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Devolved government in the UK

What is 'devolution'?

The UK consists of four countries: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The process of 'devolution' involves the UK Parliament - located in Westminster, central London - transferring power and authority to assemblies situated in Cardiff, Belfast and the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.

When did devolution start?

In 1997, Scotland and Wales held public votes and, one year later, Ireland followed suit.  These votes led to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly. Which powers have been devolved? The main powers devolved to the Northern Irish, Welsh assemblies and the Scottish Parliament are:

  • agriculture, forestry and fishing
  • education
  • environment
  • health
  • housing

The UK Government is tasked with the responsibility of formulating national policy on all powers that have not been devolved. These powers are called 'reserved powers' and include:

  • foreign affairs
  • defence
  • international relations
  • economic policy

Technically, the UK Parliament retains the ability to pass legislation for any region of the UK but, in practice, it only handles devolved matters with the consultation and consensus of the devolved Governments.

Devolution in Northern Ireland

Powers of the Northern Ireland Government are split into three groups: 'transferred,' reserved and 'excepted.' In addition to the main devolved powers, the Northern Ireland Assembly can pass laws on transferred matters such as culture, arts, leisure, learning, employment, regional and social development. Reserved matters include prisons and civil defence while 'excepted powers' include Parliamentary and Assembly elections, international relations and defence. These cannot be transferred without using 'primary legislation' - that is, legislation emanating from the UK Parliament.

Devolution in Scotland

The Scottish Parliament has the power to create legislation and to adjust the basic rate of income tax by 3 pence in the pound. In addition to the major devolved powers, the Scottish Parliament can pass laws on tourism, economic development, planning, natural and built heritage, sports, arts, statistics, public registers and records.

Devolution in Wales

The Welsh Assembly has power to make its own laws - known as 'measures.'  It can legislate concerning ancient monuments, historic buildings, public administration, sport and recreation, tourism, town and country planning, flood defences and the Welsh language. The Welsh Assembly is made up of 'executive' and legislative branches. The Welsh Assembly Government deals with the daily running of devolved policy within Wales while the National Assembly for Wales serves as a check and balance for the Assembly Government's work.

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