Devolution: What is it and how does it work across the UK?


Two of the UK's parliaments - Holyrood in Scotland and the Senedd in Wales - will be holding elections on Thursday 6 May.

But what powers do national parliaments have, and how do different parts of the UK work?

What is devolution?

For many years England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland were run by the UK government, based in Westminster in London.

Image source, Getty Images

But in a process called devolution, some powers were passed from Westminster to elected bodies in Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh.

Public votes about devolution were held in 1997 in Scotland and Wales, and in both parts of Ireland in 1998 as part of the Good Friday Agreement.

This led to the creation of new elected institutions: the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales (now called the Senedd) and the Northern Ireland Assembly.

What powers does the UK government still have?

The UK government in Westminster remains responsible for policy for England, and overall policy in a number of areas.

These include defence and national security, foreign policy, immigration, citizenship and tax - though Scotland has its own powers to raise and lower income tax.

How does devolution work in Scotland?

The Scottish Parliament sits at Holyrood in Edinburgh. There are 129 elected Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs).

Image source, Adam Elder

Scotland already had its own legal and education system. After devolution, it has become responsible for many areas, including:

  • Agriculture, forestry and fishing
  • Education
  • Environment
  • Health
  • Housing
  • Justice, policing and courts
  • Local government
  • Some transport
  • Taxes including income tax, stamp duty and air passenger duty
  • Some welfare powers

Its powers were extended in 2012, and again after the 2014 referendum on whether Scotland should become independent.

The Scottish National Party (SNP), which has formed the Scottish government at Holyrood since 2007, continues to argue for full independence.

The SNP has also called for more devolved power following the UK's departure from the EU.

How does devolution work in Wales?

Since May 2020, the National Assembly of Wales has been known as the Senedd Cymru (Welsh Parliament). It meets in Cardiff Bay, and is made up of 60 elected Members of the Senedd (MS).

Image source, PA

The Senedd's responsibilities include:

  • Agriculture, forestry and fishing
  • Education
  • Environment
  • Health and social care
  • Housing
  • Local government
  • Highways and transport
  • Some control over income tax, stamp duty and landfill tax
  • Welsh language

How does devolution work in Northern Ireland?

The Northern Ireland Assembly sits at Stormont in Belfast. There are 90 elected Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs).

Devolution in Northern Ireland is different to Scotland and Wales, with government powers divided into three categories:

  • Transferred powers are controlled by the Northern Ireland Assembly
  • Reserved powers remain with Westminster, but could be transferred in the future if the Northern Ireland Executive wants them. These include prisons and civil defence
  • Excepted powers cannot be moved to Stormont without special laws being made in Westminster. They include elections and national defence

The main powers of Stormont include:

  • Agriculture
  • Education
  • Environment and planning
  • Health and social services
  • Local government
  • Justice, policing and prisons
  • Control over air passenger duty
  • Transport
  • Culture, language and sport

In addition, the power-sharing agreement between the nationalist and unionist communities in Northern Ireland is vital.

The First Minister and Deputy First Minister jointly lead the government - one representing each of the two largest parties in power, in a mandatory coalition. Despite different job titles, they have the same powers.

Northern Ireland's government was dissolved for three years after relations broke down between the governing parties - the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin - in January 2017.

But in January 2020, the two parties re-entered the devolved government after agreeing to work together again, alongside three smaller parties - the Ulster Unionists, SDLP and Alliance.

What powers do mayors have in England?

Over the past 20 years, more powers have been given to local and regional mayors in areas like transport and housing.

The first was the mayor of London. The position was created, alongside the London Assembly, after a referendum in 1998.

Image caption,
The mayor of London and the London Assembly are based at City Hall, on the South Bank of the Thames

The London mayor decides how much money to spend and sets priorities in some key areas.

For example, the mayor can set bus and Tube fares, and decide targets for the number of affordable homes.

Mayors in other parts of the country were added following referendums held in 2002 and 2012. They have different powers depending on the areas they represent.

In Greater Manchester, for example, the mayor's powers extend to social care, children's services and housing.

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