Patrick Vallance made science minister as Starmer calls in external experts

Former chief scientific adviser joins ministerial team alongside James Timpson and international law expert Richard Hermer KC
Patrick Vallance at a Covid-19 briefing in September 2021. Photo: Number 10/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Keir Starmer has appointed former government chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance as his science minister, as the prime minister looks beyond the world of politics to appoint his team.

Vallance – who became a household name in 2020 as one of the faces of the government’s Covid response – is one of a number of external experts being handed a peerage so they can serve in the freshly minted PM's administration.

He will work alongside James Timpson, chief executive of the Timpson Group, who has been named new prisons minister; and Richard Hermer KC, a barrister and an expert in international law, who is attorney general.

The new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology minister became government’s top scientist in spring 2018. He was previously a researcher and president of R&D at pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline.

After the Covid pandemic began, Vallance regularly appeared alongside then-PM Boris Johnson and England’s chief medical officer Sir Chris Whitty during televised briefings about the novel virus. Behind the scenes, he provided scientific advice to ministers and led meetings of the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies.

Over the course of the Covid Inquiry, his frustrations with the way ministers handled parts of the pandemic response have come to light in messages and diary entries shared as evidence with the inquiry.

Vallance's diary described "No.10 chaos as usual" and criticised ministers for "try[ing] to make the science give the answers rather than them making the decisions". He also called breaches of rules on gatherings in No.10 and elsewhere in government “disappointing”.

But while his most high-profile role was in the Covid response, Vallance made a number of important changes behind the scenes to bolster the government science and engineering network – leading British Academy chief executive Hetan Shah to say he "may go down as the most influential government chief scientific adviser we’ve had so far".

Vallance, who led the government science and engineering profession and the Government Office for Science, pushed for a greater focus on science, technology, engineering and maths in the Fast Stream, with the scheme hitting its new target of recruiting half of its newest intake from STEM backgrounds last year.

He was also national technology adviser from 2021 until 2023, and was integral to the National Science and Technology Council, which was set up in 2022 to drive the UK’s science and tech strategy.

He left government at the end of his five-year term to become chairman of the Natural History Museum. Last year he became an adviser to the Singaporean government, joining the National Research Foundation, a department within Singapore's Prime Minister's Office.

Appointments signal 'change', Starmer says

Asked at a press conference on Saturday how soon his party could begin delivering the change its campaign slogan promised, Starmer said the appointments of Vallance and Timpson – “two individuals that are associated with change and delivery” – showed that he was “restless for change”.

Starmer also said the new prisons minister had invested “a huge amount over many years” into rehabilitating offenders. The Timpson Group – known for cutting keys and re-soling shoes – is one of the UK's largest employers of ex-offenders, who make up more than one in ten of its staff.

The new prisons minister has been the chair of the Prison Reform Trust charity, which aims to reduce imprisonment and improve conditions for inmates and their families, since 2016. He stepped down upon being made a minister.

In February, Timpson told Channel 4 that he believed “a lot of people in prison… shouldn’t be there, and they are there for far too long” and said common sense and evidence were being ignored out of a desire to “punish” people.

His appointment comes shortly after the incoming government was warned that it would have “just days” to tackle the prisons crisis as some were nearing capacity. The Institute for Government said overcrowding was the result of “predictable consequences of the long-term trend for lengthier sentences”.

Hermer’s appointment came as a surprise not only to the general public but also to Emily Thornberry, who has been shadow attorney general since 2021.

In a statement, Thornberry said she was “very surprised and sorry not to be able to continue that work in government”.

But the MP – who was a human rights lawyer for 20 years – said that Hermer was “a much more accomplished lawyer than I could ever hope to be” and would do “an amazing job as attorney general”.

Hermer’s appointment comes as Starmer is likely to need regular advice on the war in Gaza. He was among a group of Jewish lawyers who wrote a letter warning that international law must guide Israel’s response to Hamas’s 7 October attack.

The letter said Hamas’s actions “were not simply a moral outrage but an egregious violation of all norms of international law”.

It said that while Israel had a clear right in international law to respond in self-defence “collective punishment is prohibited by the laws of war”. It added: “Equally, international law requires combatants to ensure minimum destruction to civilian life and infrastructure.”

Among those who have welcomed the decision is Sir Jonathan Jones, the former Treasury solicitor and permanent secretary of the government legal department, who called it an ­“excellent appointment”.

“Richard Hermer is an extremely experienced KC with the highest reputation. I have no doubt he will take very seriously the attorney general’s vital role of upholding the rule of law in government,” he said.

Also among those making a return to top-tier politics is former home secretary Jacqui Smith, who has been made higher education minister – one of a number of roles she held in Tony Blair’s New Labour administration. As she is no longer an MP, Smith will receive a peerage to enable her to take up the role.

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