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Joshua Rozenberg
Joshua Rozenberg
The Government is proposing major changes to the constitution of the United Kingdom - a parliament for Scotland and an assembly for Wales.

The BBC's Constitutional Affairs Correspondent, Joshua Rozenberg, considers what these changes would mean.

Devolution

The government has published White Papers setting out its proposals for devolution to Scotland and Wales. They are called Scotland's Parliament and A Voice for Wales. You can read them in full by clicking these links.

Voters in Scotland approved the proposals in the referendum on September 11. Voters in Wales approved the proposals on September 18.

The Government will shortly introduce legislation in the House of Commons. The Government of Wales Bill will be published in November and the Scotland Bill is expected in December.

Voting Arrangements

The Government is proposing an Assembly for Wales and a Parliament for Scotland. They are to be elected in much the same way: most of the members will be directly elected by constituencies using the traditional 'first past the post' system; there will also be a number of 'additional members' elected by proportional representation. The Welsh Assembly will have 40 directly elected members and 20 additional members, making 60 in all. At least to begin with, the Scottish Parliament will have 73 directly elected members and 56 additional members, a total of 129. The higher proportion of additional members in Scotland should make the Scottish parliament more representative of public opinion than the Welsh Assembly.

The additional members will be elected in a way that has never before been seen in the United Kingdom. From the voter's point of view, the system is simple enough. Behind the scenes, it gets a little more complicated. Each elector will have two votes, one for a constituency member and one for an additional member.

The first ballot paper will be for the constituency member. It will list the candidates standing in that constituency and voters will mark a cross against one name. The candidate winning the largest number of votes will be elected in the normal way.

The second ballot paper will simply contain a list of parties, but no names. Electors will vote for one party from the list. For the first time, parties will have to be registered; by law, only registered parties will appear on the ballot paper.

Most voters will probably vote for the party of the candidate they supported (although they will be perfectly free to vote for another party if they wish). If the party seats were simply allocated in proportion to the number of votes cast then a party which won two-thirds of the constituency seats might also win roughly two-thirds of the party seats. There would be little point in this. Instead, the party seats will be allocated with the aim of making the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament representative of voting patterns in each country as a whole.

Many voters won't be very interested in how this is done, but it's worth knowing how the system will work. Each country will be divided into large areas. For convenience, these will be based on the constituencies used in elections to the European Parliament. Each of these European constituencies contains between seven and nine parliamentary constituencies.

Scotland has eight European constituencies. Each of them will elect seven additional members from party lists making a total of 56 in all. Wales has five European Constituencies, each of which will elect four additional members in the same way a total of 20 additional members.

In each European constituency, the returning officer will count the number of votes cast for each party.

Next, the returning officer will work out how many seats each party has won in that European constituency.

Then, the number of votes won by each party will be divided by the number of seats it has won plus one. The party with the highest number of votes after that calculation gains the first additional member.

The same calculation is repeated. This time, the number of votes won by each party is divided by the number of seats it has won, plus one, plus any additional member seats it has won in the previous round.

The process is repeated until all the additional member seats have been allocated.

Here is an example taken from one of the White Papers. It is based on the European constituency of Mid and West Wales and assumes that electors would support the party of the candidate they supported.

The results in the 1997 General Election were Labour 4; Liberal Democrats 2; Plaid Cymru 2; Conservatives 0. In the table below, we see that the Conservatives won no seats despite having more votes than Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats. As the table shows, the Additional Member system of voting would give the Conservatives three more seats in this constituency (while Labour would get one extra). The number of seats allocated to each party would be broadly proportional to the number of votes it obtained.

  Lab Con PC LibDem AM Result 1
Party Vote 116,151 63,769 61,777 56,479  
1st AM 1 /5 = 23,230 /1 = 63,769 /3 = 20,592 /3 = 18,826 Con win
2nd AM 1 /5 = 23,230 /2 = 31,884 /3 = 20,592 /3 = 18,826 Con win
3rd AM 1 /5 = 23,230 /3 = 21,256 /3 = 20,592 /3 = 18,826 Lab win
4th AM 1 /6 = 19,358 /3 = 21,256 /3 = 20,592 /3 = 18,826 Con win
FPTP 2 4 0 2 2  
AMs 1 1 3 0 0  
Total 5 3 2 2  
1 = Additional Members, elected from lists
2 = First Past The Post members, elected by constituencies

Powers

Under the Government's proposals, the Scottish Parliament would be more powerful than the Welsh Assembly. Scotland's parliament would be able to make binding laws without seeking permission from Westminster. However, it would only be able to do so in the areas devolved by Westminster. The Welsh Assembly would not generally have the powers to make law. However, it would be able to exercise powers which parliament had previously delegated to the Secretary of State for Wales.

The Scotland Bill will contain a list of reserved powers. These are matters that the Government says are better dealt with on a United Kingdom basis. They include

  • The constitution of the United Kingdom
  • UK foreign policy
  • Defence and national security
  • Border controls
  • Monetary and fiscal affairs (except that the Scottish parliament will be able to raise or lower the basic rate of income tax in Scotland by up to three pence).
  • Common markets for goods and services
  • Employment law
  • Social security
  • Regulation of the professions
  • Transport safety
  • Other matters regulated on a GB or UK basis including nuclear safety, cinema licensing and abortion.

Everything not on the list of reserved powers will be devolved to the Scottish parliament. That means Scotland's parliament will be able to make laws on

  • health
  • education
  • local government
  • housing
  • economic development
  • trade
  • transport
  • criminal and civil law
  • courts
  • prisons
  • police and fire services
  • animals
  • the environment
  • agriculture
  • food standards
  • forestry
  • fisheries
  • sport
  • the arts

It is easier for the legislation to list reserved matters and say that everything else is devolved than it would be for the Government to list all the powers being devolved. It should also be easier to get the legislation through parliament. It will be possible to transfer matters to and from the reserved list if both parliaments agree.

By contrast, the Wales Bill will list the responsibilities to be devolved. They will be transferred to the Welsh Assembly by parliament after the Assembly is set up. Broadly speaking, they include all the current responsibilities of the Secretary of State for Wales. These are

  • economic development
  • agriculture and food
  • industry and training
  • education
  • local government
  • health and personal social services
  • housing
  • environment
  • planning
  • transport and roads
  • arts and culture
  • the built heritage
  • sport and recreation.

Parliament has given the Secretary of State numerous powers to make secondary legislation in these areas. He can, for example, decide the details of the school curriculum in Wales or which parts of the country to designate as environmentally sensitive. Powers like these will be transferred to the new Assembly.

It will also have the power to restructure the numerous unelected bodies known as quangos. To do so, the Assembly will even be able to amend laws laid down by parliament in a few cases. A power like this, which allows a subsidiary body to amend primary legislation, is sometimes known as a 'Henry VIII clause'.

In general, though, the Welsh Assembly will not be able to overturn legislation passed by parliament. By contrast, the Scottish parliament will be able to repeal legislation passed at Westminster - as far as it affects Scotland - whether the government of the United Kingdom likes it or not.

It is difficult to exaggerate the effect this will have. Scotland will have a First Minister who will appoint other ministers to the Scottish Executive. They will be drawn from whatever party or grouping can command a majority in the Scottish parliament. At some point in the future, the Scottish Executive and the United Kingdom parliament may be led by different political parties. The laws of Scotland, already different from those in the rest of the United Kingdom, may then start to diverge further. That is why devolution amounts to the most important constitutional change in Scotland for three hundred years.



Diana, Princess of Wales, 1961-1997

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