Devolution, Put Simply

Scottish parliament

By campaign agent Marykate Monaghan

Recently, we saw the beginning of the debate on the EU Withdrawal Bill in the House of Commons, outlining the expected changes to the UK Parliament’s legislative powers. This includes transferring EU law into UK law, changes which the UK Parliament has already experienced in the form of devolution. Devolution saw varying levels of power transferred to the different nations of the United Kingdom. This blog will aim to outline the process and functions of devolution, and centre on exploring the degree of power the devolved institutions of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can exercise.

What is Devolution?

Devolution is the transferring of power from the UK Parliament to the other nations within the UK. It aims to establish a subordinate regional body that can debate and make decisions on local issues affecting the area, such as health and education. However, the UK Parliament still holds authority over these devolved institutions as it holds the ability to legislate on devolved matters and bills. It also retains reserved powers that affect the United Kingdom as a whole, such as immigration, defence, and foreign policy.

How did Devolution come about?

The process for Devolution started in 1997 following two successful referendums held in Scotland and Wales, in which the general public agreed to the setting up the devolved institutions. Similarly, the current Northern Irish Assembly was endorsed by a referendum held in 1998, but was also supported by the Good Friday Agreement, which aimed to set up two interdependent institutions to ease the political tension between the country and the British and Irish Governments. Thus, in 1999 the resulting devolved powers became established as the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Irish Assembly, and the National Assembly for Wales, taking responsibility for their respective transferred powers.

So, what can these devolved institutions do?

While the UK Parliament still has power over reserved matters, the subordinate regional powers can pass laws on the devolved matters that affect everyday aspects of life in the nations. For instance, the National Assembly of Wales passed The Public Health (Wales) Act July this year, which will allow Welsh Ministers to increase restrictions on smoking in other buildings and environments that are not outlined in other parts of the UK. Therefore, the legislative process is the same as that of the UK Parliament, but focuses only on devolved matters rather than the reserved issues.

How are the devolved institutions different to each other?

All three nations have devolved powers, however, there are some small differences between them:

The Northern Irish Assembly differs to the devolution seen in Scotland and Wales, as the governing Northern Irish Executive’s responsibilities are divided into three different branches: transferred, reserved and excepted. Likewise, the Executive body is formed around the power-sharing agreement between the Nationalist and Unionist parties in Northern Ireland, which acts as vital to the assembly’s functioning as it has been suspended and reinstated several times since it’s establishment in 1998.

Similarly, the reserved powers and expected powers cannot be established without primary legislation from the UK Parliament, limiting the extent of legislation the Assembly can complete in comparison to the Scottish and Welsh bodies.

The Scottish Parliament differs to the assembly format taken by the other nations, as it acts primarily as a law-making body and holds more legislative power than the others. For instance, the Parliament can raise or lower the basic rate of income tax by 3p, known as the “Tartan Tax”. The only reserved powers retained by the UK Parliament includes foreign policy, defence, trade, and industry, allowing the Scottish Parliament to create more varied bills based on its devolved powers.


The National Assembly of Wales, while still able to make laws, is restricted in its scope to only defined “fields” of the issues. Unlike the Scottish Parliament and Northern Irish Assembly, the National Assembly of Wales is split into two different branches: executive and legislative. The change occurred in 2006, to more easily define policy development and scrutiny. This ensures the legislative body, the actual assembly, is focused on debating and policy drafting, while the executive body can be questioned and contested.

Further reading and sources:

Devolution, Gov.co.uk
Devolution – A Beginner’s Guide, BBC
What are the powers of the Scottish Parliament?

Image – Hamish Irvine @Flickr

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