The Coronavirus Act 2020 received Royal Assent on 25 March 2020 after it was fast tracked through the UK Parliament in 4 days. The Assembly gave its consent to the Bill on 24 March. This consent was needed as the Bill covered devolved as well as non-devolved areas.
During the Assembly debate on the Bill on 24 March 2020, the Minister for Health and Social Services, Vaughan Gething AM said the Bill included “extraordinary measures for the extraordinary times that we face”. Assembly Members noted the substantial and exceptional powers given in the Bill to UK and Welsh Ministers to limit individual freedoms but were in agreement that the UK and Welsh governments needed the powers in the Bill to respond to the Coronavirus pandemic.
On 23 March 2020 Senedd Research published its Bill summary outlining the Bill’s main provisions. This blog post summarises the changes made to the Bill as it passed through the UK Parliament and what Assembly Members said about the Bill during the Assembly debate on 24 March.
It also considers what happens now the Act has been passed.
What changes were made to the Bill as it went through the UK Parliament?
Many of the amendments to the Bill were technical. They included: powers to extend time periods for the retention of fingerprints and DNA profiles (clause 24); the disapplication of limits on financial assistance to businesses (clause 75); provision for an expansion of HMRC functions (clause 76); provision for the increasing of Working Tax Credit (clause 77); protection from eviction from business tenancies (clauses 82-83); and powers to postpone Church of England General Synod elections (clause 84).
There was one significant amendment made to UK Ministers powers. The Bill originally stated that the majority of its provisions would last for a period of two years which could be extended for a further six months following a vote in the relevant UK legislature.
A new clause was inserted to the Bill (clause 98) that requires UK Ministers to seek the approval of the UK Parliament for some of the temporary provisions the Act in non-devolved areas every six months. Any relevant measures brought in by the Welsh Ministers under the Act will continue to apply for two years initially, and further six month periods if necessary, unless the Welsh Ministers decide they should be brought to an end sooner.
The House of Commons Library published an article on 25 March 2020 ‘Coronavirus Bill: Amended time limits and post-legislative review’, which looks at the new provisions setting time limits on the emergency legislation, and explains the measures included for the UK Parliament to review the legislation..
A useful overview of the provision in the Act and their purpose is provided by the Institute for Government – ‘Coronavirus Act 2020’.
What did Assembly Members say during the debate on the Bill?
The Assembly was asked to formally give its consent to the Bill because it included powers for Welsh Ministers and public bodies in devolved areas. The debate on the Bill and whether or not the Assembly should give its consent took place on 24 March 2020.
Introducing the debate, the Minister for Health and Social Services stated:
The purpose of the coronavirus Bill is to enable all four Governments across the UK to respond to an emergency situation and to manage the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The powers being taken are intended to protect life and the nation's public health.
The Bill contains temporary measures designed to either amend existing legislation or to introduce new statutory powers that are designed to mitigate those impacts. This Bill ensures that the agencies and services involved—schools, hospitals, the police and more—have the tools and powers that they need.
Whilst Assembly Members were in agreement that the extensive and broad powers contained in the Bill were needed, they called for proper oversight over the Welsh Government’s use of the powers. They also called on the UK Government to ensure that it provides regular reports to the Assembly on its use of the Bill’s provisions.
Mick Antoniw AM, Chair of the Legislation and Justice Committee, highlighted in the debate that the legal requirements for parliamentary oversight of UK Ministers in the Bill did not apply to Welsh Ministers. He called on the Welsh Government to commit to provide reports on its use of the powers to the Assembly and to allow the Assembly to regularly review any measures put in place.
Responding to the comments made about accountability and oversight the Minister for Health and Social Services stated:
I'm happy to give an undertaking on the record about the Welsh Government reporting to this Assembly on the use of powers on a regular basis. In practical terms, I think that in reality we'll be making public statements about the use of powers every time we use them, but then to want to gather together in one place a report on what's been done over a period of time. I'm happy to give that undertaking.
The one note of caution I'd give in regard to some other responses provided to other Members is that, first of all, it’s then for this institution to decide how it wants to use that report in terms of scrutiny or otherwise.
What happens next?
Both the UK and Welsh Ministers have already used the powers given to them by the Act to introduce new requirements, changes and restrictions. These include powers to detain people they believe to be infected, restrictions on individuals movement and the temporary closure of some businesses.
Senedd Research will track and monitor the powers being used and, where possible, produce blogs on what they mean for the Assembly, and people, businesses and organisations in Wales. Our first blog on the new legal Coronavirus provisions introduced will be published tomorrow.
We’ve published a range of material on the coronavirus pandemic, including a post setting out the help and guidance available for people in Wales and a timeline of Welsh and UK governments’ response.
You can see all our coronavirus-related publications by clicking here. All are updated regularly.