Tuesday 20 October 2020
Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee Meeting
The Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee met on 19 October 2020 in London, with delegations attending in person and by video conference.
The meeting was co-chaired by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and European Commission Vice President, Maroš Šefčovicč, and attended by the alternate Joint Committee co-chairs; the First Minister and deputy First Minister of the Northern Ireland Executive; and member state representatives.
The Committee undertook a stocktake of specialised Committee activity since the last meeting on 28 September. The Committee also updated on implementation of the withdrawal agreement, with particular focus on the Northern Ireland protocol and citizens’ rights.
The UK reiterated their commitment to upholding obligations under the withdrawal agreement and protecting the Belfast (Good Friday) agreement in all respects. The UK further emphasised commitment to EU citizens in the UK and UK nationals in the EU, ensuring they have their rights under the withdrawal agreement protected.
The Committee adopted the citizens’ rights joint report on residency and agreed to its publication.
The UK reiterated its commitment to implementing the protocol in full so the people of Northern Ireland can be given the fundamental legal assurances they need, and will not face the damaging prospect of the unmitigated defaults of the protocol under any circumstances.
The Committee considered the remaining WAJC tasks during the rest of the transition period.
The UK took the opportunity provided by this meeting to underline its commitment to continued constructive engagement with the EU through Joint Committee processes.
Health and Social Care
Pandemic Preparedness Exercise: Report
Today, I am publishing the report into Exercise Cygnus.
Exercise Cygnus was a national exercise that took place in 2016. It looked at how well prepared the UK was to respond to a serious flu pandemic. The aim was to test systems to the extreme, to identify strengths and weaknesses in the UK’s response plans, which would then inform improvements in our resilience.
The Department of Health and Social Care (known as the Department of Health at the time) 12 other Government Departments, NHS England, Public Health England, local public services, several prisons, and staff from the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Governments took part in the exercise. Overall, it involved more than 950 people and culminated in a three-day national level tier 1 exercise in October 2016.
Exercise Cygnus was not designed to consider other potential pandemics, or to identify what action could be taken to prevent widespread transmission.
The report was commissioned by the Department of Health and Social Care and produced independently by Public Health England.
The Government accepted all 22 recommendations from the report and have acted on each to improve pandemic response plans. For example, developing a free-standing Pandemic Influenza Bill. This meant the Government were ready with legislative proposals that could rapidly be tailored to form the basis of what became the Coronavirus Act 2020.
Many of these workstreams have provided a good foundation during the current covid-19 pandemic, helping speed up our response and save lives. I will deposit copies of the report in the Libraries of both Houses and it will be available on gov.uk.
Protecting the public from harm is the first duty of any Government. The parole system is one of the key mechanisms for keeping the public safe by ensuring that dangerous criminals are not released when they still pose a danger to the public. As such, it is essential that this system is as robust, effective and transparent as possible. The Government are determined to address fully the transparency and confidence issues highlighted by the John Worboys case, and also to make proactive improvements to the way that the end-to-end parole system works. We want to ensure that the public are not only properly protected by a robust and effective system for assessing the risks presented by the most serious offenders, but also that they understand and have confidence in that process and the decisions taken.
Over the last two years, we have worked hard to improve the public understanding and confidence in the Parole Board. Today, I am pleased to launch a root-and-branch review of the parole system, as committed to in our manifesto. Moving beyond looking solely at the Parole Board itself, this review will ensure that the entire system delivers in the most effective way possible its primary function of keeping the public safe by releasing offenders only when it is safe to do so.
This root-and-branch review will be concluded by summer 2021, by which point a final report will be published summarising the findings and next steps. Terms of reference have today been published online, explaining that it will consider:
the effectiveness of the reforms we have implemented since 2018;
whether the Parole Board for England and Wales, as currently constituted, remains the most effective model for making independent judicial decisions about the continued detention of prisoners;
how best to improve the public’s understanding and confidence in the parole system;
and measures to further improve the openness and transparency of the parole process.
In support of this, I am today launching a public consultation—the first step in our review—that will explore options for increasing the transparency of the parole system. The consultation seeks views on the possibility of allowing victims to observe parole hearings and on whether the media and wider public should also be given greater access to hearings where it is appropriate to do so. The consultation will be open until 1 December 2020, and I anticipate publishing our response before the end of the year.
