How the media misreported the '£2,500 energy bill cap'
A Full Fact investigation using our AI media-monitoring software has revealed widespread misreporting of the Energy Price Guarantee (EPG) last month, at a time when much of the public was confused about whether their annual energy bill could exceed £2,500.
The EPG was announced on 8 September, when it was originally intended to limit the price of each unit of domestic electricity and gas in England, Wales and Scotland for two years (with a similar reduction being applied to the unit prices in Northern Ireland). As a result, the annual energy consumption of a typical household with average use would have cost about £2,500.
During September, however, the EPG was often misdescribed in the media and by politicians—including by then-Prime Minister Liz Truss, who claimed repeatedly that “nobody is paying fuel bills of more than £2,500”.
While Ms Truss has since apologised, our investigation has identified many more examples of the EPG being described in the media and by politicians in an inaccurate or potentially misleading way.
We found 112 potentially misleading claims which might have led people to believe their bill rather than the unit price of their energy would be capped this winter, 10 of which explicitly and wrongly suggested no household would pay more than £2,500 a year for its energy bills. The 112 claims were made by 25 different media outlets and politicians.
Our findings come at a time of concern that people who wrongly believe their annual bill can’t exceed £2,500 may run up much higher bills without realising.
Research by the polling firm Opinium for the comparison site Uswitch, carried out between 13 and 15 September, found that about 38% of people believed that “my bill cannot exceed £2,500 a year”. The consumer expert Martin Lewis has also warned about the scale of misunderstanding.
On 17 October, the new chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced a change to the EPG policy, which will now only limit the price of energy for six months, until April 2023. The government says that new arrangements to support households after that will follow a Treasury-led review.
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How we found misleading claims
We used our own AI media-monitoring software to find potentially misleading claims about the EPG made in September.
To do this, the software scoured more than 2.5 million claims to identify those which had been made publicly about the EPG, analysing data from Parliament, online news outlets and prominent accounts on Twitter and Facebook. This left us with a shortlist of 574 claims which used terminology we believed merited further examination. We supplemented this shortlist with some manual searching online, then manually analysed all the shortlisted claims to identify those which were potentially misleading.
We did not monitor broadcast or print-only media and were not able to automatically search some online news outlets such as The Times, Financial Times and Daily Telegraph—so there may have been more potentially misleading claims than we identified. Grading claims in this way is inevitably a subjective process, but our fact checkers used consistent criteria to identify which claims were misleading.
- We graded claims as misleading if, in our opinion, they explicitly suggested that £2,500 was the maximum that any household could pay. This included saying the £2,500 figure was a “maximum”, or that it applied to “all households”.
- We graded claims as potentially misleading if, in our opinion, they might have led people to believe that the maximum energy bill was £2,500, but did not explicitly say this applied to every household. For instance, this included claims that the EPG would “cap energy bills at £2,500” or “restrict bills to £2,500”.
We also assessed claims in the context in which they appeared—so for example we considered whether a claim was quickly followed by an explanation that the £2,500 figure was based on average use, in which case it would not have been identified as potentially misleading.
What we found
In total we identified 112 misleading or potentially misleading claims among the different sources we analysed. The vast majority of these (107) were made by media outlets.
The 10 most misleading claims we found were:
- “Energy bills are set to be frozen at around £2,500 a year for all households—and capped for businesses too—under major plans to be unveiled by Liz Truss this week.” This claim was made by the Mirror in an article on 6 September 2022, and repeated on Twitter and again in an article on 7 September. We approached the Mirror for comment but did not receive a response.
- “The Prime Minister is reportedly planning to freeze all household energy bills at around £2,500 a year.” This was in the Daily Express on 6 September 2022. It has since been corrected after we approached the Express for comment.
- “Including the £400 universal payment to households announced by Rishi Sunak, as the then Chancellor earlier this year, freezing them at the current price cap would mean an annual maximum of around £2,500.” This was on the LabourList website on 7 September 2022. We approached LabourList, which removed the line after this article was published.
