This month, we interviewed the very lovely Claire Coutinho, MP for East Surrey and resident of Bletchingley. Early riser, self-confessed maths nerd and champion of the local high street, Claire tells us how she got into politics and what a typical day entails. Initially published in the Limpsfield Parish News, here’s the full, unabridged version…
Where did you grow up and what were your ambitions as a child?
I grew up in London with my parents who came to Britain from India in the late 1970s. Growing up, I was an avid reader and I loved maths. I captained the maths team at school and then went on to read Maths and Philosophy at Oxford. My family, parents and sister, all worked for the NHS. I knew I was on a different path, but didn’t have a clear plan as a child.
On the topic of maths, I am hoping to do more to promote its uptake, given it will be vital for the high-paid, innovative jobs of the future. Although algorithms have been given a bad name in politics this year, they are in fact tremendously useful and I hope to play a small part in us falling back in love with maths as a country.
Where do you live in Surrey and what made you go for the East Surrey seat?
I live in Bletchingley. Although I grew up in London, I had campaigned with the Conservatives and met local residents before I applied for a seat. There was so much to like about the constituency, particularly the access we have to nature, and I also got the sense that local people wanted a hands-on MP.
As the only family member who isn’t a doctor, I see being an MP as playing a similar role in that you are there to try and help people and solve their problems. I feel incredibly proud and lucky to represent the seat I do.
What do you love about our part of the world?
I am so proud of the environmental treasure chest we have here in East Surrey, which really helped refresh my spirits during the first lockdown – and I know many local residents feel the same way.
I particularly love the Surrey Hills. Indeed, I have been working with the Surrey Hills Board and other MPs to get the review into the AONB boundary done, which Natural England agreed to over five years ago.
We are also hugely lucky to have places like the British Wildlife Centre and the Lingfield Nature Reserves too. I am also so proud of the sense of community, which was so clear to see during the neighbourhood aid given through the pandemic.
It has been a privilege to get to know these community groups and I look forward to supporting them to continue this important work going forward.
You worked in the City and finance for a number of years… what was behind your change to a political career path? Had you always been interested in politics?
As a young adult, I have to confess I had no interest in politics! After I left university, I worked at Merrill Lynch looking at emerging markets for nearly four years.
However, I was passionate about social justice issues, so I decided to take the plunge – and an 80 per cent pay cut – and moved into social justice policy in my twenties.
I then spent five years working on policy from education and financial inclusion to regeneration of deprived areas before I was approached to work as a Government Special Adviser (SpAd). Before Parliament, I was working at HM Treasury as the SpAd to then-Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Rishi Sunak.
I was not surprised when he made the leap up to Chancellor and have been delighted to continue working with him in my role as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Treasury. It was that experience in Government that made me realise I wanted to take more of a frontline role.
What’s a typical day or week for you in your role?
My whole family are early risers. I’ve always thought that we must have descended from farmers. I’m usually up from 5:45am checking news and emails. Then I start checking in with my team on where we are with casework and local plans.
My day is split between engagements in Westminster and working on local issues – for instance, No 11 meetings to discuss Treasury topics or Zoom meetings with local schools. To take this particular week as an example, HM Treasury is focused heavily on the Spending Review that’s coming up – so that’s taking up a lot of my time. Clearly, after Covid-19, we need to quickly get our spending back under control while also planning for the jobs and industries of the future.
A big part of the job is also taken up in the House where I have asked Ministers questions about pothole funding for example or contributed to debates on housing and planning which I spoke on recently.
I’ll then have calls throughout the day from organisations and individuals across East Surrey, including once a fortnight with the Local Economic Taskforce that I set up to aid the economic recovery locally.
I’ve so far got the Chief Executive of our LEP and the FSB and the Leader of Tandridge and Surrey County Council to sit on the Taskforce. So far, we have secured job support at Gatwick, a Youth Hub to tackle youth unemployment, and we’re also working on increasing East Surrey College skills places and improving local infrastructure.
Then on Fridays, I’ll be out and about in the constituency (Covid restrictions permitting) for example visiting Oxted High Street, spending time with farming groups, and every fortnight I hold surgeries.
What do enjoy most and least about your role?
I love the sense of community spirit that I witness every single day, as well as the visits to local businesses and charities and the part I can play in hopefully helping them.
