Vulnerability: one definition to rule them all?

by Ombudsman Services | Oct 23, 2018

Vulnerability was one of the main discussion points at the fringe event we held at the Conservative Party conference earlier this month.

The debate focused on how best to define, identify and serve vulnerable consumers.

Our panellists, including representatives from Citizens Advice and MoneySavingExpert.com, agreed that vulnerability is an extremely important issue for businesses, charities, regulators and consumer groups across all sectors.

There was also a consensus that defining and identifying vulnerable consumers is far from straightforward.

“A dynamic state”

Thomas Brooks from Citizens Advice stated his belief that various industry regulators are developing increasingly sophisticated definitions of vulnerability.

He welcomed the growing acceptance that vulnerability is a “dynamic state” but emphasised the need for regulators from different sectors to work together on the issue.

Fellow panellist John Howell MP, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on alternative dispute resolution, echoed the point that an individual shouldn’t be categorised as vulnerable for life.

He cautioned that whether someone should be viewed as vulnerable will depend on their circumstances at that time.

Event chair Katie Morley, consumer affairs editor at the Daily Telegraph, agreed.

“People are vulnerable at different phases of their life”, she said.

MoneySavingExpert.com’s Kirsty Good told attendees that, while reaching agreement on a universal definition of vulnerability isn’t simple, there is “impetus” and that “all of the right people are around the table” discussing the issue.

Complex, but not rocket science

Among the attendees at our fringe event was Martin Coppack of the Lending Standards Board, who said that while vulnerability is a complex area, it “isn’t rocket science.”

Speaking afterwards, he said that most people are vulnerable at some point in their life – whether through illness, a lack of time or a lack of money.

All organisations, he said, should therefore focus on ensuring their products and services are defined with this in mind.

What is vulnerability and who is a vulnerable consumer?

In his previous role, Martin played a leading role in drafting the Financial Conduct Authority’s highly-regarded definition of vulnerability.

This states that:

“A vulnerable consumer is someone who, due to their personal circumstances, is especially susceptible to detriment, particularly when a firm is not acting with appropriate levels of care.”

As discussed during our fringe event, while highly regarded this is just one of many definitions used by various regulators, support groups, businesses and consumer groups.

For example, recent consumer research carried out on behalf of energy regulator Ofgem states that:

“Vulnerable circumstances arise when a consumer’s personal circumstances and characteristics, combined with aspects of the market, create situations where they are either:

Significantly less able, than a typical consumer, to protect or represent their interests in the energy market, and/ or Significantly more likely, than a typical consumer, to suffer detriment or that detriment is likely to be more substantial.”

Communications regulator Ofcom, meanwhile, introduced new rules at the start of this month that require providers to have policies and procedures in place to ensure “fair and appropriate treatment” of vulnerable consumers.

The rules state that:

“Consumers may be vulnerable due to circumstances such as age, physical or learning disability, physical or mental illness, low literacy, communications difficulties or changes in circumstances such as bereavement.”

Here at Ombudsman Services we have been doing some work of our own on vulnerability, looking at how we can identify and support consumers who are in vulnerable circumstances.

We have been using the FCA definition as the broad basis for our work. We are keen to play an active part in the debate on vulnerability and work with businesses and stakeholders to find ways to better support vulnerable consumers.

What do you think?

Can there ever be a universal definition of vulnerability? Has your business or organisation introduced its own definition? How did you decide on it? Share your thoughts by getting in touch with us on Twitter or LinkedIn.