The root-and-branch review will build upon the programme of reform, already delivered last year, which amended the Parole Board rules to increase transparency, and to improve the way victims are engaged with. For example, we now have a system where victims and others are provided with summaries explaining the reasons for the Parole Board’s decisions, and a new reconsideration mechanism which allows applications to be made for decisions to be looked at again if they are thought to be legally flawed.
Concurrently, the tailored review of the Parole Board has been under way, the outcome of which is also being published today. The tailored review was undertaken in accordance with the Cabinet Office requirement that all public bodies are reviewed at least once each Parliament. This review focused predominantly on operational changes within the current legislative framework, making recommendations to further improve collaboration within the parole system to ensure that cases progress in a timely manner, and highlighted existing legal powers that the Parole Board can use to compel the production of evidence and the attendance of witnesses. I commend the recommendations to the board, which have the potential once implemented to bring real improvements to the parole system.
Together with the significant reforms we set out in the sentencing White Paper on 16 September, I am confident that the measures outlined above and the wider examination of the parole system we are now launching, will continue to keep the public safe, as well as ensure that the most serious offenders spend time in prison that properly reflects the gravity of their crimes.
Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Today, I am announcing new initiatives the vaccine taskforce has invested in to ensure that a successful covid-19 vaccine is available as soon as possible.
I can inform the House that we are establishing human challenge trials for possible covid-19 vaccines in the UK.
In human challenge studies, the vaccine is given to a small number of healthy adult volunteers, who are then exposed to the virus. Medics and scientists then closely monitor the effect to see exactly how the vaccine works and identify any side effects. These studies are conducted under strict health and safety conditions—the safety of all volunteers is paramount.
The first stage of this project will be delivered by a partnership between Imperial College London, the Royal Free London Hospital’s specialist and secure research unit in London and industry-leading clinical company hVIVO, which has pioneered viral human challenge models. The aim will be to discover the smallest amount of virus it takes to cause a person to develop covid-19. This is known as a virus characterisation study and will be backed by £33.6 million of Government investment. If approved by regulators and the ethics committee, the studies would start in January with results expected by May 2021.
I can also announce that the Government are investing £19.7 million in Public Health England (PHE) to expand their state-of-the art laboratories at Porton Down.
This will allow PHE to run crucial tests on blood samples taken from participants of the covid-19 vaccine clinical trials to monitor the effectiveness of the vaccines. These tests are essential in supporting the development and regulatory approval of vaccine candidates. Scientists at PHE’s laboratory in Porton Down have been working on developing this testing capability since the start of the pandemic. The investment in these world-leading facilities and expertise will enable scientists to provide critical testing support for vaccine trials taking place in the UK. It will also ensure that the UK has access to a centralised laboratory to test the samples. This will give us a greater understanding of how potential vaccines work and compare against one another.
The funding announced today for these ground-breaking studies marks an important next step in building on our understanding of the virus and accelerating the development of our most promising vaccines.
Energy Tariff Cap: Effective Competition Decision
I am today announcing that the price cap on standard variable and default energy tariffs will remain in place for 2021.
The independent energy regulator, Ofgem, has carried out an assessment into whether the conditions are in place for effective competition in domestic supply contracts. Ofgem have been transparent in how they made their assessment. As required by the legislation, Ofgem have made a recommendation as to whether the price cap should be extended. The Government value the expertise and insight of Ofgem, and I have considered that report and recommendation in reaching my decision.
As set out in the relevant legislation, the price cap can be extended for a year at a time up to the end of 2023 at the latest.
While there have been some improvements across the market in recent years, such as increased consumer engagement, rising switching levels and progress with the smart meter rollout, there is still more to do to ensure consumers will not face unfair prices in its absence.
More than half of energy consumers are still on standard variable or default tariffs, where in the absence of the cap they would likely be paying excessive charges for their energy use.
Extending the cap means that 11 million households will continue to be protected from overcharging in the energy market. The cap will continue to safeguard these consumers, while other initiatives such as faster switching, the smart meter rollout and consumer engagement programs continue to contribute to a more competitive market.