- “Liz Truss will pledge, when she speaks in the House of Commons today, to borrow more than £100bn in order to freeze the energy bills of everyone in the country, with the price cap going no higher than £2,500.” This was in the i on 8 September 2022, but has now been corrected after contact from Full Fact.
- “Liz Truss announces two-year energy bills cap for all Brits - paying £2,500 a year.” This was posted by the Mirror’s Twitter account on 8 September 2022 (it was also the headline on the linked article, but that contained some extra context and so we did not include it in the most misleading category). As above, the Mirror has not responded to a request for comment.
- “Her "bold" new plans mean that no British household will pay more than £2,500 per year for their energy bills.” This was on the ITV News website on 8 September 2022. We approached ITV News for comment but did not receive a response.
- “The new Prime Minister has announced energy bills will be frozen at no more than £2,500 until 2024, making them at least £1,000 cheaper than if they had been exposed to Ofgem's price cap come October.” This was in the i on 9 September 2022, but has now been corrected, after contact from Full Fact.
- “The new Prime Minister Liz Truss announced energy bills will be capped at £2,500 and won’t rise above that.” This was in the Daily Express on 9 September 2022, but has since been corrected following contact from Full Fact.
In addition, we found a further 102 less explicit claims that we thought might give the impression that there was an absolute cap on household energy bills—saying for instance that the EPG will “cap energy bills at £2,500”.
Strictly speaking, this isn’t true. Only typical households with average energy consumption were going to have their bills effectively capped at that figure. In reality it is energy prices—not energy bills—that are being capped.
We’ve not included sources for these 102 claims below because, as outlined above, this is a snapshot analysis of a sample of reports rather than a comprehensive trawl through print, online and broadcast media. There’s also a subjective element when considering what may be potentially misleading, and we’ve not contacted the authors of all 102 claims for a response.
Nonetheless, the number of misleading or potentially misleading claims we were able to identify from even a sample of media reports shows that Ms Truss’s inaccurate description of the Energy Price Guarantee was not an isolated problem, but part of a much wider pattern of describing it in a confusing way.
This graphic shows the most common phrases we identified as potentially misleading. You can click through on it to read the full list.
Why is the cap so hard to describe?
It seems likely that the public was widely misled on a very important subject. This could often have been unintentional—in part because explaining the EPG, or the Ofgem price caps that preceded it, is not easy to do in a simple way.
A direct explanation would say that the EPG freezes the price of electricity at 34p/kWh (with regional variations) and gas at 10.3p/kWh (with regional variations). Both these figures include VAT and represent the prices for dual fuel customers paying by direct debit. Prices for pre-payment meter customers are subsidised in a similar way, and people who heat their homes with neither gas nor electricity will receive a £100 payment.
This kind of information will be almost meaningless for many people, however, if they don’t have a good understanding of what a kWh of gas or electricity is. Unlike, say, a litre of petrol, people may be less sure how many kWhs they normally use, or how much each unit normally costs.
Perhaps for this reason, the energy regulator Ofgem has often described the level of its price caps in terms of the annual bill it would represent for a household with typical energy consumption. Its announcement of the new price cap in August (now superseded by the EPG) said: “The energy price cap will increase to £3,549 per year for dual fuel for an average household from 1 October 2022”. It went on to make clear that the cap is for an “average” household, and it correctly refers to a cap on the “energy price” (rather than “bills”).
Our AI media-monitoring software also identified a large number of media reports that referred to a “£2,500 price cap” without necessarily explaining that it is not a cap on bills, or that the figure only applies to a typical household with average energy consumption. While we did not include these reports in our list of potentially misleading claims, they too could have contributed to confusion about how the EPG works when the whole article did not explain it clearly.
Image courtesy of Ivan Radic
Update 23 November 2022
This article was updated to reflect the fact that LabourList edited its article to remove the misleading claim after this article was published.