Communications Act 2003, and carries this out predominantly through research that addresses, among other areas, the differences in media use and attitudes by age and socio-economic group, highlighting to stakeholders where they might how best target their resources.
In regulating in the interests of consumers and citizens, Ofcom needs to have regard to the needs of all people in vulnerable circumstances. Anyone can be temporarily vulnerable to harm, for example after an accident or in an emergency. Ofcom requires a range of measures to ensure that no one is prevented from making an emergency call because of their circumstances:
Other examples of our work ensuring the participation and protection of vulnerable people include:
We have also taken steps to benefit vulnerable people in areas related to direct regulatory powers. For example, we published information in response to complaints from deaf people that banks and other service providers had refused to accept calls via text relay. Ofcom does not regulate banks and therefore cannot instruct them to accept these calls, but has published relevant advice from the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Information Commissioner about why these calls should not be refused.
To ensure that we identify and take account of consumer vulnerability creating a barrier to participation or a risk of harm, we collect and analyse data about complaints to our contact centre. However, we recognise that people whose circumstances make them vulnerable may be unwilling or unable to complain. Ofcom carries out research designed to increase our understanding of consumer vulnerability (for example, we have produced Consumer Experience reports on the ownership of communications services among disabled consumers), and we also engage with a range of stakeholder organisations to understand these issues better and to identify areas for possible intervention.
The Consumer Interest Toolkit, which was developed by the Communications Consumer Panel and adopted by Ofcom, helps ensure that consumer interests are taken into account in regulatory policy development and implementation. The Toolkit has a number of references to vulnerable consumers and to Ofcom’s duty to consider the interests of citizens as well as consumers. As the Toolkit says, markets may work to someone’s disadvantage for reasons that do not necessarily stem from their ability to have access to a particular good or service at a reasonable price. Such ‘citizen’ issues might include the need for Ofcom to consider the position of vulnerable people in the context of digital TV switchover or the ability to call the emergency services.
To define consumer interests in line with the Toolkit, Ofcom must take account of the fact that consumer needs vary widely, both between different consumers and also at different times. For Ofcom projects, detailed assessments of whether consumers are vulnerable to harm is undertaken. This includes any vulnerability that the project seeks to rectify, and also potential future harm, either as a consequence of the proposed policy change or as a result of not making the change.
To promote and ensure effective co-ordination of Ofcom’s work on participation and vulnerability, relevant colleagues from across the organisation meet quarterly in the Participation and Vulnerability Coordination Group, chaired by the Director of Consumer Policy. This group reviews Ofcom’s work in these areas, ensures linkages to other policy projects are managed, and discusses ways in which it can be taken forward. Our objective is to ensure that these issues are embedded in Ofcom’s thinking.
In order to improve our knowledge and understanding of consumer vulnerability we engage with consumer groups and other regulators. Ofcom is an affiliate member of the Essential Services Action Network (ESAN). ESAN’s purpose is to seek to ensure that essential services meet the needs of consumers, particularly those in vulnerable circumstances.
We have engaged fully with research into consumer vulnerability that is being carried out by the Centre for Consumers and Essential Services at the University of Leicester on behalf of Consumer Futures.