Claire Coutinho has been appointed secretary of state for the Department of Energy Security and Net Zero. 10 Downing Street. Image: Simon Walker/ No 10 Downing Street
Climate campaigners have said “good riddance” to former energy security and net zero secretary Grant Shapps after he was appointed defence minister in a cabinet reshuffle.
The appointment was made today (31 August) by prime minister Rishi Sunak in the wake of Ben Wallace revealing he was leaving both cabinet and stepping down as an MP at the next election.
Barely through the door, Shapps’ successor Claire Coutinho faces pressure to take immediate action to cut emissions and ease the cost of living.
“The new energy secretary’s inbox is already groaning under the weight of vital decisions which need to be made to reform Britain’s broken energy system,” said Simon Francis, coordinator of the End Fuel Poverty Coalition.
More than one in three households in England will face higher energy bills this winter than last, according to the Resolution Foundation. This is because although the price per unit of energy is falling with Ofgem’s energy price cap, it will be offset by a rise in the daily standing charge.
“As well as securing financial support to help people stay warm this winter,” Francis added, “the new ministerial team will need to amend the energy bill to ban the forced transfer of households onto prepayment meters and improve the energy efficiency of rented properties.”
Around 6.3 million households are expected to face fuel poverty this winter, unable to heat their homes or cook a hot meal in the bitterly cold months, National Energy Action has found.
“This is a critical time to be taking on the role,” said Peter Smith, the director of policy at National Energy Action. “Not only are energy bills predicted to stay stubbornly high, demanding an urgent response by the UK government, but we also know [Coutinho’s] department is tasked with finding long-term ways to invest in energy efficiency and find more effective ways to regulate landlords so we can insulate millions of fuel-poor homes by the end of this decade.
“This remains the best long-term way to reduce needlessly high energy bills, at the same time as meeting our commitments to net zero and the government’s legal fuel poverty duties.”
For environmental charities and campaigners, the hope is that former children’s minister Coutinho will make significant efforts to tackle the climate crisis and cut levels of emissions in taking over the role of Grant Shapps.
A spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion said: “Arranging the deckchairs on this sinking ship isn’t going to fix anything. We need to put the people in charge using the tried and tested method of citizens’ assemblies so we can address the problems of our time in a way that works for all of us not just the select few.”
A citizens’ assembly is a group of people selected by lottery from the public to deliberate on important public questions. A member of Scientists for Extinction Rebellion, Dr Aaron Thierry, added that Claire Coutinho must move beyond Grant Shapps’ polices and “change course to align government policy with scientific evidence”.
“New oil and gas licences are incompatible with our climate pledges. So far that evidence has been ignored by the government,” Thierry said.
“Scientists will be outside parliament next Monday to speak with returning MPs with an unambiguous message – it’s time to leave fossil fuels in the ground. We can address the cost of living crisis and secure both energy security and a safe climate if we urgently invest in renewables and energy efficiency.”
Meanwhile, Just Stop Oil repeated a comment from Faith Biro, the executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA): “If governments are serious about the climate crisis, there can be no new investments in oil, gas and coal, from now – from this year. It’s obvious what the new minister needs to do.”
Coutinho’s predecessor, Grant Shapps, has previously faced ridicule for his occasionally “cringeworthy” approach to social media. He has been through a number of ministerial roles, including a very brief stint as Home Secretary under Liz Truss.
Dave Timms, head of political affairs at Friends of the Earth, said: “Good riddance to Grant Shapps. He seemed to be more concerned with playing childish politics on social media than the serious policies needed to address the greatest challenge of our time.
“He has promoted new drilling for oil and gas against the advice of his own climate advisers, allowed speculation about whether vital deadlines for the transition to electric vehicles and heat pumps would be stuck to, and failed to invest in home insulation.
“The country needs a serious secretary of state that will step up to give the certainty and support that businesses and people need to invest in the changes that will cut both emissions and the cost of living. We hope Claire Coutinho will be that person.”
How has Claire Coutinho voted on climate change?
Claire Coutinho has “generally voted against measures to prevent climate change”, according to TheyWorkForYou which calculates an MP’s stance based on all of their votes on the topic.
In agreement with her Conservative colleagues, last year she voted against imposing tougher windfall taxes or doing more to help people through the cost of living crisis and to prevent climate change. These were part of a series of policy proposals put forward by the then-leader of the Scottish National Party in the House of Commons, Ian Blackford.
What will happen to the role of children’s minister as David Johnston takes over?
Claire Coutinho has been replaced by David Johnston, a former chief executive of the Social Mobility Foundation and a parliamentary aide of Michael Gove. He is the tenth children’s minister in as many years.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said: “While we congratulate Claire Coutinho on her promotion, the fact that the early years will soon be on its tenth minister in as many years is beyond frustrating.
“The fact that the government expects providers to put up with a never-ending revolving door of ministers is bad enough, but to do so as the sector prepares to roll out its biggest early years expansion in recent history is bordering on negligent.
“What we need more than ever over the coming months is consistent policy, driven by ministers who have a clear understanding of the early years sector and the challenges it faces. This reshuffle is likely to deliver the exact opposite.”
On Johnston, Leitch added: “There’s no question that Johnston takes on this role at a crucial and challenging time. Not only are providers preparing themselves for the biggest expansion of the early entitlement in recent history but the sector is facing its most difficult time in decades, with nurseries, pre-schools and childminders closing their doors in record numbers and educators leaving in their droves.
“We hope that David Johnston can be both an advocate for the early years sector and ensure that, at an incredibly important time for the sector, it is at the very top of the government’s priority list.”