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Home > Modern Studies > Political issues in the UK > Devolved decision making in Scotland

Modern Studies

Devolved decision making in Scotland

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Powers of the Scottish Parliament

Devolved and reserved powers

Scotland has devolved powers within the UK system of government, as set out in the Scotland Act (2001). This means that the country is not independent but it does have control over some of its affairs through its elected parliament.

Devolved powers

The affairs over which the Scottish Parliament has control are called devolved powers, and they include:

  • health
  • education and training
  • local government
  • law, including most aspects of criminal and civil law, the prosecution system and the courts
  • social work
  • housing
  • tourism and economic development
  • some aspects of transport, including the Scottish road network, bus policy, and ports and harbours
  • planning and the environment
  • agriculture, forestry and fishing
  • sport and the arts
  • miscellaneous matters, such as compiling statistics and keeping public records

Reserved powers

The UK Parliament retains control over a whole range of national affairs. These are called reserved powers, and they include:

  • constitutional matters
  • UK defence and national security
  • UK foreign policy
  • immigration and nationality
  • UK economic and monetary policy (other than Scotland's tax-varying power)
  • energy: electricity, coal, gas and nuclear power
  • employment legislation
  • social security (the DWP - Department for Work and Pensions)
  • some aspects of transport, including railways, safety and regulation
  • regulation of certain professions such as medicine and dentistry
  • others, such as data protection, broadcasting, gambling and the National Lottery

After their victory in the 2011 election, the SNP government are looking to gain more powers with regards to tax and control of income, such as the Crown Estates in Scotland.


The devolved powers give the Scottish Parliament the opportunity to produce Scottish solutions to Scottish problems. It has passed laws abolishing university tuition fees, providing free personal care for the elderly, introducing the smoking ban, and many others.

The Scottish Parliament debating chamber

The Scottish Parliament debating chamber

Individual MSPs

Another feature of the Scottish Parliament is that is each of the 129 MSPs have more opportunities to introduce legislation. Each MSP has the right to introduce two Bills during one Parliamentary session. Nearly 10% of Bills passed so far have been initiated by individual MSPs.

The Committee system

The Scottish Government has powers to propose changes to legislation and make recommendations to Parliament. One of the unique features of the Scottish Parliament is the way in which the Committee system operates. There are 17 Committees, most of which have between five and fifteen members, scrutinise the work of the Government. They work much more on cross-party lines than do Committees of the Westminster Parliament and there tends to be much more agreement among MSPs from different parties when they are scrutinising or challenging the Government’s legislation as it passes through Parliament.

The Convenors of the Committees are responsible for organising the meetings. These Convenors are drawn from across the main parties. For example, the convenor of the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee might be a Labour MSP while the convenor of the Health and Sport Committee might be an MSP for the SNP.

Scottish Cabinet meeting chaired by First Minister Alex Salmond

Scottish Cabinet meeting


The main source of finance for the Scottish Parliament is still the block grant from the Treasury. This is worked out according to the 'Barnet Formula', named after the Treasury Minister who devised it in 1979. This allocation of money pays for all the spending programmes for Scotland, such as health and education. Because of the 'Barnet Formula', Scotland receives a proportionally greater share of the money available - more than the share received by the regions of England. Some consider that the historical level of deprivation in Scotland justifies the amount.

The Scotland Act (2001), which drew up the conditions of devolution, granted the Scottish Government some tax raising powers. Although it has not yet been implemented, this allows the Government to vary income tax by plus or minus 3 pence in the pound. If there were to be an increase in income tax in Scotland this would give the Government much more money with which to finance its spending. However, such a move might also be very unpopular with some of the electorate.

Coalition and Minority governments

Basing the election system on proportional representation means that the Scottish Government might be made up of a coalition between different parties. During the first two terms of the Scottish Parliament the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties shared power. The advantage of the coalition system is that the different members of the Government will push forward issues of importance to their party manifesto. This means broader representation for more of the electorate. For example, the Liberal Democrats were mainly responsible for driving the abolition of university tuition fees.

Following the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections the SNP had the most MSPs with 47 but were without a majority. The SNP did not form a coalition with another party and formed a minority government instead. This means the other parties will choose on each issue whether to support the SNP government or not. The SNP will have to rely on other parties to pass laws. This is sometimes known as consensus politics.

Following the 2011 elections, the SNP had enough MSPs (69) to form a majority government.


The Scottish Parliament recently marked 10 years in existence. A poll conducted by The Times newspaper said 70% of voters believed the Scottish Parliament has been good for Scotland. However, there remain issues regarding the relationship between the Scottish Parliament and the UK Parliament, including:

  • The role of the Secretary of State for Scotland. Some consider that the post is essential, to give Scotland a voice in the UK Cabinet.
  • Allowing Scottish MPs to vote on matters that do not directly affect Scotland, such as Foundation Hospitals in England and Wales. This is known as the 'West Lothian Question' after Tam Dalyell, the MP for West Lothian, who first raised the issue.
  • The number of Scottish MPs at Westminster was reduced in 2005. There are now 59 MPs from Scotland.
  • Scotland's share of the UK budget may be reduced to force the Government to use its tax-varying powers.

In 2009 the Calman Commission published its findings on possible reforms to the Scottish Parliament and the future of devolution in Scotland. These recommendations included the Scottish Parliament gaining greater control over income tax collected in Scotland, speed limits on Scotland’s roads and air gun legislation.

The relationship between the Scottish and UK Parliaments has received more attention in recent years. During the first two Scottish Parliaments, the Labour Party was in charge in both Edinburgh and also in London so there was a large degree of cooperation as might be expected. With the election of the SNP Government in Scotland in 2007 and a UK Labour Government there have been some disagreements between the two particularly on economic issues. The Calman Commission reported that better working relations between the UK and Scottish Parliament were essential.

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Girl character from game

The Lawmakers

Power and Influence in Decision Making. This game-based site asks students to look at the workings of the Scottish Parliament, in the context of pressure groups, political parties and the process of legislation in Scotland.

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