House of Commons Library

Introduction to devolution in the UK

Published Wednesday, June 19, 2019

An introduction to the devolution settlements in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, London and parts of England.

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“Devolution” is the term used to describe the process of transferring power from the centre to the nations and regions of the United Kingdom. The term is derived from the Latin, meaning “to roll down”.

It is different from a federal or confederal system of government, under which every constituent part of a state enjoys autonomy and sovereignty. Under the UK constitutional tradition of “parliamentary sovereignty” devolution is, in theory, reversible, and the devolved institutions products of UK statute.

The legislative frameworks for devolution was originally set out in the Scotland Act 1998, the Government of Wales Act 1998 and the Northern Ireland Act 1998, although all three have subsequently been amended. There is also a non-legislative framework of agreements between Government departments and the devolved institutions which help resolve disputes between central and devolved government.

The UK system of devolution is asymmetric, in that different parts of the UK have different forms of devolution and varying degrees of power. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland now all possess executive and legislative devolution, while Metro Mayors in parts of England (and the Mayor of London) have only executive powers. Combined Authorities and the London Assembly can scrutinise executive decisions but not legislate in the manner of the Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Those three legislatures can only pass primary and secondary laws in devolved (or “transferred” in the case of Northern Ireland) areas, with “reserved” matters (or reserved and “excepted” in NI) remaining the responsibility of Westminster. The UK Parliament can still legislate in devolved areas, but, under the Sewel Convention, does “not normally” do so without the explicit consent of the relevant devolved body.

There has been neither an Executive nor a fully-functioning Assembly in Northern Ireland since January 2017. The Assembly elected on 2 March 2017 has not been formally suspended, as in the past, and Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) have continued to carry out a range of activities, most significantly constituency work. Nor has Westminster introduced “Direct Rule”, as at various points since 1972.

Prior to the 1997 referendum on devolving power from Westminster to Wales, the then Secretary of State for Wales, Ron Davies, memorably referred to devolution as “a process, not an event”. This briefing paper looks at both the “event” of devolution in 1997-99 and the “process” of its development since then, outlining the structure and powers of devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, London and parts of England.  It also includes suggestions for further reading.

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