It probably won’t come as a surprise that my diary is almost always jam-packed, with long-hour weeks, so I don’t get much free time, but when I do I like to spend it with my other half in the constituency.
I love a trip to The Bull Inn in Limpsfield and the roasts at the Botley Hill Farmhouse. We also go for walks, read books, and he’s promised to teach me chess if we have time. I’ll report back on my progress.
I love problem-solving but am new to putting together campaigns. So, I particularly enjoyed putting together my Green-tember campaign – to dedicate the whole month of September to focus on green issues, which included Saturday litter-picks to clean up Westway common and Horley, and an East Surrey residents special Q&A with Minister for the Environment and green super-champion Zac Goldsmith.
When I was first elected in December 2019, I pledged to make roads a local priority. So, I was also really pleased to launch an effective campaign when I pressed for increased pothole funding at the March budget, which led to £33.5 million extra funding locally. It is now my mission to make sure that money is spent effectively.
My least favourite thing is how quickly my inbox fills up! However, I am lucky to have a great little team, half in Westminster and half in Surrey. We aim to respond to everyone within two weeks, but the amount of correspondence that is coming in at the moment means that we have to prioritise urgent cases first.
What has it been like being a politician over the Covid-19 crisis?
This wasn’t the year that any of us expected. It has been a year characterised by unprecedented challenge and tragic loss. But it’s also been characterised by the inspiring community spirit we all saw, from the local charities helping those in need to the new groups of volunteers mobilising through Facebook to do their bit.
That sense of duty and compassion shone through and was so wonderful to be a part of. As I mentioned before, from my point of view as your MP, we sometimes receive hundreds of emails and letters a day, which can be quite the challenge given that Covid-19 has been such a fast-moving situation. So, I certainly felt a huge deal of responsibility and wanted to ensure nobody fell through the net.
I also wanted to get involved as much as I could, so I called to check in on older residents in the evening, joined up people in need with volunteer groups to get food and medicines, and worked with care homes and extremely kind donors to distribute personal protective equipment.
I also launched an East Surrey Community Champion Awards. The extraordinary efforts of people across the patch were so selfless in their nature and I felt that we needed to recognise the lengths that people were going to.
An enormous number of people messaged in with the most incredible stories, and I’ll make sure that when Covid-19 is over and social distancing is no more, we bring those people together and celebrate all they did during those difficult times.
Though, despite the ongoing situation, I haven’t ever forgotten that we were elected to get on with Brexit and deliver more police on the streets, more funding for our schools, and record spending on the NHS. That’s what, in the end, helps to improve people’s lives, and that mission remains a priority for the Government.
What are your suggestions for helping to revive some of our local high streets and help support local business?
We’re facing a dual challenge. In the short term, it’s about getting through Covid-19. That means loan schemes, business rates relief, along with business grants, discretionary grants, and I’ve been pushing for broad criteria so that as many businesses and organisations are eligible for assistance.
For example, this time you don’t necessarily need business premises to access a grant. In the first lockdown up to July in Tandridge, 1,019 grants were paid out to local businesses, worth over £10 million; 380 Retail, Hospitality and Leisure Grants were paid, worth over £7 million; and 386 Local Authority Discretionary Grants were paid, worth almost £2 million. Another round of business grants and discretionary grants have now been released, and I would urge all businesses to go to Tandridge District Council’s website and apply.
The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, backed by £41.4 billion by HM Treasury, has also furloughed over 400,000 jobs in the South East and more than 16,000 across East Surrey, while the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme has assisted over 4,900 self-employed people across East Surrey.
The other challenge for our high streets is the outlook over the medium and long term. That means recovering from Covid-19 and then future-proofing high streets for the 21st century, amid increased online shopping.
We will need to encourage people to remember their local shops and their value to our towns and villages, and also focus on making it easier and more attractive to start businesses in the first place.
It won’t be an easy challenge, and the high streets of the 2020s won’t look like they did 20 years ago, but I’m confident that Britain – the country of small business and entrepreneurship – will always have a place for thriving high streets.
Do you really think you can get our trains to run on time and hold Southern Rail to account?!
I know this won’t be easy, but it shouldn’t be beyond the wit of man to run trains on time. If a company is failing in such a fundamental task, it should be held to account.
I’ve held multiple meetings with Govia Thameslink Rail about this already and, although the pandemic has admittedly slowed my work on this, you can be assured that I will work with local residents to hold the train line to account…