By Kate Morrison, from Citizens Advice Scotland’s Consumer Futures Unit

This move is unprecedented in the UK energy market. It is more common to see a company taken over where they have floundered and ceased to trade. For example earlier this year Co-operative Energy took the responsibility for GB Energy’s customers. However, the merging of two of the Big Six companies enters into new territory, and it is unclear how this will impact these companies’ customers or energy consumers more generally.

The move from a Big Six to a Big Five comes as a surprise. And given that these biggest companies already dominate the market, this change will reduce competition even more – at a time when efforts are being made to increase it in order to drive prices down.

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It’s early days in terms of judging the full impacts of this merger. But as the voice of consumers in Scotland, we currently have a number of questions. First there is the issue of customer service. SSE regularly come out on top of the Citizens Advice league table of customer service in the sector. In fact they currently sit at number one. Npower however are ranked lower, and were placed at number 11 in the most recent figures. We would want to be sure that customer service standards in the new company would match those of SSE and not Npower.

At Citizens Advice Scotland we advised on almost 30,000 energy issues last year through our local CABs and our consumer helpline. We have seen first-hand the problems that can result from changes made to an energy company’s computer system alone. Over recent years a number of the Big Six energy companies have updated their computer systems, causing major problems for their customers. For example when Scottish Power upgraded their billing system a few years ago we saw many consumers contacting their local CAB about problems with billing and call-waiting times. So any system changes will need to be handled with extreme care to ensure a seamless transition for customers. The other issue is of course energy prices.

Of the Big Six, SSE currently have the highest proportion of customers on their “Standard Variable Tariff” – which is the most expensive option. They recently pledged to cut the number of people on these tariffs so our hope would be that the merger will see these numbers decrease.

However both SSE and Npower increased their electricity prices by almost 15 per cent back in the spring, and these were the highest increases in electricity prices from any of the Big Six companies, so the impact of the merger on customers energy costs remains to be seen.

We would hope that both Npower and SSE would reassure us on all of these points, and that they would in general take steps to put the interests of their customers at the heart of any change. Scotland’s consumers meanwhile can be sure that we will continue to fight their corner and monitor the activities of all energy suppliers.

Kate Morrison is from Citizens Advice Scotland’s Consumer Futures Unit