The UK Regulators are committed to ensuring consumers in vulnerable circumstances receive the support they need from providers of essential services.

To this end, we came together at Money and Mental Health Policy Institute with various consumer bodies at the start of this month for a roundtable exploring new qualitative and quantitative research on consumers with mental health problems, their experience of regulatory markets, and regulatory approaches to addressing these.

We agreed to continue to work together through our UKRN Vulnerability Network. We will consider common challenges and share best practice from across sectors on raising the standard of services for consumers with mental health problems.

You can find a note of the event below:

Note of UK Regulators Network / Money and Mental Health joint breakfast roundtable

1 November 2017, held at Money and Mental Health, Kingsway. Speakers followed by roundtable discussion:

Katie Evans, Head of Policy, Money and Mental Health

Money and Mental Health’s latest research showed that:

  • One in four people experience a mental health problem in their lifetime.
  • Having a mental health condition affects an individual’s ability navigate essential services. It can impact how people choose, use and pay for services as well as their motivation to engage; 82% of those surveyed found the thought of switching and shopping around exhausting.
  • A low percentage of people have disclosed their mental health problems to their service provider, but even fewer numbers are offered additional support.

This can result in significant harm; despite on average having lower incomes, consumers with health problems are likely to pay more for services (23% in problem debt, compared to 8% of rest of the population).

Jo Hill, Director, Market Intelligence and Data Analysis, Financial Conduct Authority, FCA

The FCA’s 2017 mission includes a commitment to prioritise vulnerable consumers. Part of this involves better understanding the experience of vulnerable consumers; the recently published Financial Lives Survey looks at individuals’ interactions with and trust in the service providers across the range of financial products they consume. Notably five percent of UK adults have a long-term physical or mental health condition that may limit their day to day activities over more than a year.

The FCA is playing a convening role for industry, to break the cycle of negative experiences for people facing these difficulties. The FCA’s Tech Sprint brought together tech experts to innovate and develop apps and widgets to address such challenges. Jo highlighted how inclusive design and small adjustments to processes can make a big difference.

Neil Buckley, Chief Executive, Legal Services Board (LSB)

Legal services could be considered a “distress purchase”; something required in negative circumstances such as a dispute, divorce or death. LSB’s recent research revealed;

  • Very few people disclose their mental health problems to their legal provider. In turn, legal providers rarely ask questions of their clients that open up this conversation.
  • individuals with mental health problems value cost transparency – for ease of understanding
  • The importance of clients feeling they have been listened to, can understand, ask questions through simple actions such as being given written advice to enable them to consider in their own time.

To address this, LSB have created two factsheets and is working with both smaller and larger legal firms, to highlight how improving practices to help those with mental health problems can improve the experiences of all customers.

Matthew Vaughn Wilson, Money Advice Trust / Essential Services Access Network

Money Advice Trust (MAT) provides a free advice line and online support to those in debt. Their work shows that the experiences of those with mental health problems and with debt are similar, and often overlap. MAT have produced a factsheet with Money and Mental Health for individuals in need. Matthew stressed that regulators’ public stances are important – statements by regulators on what consumers should be able to expect enable MAT to equip consumers in their conversations with companies.

A roundtable discussion with participants raised the following key themes:

Some companies are leading the way; regulators and companies can draw and build upon existing tools and good practice

Some financial service firms are leading the way, setting out what customers can expect when they disclose their mental health problems. Specialist teams, trained to deal with a range of needs and not subject to call targets are used by some larger companies. Participants discussed the challenge of enabling smaller providers of essential services to be able to provide high quality support; given that 1 in 4 people face challenges with mental health, this is not a group that should be considered ‘too expensive to serve’. A range existing resources from consumer bodies offering tools and advice to companies were highlighted during the discussion; for example, Money Advice Trust’s ‘Vulnerability; a guide for debt collection – 21 questions, 21 steps’. Drawing upon the FCA’s experience, promoting innovation and competition between major players can help to push companies to go beyond minimum standards towards excellence. The shift in regulators’ frameworks towards a more principled approach provides an opportunity for regulators to do more in this area, setting out expectations for companies to improve practices, using their conveying powers to encourage innovation and share best practice.

Companies can do more to empower and assure customers to disclose their circumstances

Mental Health can be difficult to identify and therefore there is great value in companies improving their customer service to empower customers to disclose their situation. Participants discussed some of the challenges customers face when disclosing their mental health problems, including concerns over how such information would be used, and evidence from Money and Mental Health’s research that not all those who disclose receive extra support. Disclosure requires trust between the customer and company that their information will be used appropriately, in their best interests and to their benefit. UKRN’s recent publication sets out that energy and water companies should make the most effective use of information customers give them and work to ensure support is joined up across the energy and water sectors (by sharing data on customers who require it, potentially minimising the number of times a customer has to disclose their circumstances). Participants highlighted that it is important for service providers to raise awareness amongst their customers as to how they stand to benefit from disclosing sensitive information.

Inclusive by design – improving practices to benefit those with mental health problems, improves the experience for all

Attendees recognised that not all customers will feel comfortable disclosing their mental health problems. Given that even interacting with existing services, for example, paying for a bill, can be a stressful experience, some people with mental health problems are unlikely to be successfully searching and getting the best deals. Taking an approach to make service ‘inclusive by design’ – considering how to make the experience as easy as possible for different preferences, can improve quality for all customers. For example, recognising that phone calls can be anxiety-inducing and providing different methods to communicate such through online tools and messaging; or enabling friends or family to handle someone’s accounts through a straight-forward third-party access process. Making communications easy to understand and providing a variety of options to pay bills can enable customers to more easily engage.

Next steps

Money and Mental Health, regulators and consumer groups’ participants committed to continue to work together on this by learning lessons from across sectors, showcasing existing good work to encourage companies and raise the overall standard of services for customers with mental health problems.