Devolved Bodies in the UK

Scotland: The Scottish Parliament and Government have primary legislative powers over several areas. These include education, health, environment, law and order, and local government. It does not control foreign affairs, defence or the constitution- these are known as ‘excepted powers’. The Scottish Parliament also has tax-varying powers- income tax can be raised or lowered by up to three pence in the pound. The Parliament has powers over all areas not specified as excepted powers.

Wales: The Welsh Assembly and Government has primary legislative powers over a more limited range of areas than Scotland. These include education, health, social services environment, and local government. They do not have power over law and order, foreign affairs, defence or the constitution which, as in the case of the Scottish Parliament, are ‘excepted powers’. The Assembly has no tax-varying powers and does not have power over areas not specifically excepted, only those specifically devolved (unlike Scotland).

Northern Ireland: The Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive have primary legislative powers over a similar range of areas to Wales, also including justice. Foreign affairs, defence and the constitution are ‘excepted powers’ which the Assembly does not control. The Assembly also has reserved powers over some areas which may be transferred in the future including some consumer, medical and transport matters, but has no tax-varying powers. The Assembly has power over all areas not specifically excepted or reserved. As part of the power-sharing agreement, powers must be shared between parties, according to a formula that allocates cabinet seats proportionately.

Devolution in England

The ‘West Lothian question’ was recognised as a consequence of devolution by the former MP for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell. It is the issue that England constituency MPs cannot vote on many matters affecting Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, however, Westminster MPs from these regions can vote on matters which potentially only affect England. This has been partially addressed by the change to the passing of legislation. Following a second reading, a bill which involves England only can be vetoed and make no further progress if a majority of MPs representing English constituencies decide to. Also, an extended range of powers is being devolved to a range of city-regions based on major cities such as Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol, often led by a directly-elected Mayor. For example, Labour’s Andy Burnham was the first elected Mayor of Greater Manchester in 2017. This change has had the effect of strengthening the powers of regional governments of the UK.

Debates Around Devolution

Arguments in favour of extending devolution include:

  • Devolution has been successful and is now accepted by the vast majority of people in those regions
  • It would further address the problem of over-centralisation of power in the UK Parliament
  • There are strong regional identities in areas such as Cornwall, which may be well-served by having power devolved to them
  • It addresses the ‘West Lothian question’
  • It may make the break-up of the UK less likely- regions such as Scotland will be given more control over their own affairs so may be less inclined to wish to achieve full independence
  • Currently, under the Barnett formula, England receives less funding from UK taxes per capita than other UK regions. This could be addressed by having a devolved English Parliament

Arguments against extending devolution include:

  • Power may end up being too fragmented, leading to possible differences in legislation in different areas and confusion over how laws differ in the different UK regions
  • If an English Parliament was introduced, the role and significance of the UK Parliament would be much reduced, leading to questions over the location of sovereignty
  • The proposal of ‘English votes for English laws’ may solve the West Lothian question without the need for an English Parliament
  • There is little public appetite for an English Parliament, demonstrated by a strong no vote for a proposed North East Assembly
  • There may be arguments over which regions would get a devolved assembly, and which wouldn’t- in some area of the UK there is a weaker regional identity than others
  • Giving regional governments more powers may actually accelerate demands for independence- if these regions are effectively controlling all of their legislation, they may wish to become formally separate to reflect this. The demands of the SNP for Scottish independence have not been dimmed by the creation of, and accumulation of powers of the Scottish Parliament

Impact of Devolution on the UK

Some significant changes have taken place as a result of the devolution of power to regional governments. For example, in Scotland, Scottish university students attending a Scottish university do not have to pay tuition fees, whereas they do in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Also in Scotland, there has been higher pay levels for teachers. The Welsh Assembly has introduced initiatives in childcare and has abolished prescription charges. Some commentators have described devolution as ‘quasi-federalism’, whereby the UK now has many of the features of a federal system (where there is a division between central and regional governments).

Devolution is certainly very-well established in the UK. This is perhaps because the devolved bodies were established through referendums (so had democratic legitimacy), the introduction of these bodies fuelled demands for more powers to be transferred to them, the rise in popularity of the SNP, the alliance of pressure groups and interests to the devolved bodies, and the gradual transfer of more powers to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly following the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.

‘England should have its own devolved government.’ Analyse and evaluate this statement. (25 marks - three arguments for and against)
Your answer should include: West / Lothian / Nationalist / Sentiment / Equal / Public / Appetite / Parliament / Break-up