Consumer vulnerability

What is consumer vulnerability?

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:

  • People may suffer financial detriment, for example if they are a victim of mis-selling or if they are unable to access the best deals
  • They may become isolated if they are unable to keep in touch with family and friends
  • They may not be able to participate as fully in society as they would wish.

Legal framework

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:

  • Ensuring that communication providers offer services for disabled consumers such as text relay for deaf people, free directory enquiries for blind people and priority fault repair for people who depend on the phone because of disability
  • Ensuring the provision of subtitling, sign language and audio description on television, so that people with hearing or visual impairments can understand and enjoy television.
  • Requiring (under the Universal Service Obligation) consumers to be given connection to landline telephone services on reasonable request at uniform prices, irrespective of geographical location
  • Requiring social tariffs to be available for people on low incomes.
  • Penalising companies guilty of making silent and abandoned calls

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.

Anyone can experience vulnerable circumstances

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:

  • Public call boxes are useful for people without a mobile phone or whose phone has been stolen, who have run out of credit or have no mobile signal
  • Emergency calls are free, so citizens can call 999 or 112 without cash or to have credit on a prepay mobile. Consumers whose line has been restricted for non-payment can still call 999 or 112
  • Mobile 999 or 112 calls benefit from Limited Service State (‘roaming’), meaning that people can call the emergency services over other available mobile networks when out of range of their home network.
  • Deaf and speech-impaired people can use text relay or emergency SMS to call 999 or 112.

Other examples of our work ensuring the participation and protection of vulnerable people include:

  • Ofcom’s code and guidance on providers’ complaints handling sets particular requirements in respect of disabled consumers and also makes clear that a reasonable complaints escalation process should include procedures for frontline staff to identify and treat appropriately complaints from consumers ‘that are vulnerable in any way’.
  • Our guidance on fixed line mis-selling regulation states that it would be inappropriate for sales representatives to take advantage of vulnerable customers – we give the examples of those who are elderly or whose first language is not English. Ofcom has taken enforcement action against a provider found to have failed to protect vulnerable customers.
  • In broadcasting, enforcement activity has a particular focus on potential harm affecting vulnerable consumers, including children.
  • In carrying out our work on nuisance calls, we are mindful that certain groups of consumers may be more vulnerable to nuisance calls and, in appropriate cases, we seek to take this into account in our work. We have published an Easy Read guide to dealing with nuisance calls.
  • We are doing policy work on the affordability of essential services, including work on debt and disconnection. We previously published a report on the affordability of postal services
  • Our media literary research is a vehicle to enable stakeholders to target their resources effectively, using our research as a core source of information about the changing media landscape and the relative levels of participation among particular demographic groups.

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.

Consumer Interest Toolkit

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.

Organisational ownership of consumer vulnerability within Ofcom

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.

External linkages

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.