Welcome to the Parliament Brief, where Spotlight, the New Statesman’s policy section, digests the latest and most important committee sessions taking place across the House of Commons and House of Lords. Previous editions can be found here.
Who? MPs of the Energy Security and Net Zero cross-party committee heard from Claire Coutinho, the Energy Security and Net Zero Secretary, Jonathan Mills, director-general of energy markets and supply at the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ), and Lee McDonough, director-general of net zero, nuclear and international at DESNZ.
When? 8 November 2023 at 2pm,
What was discussed? The work of DESNZ. A series of topics were covered during the meeting including what the government is doing to tackle fuel poverty, energy security, the inclusion of a bill for new oil and gas licences in the King’s Speech, the boiler upgrade scheme and heat pump installation, whether the UK will contribute to the UN climate change loss and damages fund, and prepayment metres. The meeting was Coutinho’s first appearance before the committee since she was appointed to the role in August.
Why did this come up? This session wasn’t part of an inquiry but was a general session to scrutinise the work DESNZ is doing to improve the UK’s energy security and accelerate the green transition.
So, what did they say? First, the chair of the committee, independent MP Angus Brendan MacNeil, welcomed Coutinho and congratulated her on her promotion to the role. But he soon began grilling the new minister, asking her whether she thinks fuel poverty is a “lifestyle choice”. This question obviously came off the back of the comments that Suella Braverman’s made about rough sleeping before the King’s Speech. In a slightly roundabout answer, Coutinho explained she wouldn’t “necessarily use those words” but said she agrees with Braverman that there is a “very clear distinction” between those who are struggling and “people who…had come over from abroad and were nuisance begging”. She added: “I don’t think anyone is choosing to be in fuel poverty.”
With Cop28 around the corner (the climate conference begins in Dubai on 30 November), Coutinho was quizzed by Barry Gardiner, Labour MP for Brent North, on the UK’s commitment to the loss and damages fund, which is set to be a complex and crucial discussion point. The fund is a pot of money that will help to financially support countries facing climate damage which cannot be prevented or mitigated against.
Gardiner pointed out that Germany, Austria, Belgium, Ireland, New Zealand and Canada have all already committed to the fund. Coutinho said “pre-Cop conversations are going on at the moment” with international counterparts, and the government is deciding on the best way of working with the fund. “As you all know, often Cop announcements come together at the very last minute,” the Energy Secretary added.
The King’s Speech – which took place the day before Coutinho’s appearance (7 November) – included a bill which will instate a new annual system for approving oil and gas licences. The Energy Secretary was asked by Mark Garnier, Conservative MP for Wyre Forest, whether approving new fossil fuel licences will bring consumers’ bills down and improve the UK’s energy security.
Coutinho told MPs that in the process of getting to net zero by 2050, the UK will be “looking to oil and gas for a significant amount of [its] energy needs”. She added: “We want as much as possible oil and gas to come from here.” On lowering consumer bills, Coutinho said that the UK will be able to reap the rewards of new oil and gas licences through tax revenue, which will then feed back into the public purse.
Any conclusions? For a secretary of state only eight weeks into a complex role, Coutinho does appear to be generally on top of her brief. But it’s clear there is plenty of work still to be done around properly financing the UK’s green transition – from ensuring the boiler upgrade scheme is fit for purpose, to carving out enough money to retrofit the UK’s poorly insulated housing stock. As the UK heads into yet another freezing winter, with energy prices remaining higher than usual, all eyes will be on the government to provide adequate support for those on lower incomes or who are struggling – a topic which the Energy Security and Net Zero committee is already conducting an inquiry on.
What next? Coutinho’s first Cop as secretary of state is later this month. It will be interesting to see how she is able to defend on an international stage the recent watering down of several net zero policies by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and new oil and gas licences. Another one to watch out for is the promised national spatial plan for the UK’s energy infrastructure, which Sunak announced in his net zero speech on 20 September. A joint announcement by Coutinho and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt on how this will upgrade the UK’s rickety grid infrastructure is said to be imminent.
[See also: What to expect from Claire Coutinho]