Claire Coutinho was a senior fellow at Policy Exchange, which drafted the law to crack down on XR and other climate activists.

T he UK’s newly appointed minister for net zero is facing questions over her links to a think tank funded by oil giants that called for climate protesters to be jailed.

Claire Coutinho, appointed minister for energy security and net zero this week, was a senior fellow to the opaquely funded right-wing think tank Policy Exchange in 2021. Before that, she had contributed to a report for the group in 2020, and gave a speech there in July this year.

openDemocracy revealed in 2022 that Policy Exchange had helped write the UK’s controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act after explicitly stating the government should pass legislation to target Extinction Rebellion (XR) in a 2019 report.

It was given the lowest possible transparency rating in openDemocracy’s ‘Who Funds You?’ project earlier this year – but an investigation in 2022 found the think tank had taken cash from US oil giant ExxonMobil.

Exxon is the largest oil company in the US and has been accused of purposely misleading the public about the threat of climate change. It spent more than $37m funding groups promoting climate denial in the US between 1997 and 2008.

Policy Exchange has also received donations from several leading UK oil and energy companies, including the industry lobby group Energy UK.

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The Policy Exchange report that sparked the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act said protest laws should be “urgently reformed in order to strengthen the ability of police to place restrictions on planned protest and deal more effectively with mass law-breaking tactics”. At the time, a wave of protests by Extinction Rebellion and others had blocked roads and targeted infrastructure.

The act, which came into force in June 2022, and its companion law the Public Order Act have made it possible for peaceful protesters to be arrested pre-emptively.

The Public Order Act allows the police to “impose conditions on a protest,” makes more forms of protest an offence, and “increases the maximum penalty for the offence of wilful obstruction of a highway”. Government literature espousing the benefits of the bill explicitly refers to environmental protests.

In her speech in July, Coutinho acknowledged that Policy Exchange had influenced government policy, telling members:

“It was your report on ‘Academic Freedom in the UK’ that planted the seeds for our Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill.”

The Department of Energy Security and Net Zero had not responded to requests for comment by openDemocracy’s deadline.

A spokesperson for Just Stop Oil said:

“With links to a fossil fuel-funded think tank, Claire Coutinho is the last person we can trust with the low carbon energy transition. But this government has long since abandoned any pretence of climate concern. They have undermined decades of progress on carbon reduction, stoked culture wars over net zero and spun obvious lies about energy security. Unless Claire Coutinho is prepared to challenge this criminal cabal, she will join them in the climate trials of the future.”

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▪ Text: This piece was first published in openDemocracy and republished in PMP Magazine on 5 September 2023. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
▪ Cover: Flickr/Number 10. - PM Rishi Sunak appointing Claire Coutinho as Secretary of State for the Department of Energy Security and Net Zero. | 31 August 2023. (Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)
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