MP for East Surrey Claire Coutinho was appointed secretary of state for energy security and net zero in August. We put some questions to her about her new role.
How will you deal with the transition from minister for children, families and wellbeing to your new role?
When you get appointed to a new ministerial role, you have a brilliant team of civil servants to support you and help bring you up to speed. After I was appointed, I went straight to my new department, where I met with my key officials and had lots of meetings with senior civil servants – then I was sent home with plenty of reading to keep me busy.
What do you want to achieve in your new position?
I’m going to be working with the prime minister to safeguard our energy security and tackle climate change. In the UK, we’re approaching a quarter of our electricity coming from offshore wind – up from less than 1% in 2010. Combined with the first new nuclear plant since the 1990s, we’re moving to clean energy independence and away from reliance on oil and gas from hostile regimes like Russia. I also want to champion the role of private finance in financing innovative green technologies. Last week I was in Paris with His Majesty The King and President Macron, where we brought together €2.7bn of private investment by companies to protect the environment and reduce carbon emissions.
Will you maintain connections with the families you met during your previous ministerial post or focus solely on your new role?
I spent a good chunk of my career working in social justice and with disadvantaged families, so it was a real privilege to serve as children’s minister. I felt lucky to be working to improve the lives of children and their families every day, whether that was through our largest ever expansion of childcare, or reforms to children’s social care and special educational needs (SEND). SEND is one area where I will definitely be maintaining those connections – parents of children with SEND make up around a third of my surgeries as a constituency MP, so I’m still taking up their cases with Surrey County Council each week.
How will you ensure a smooth change of leadership from you to your successor David Johnston?
I know David really well as we both entered Parliament at the 2019 election and worked on a number of education policy projects together as backbenchers. Before he became an MP, David was chief executive of the Social Mobility Foundation, working to improve opportunities for children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. I know he’s been getting stuck in since he was appointed as children’s minister and he is going to do a fantastic job for children and their families.
How will the UK achieve its target to be net zero by 2050?
Our target is enshrined in law, but we cannot just legislate our way there, we have to innovate too. One of the main ways we will get there is by moving to cleaner forms of energy such as nuclear, wind and solar, as we have been for many years. We can be incredibly proud that we have cut emissions faster than almost any other major country – down 48% since 1990 – and we’ve virtually eliminated coal from our electricity supply. This is alongside our move towards using innovative, cleaner technologies like electric vehicles and heat pumps, and our massive investment into retrofitting homes with energy efficiency measures such as insulation.
What are your thoughts on Rishi Sunak’s recent climate u-turn? How does the government plan on maintaining the 2050 net zero target if he is ‘watering down climate commitments’?
I care deeply about protecting our environment on behalf of our children and grandchildren, but we will only achieve net zero by 2050 if we maintain the support of the public. That will only happen if government decisions feel fair. If the road to net zero is felt to be hitting the poorest the hardest, as we have felt here in Tandridge with the mayor of London’s clumsy ULEZ expansion, we risk undermining our fantastic progress so far.
Our new approach maintains our commitment to the target, but makes sure British families don’t feel the burden disproportionately. We’ve eased the transition to electric vehicles in line with other European countries such as France, Germany and Sweden and, rather than banning boilers before people can afford an alternative, we’re going to support them to make the switch by increasing our Boiler Upgrade Scheme by 50% to £7,500 – making it one of the most generous schemes in Europe. This isn’t a u-turn, but a sensible, long-term decision to make sure we maintain the public’s support for tackling climate change.