Explaining the background to devolution and how the legislatures and administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland work.
Devolution is a process of decentralisation, and puts power closer to the citizen so that local factors are better recognised in decision-making.
This guide summarises how the political and administrative powers of the devolved legislatures - Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - have changed as a result of devolution.
A more detailed breakdown of the changes in each territory is given in the following guides:
Background to devolution
In September 1997, referendums were held in Scotland and Wales, and a majority of voters chose to establish a Scottish Parliament and a National Assembly for Wales. In Northern Ireland, devolution was a key part of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement supported by voters in a referendum in May 1998.
Following this public endorsement, the UK Parliament passed three devolution Acts: the Scotland Act 1998; the Northern Ireland Act 1998; and the Government of Wales Act 1998 (which was later effectively superseded by the Government of Wales Act 2006). These acts established the three devolved legislatures, which were given some powers previously held at Westminster. Further powers have been devolved since these original acts, most recently through the Scotland Act 2016 and Wales Act 2017.
Parliament remains sovereign, and retains the power to amend the devolution Acts or to legislate on anything that has been devolved. That said, the government has made clear it will not normally legislate on a devolved matter without the consent of the devolved legislature, which requires a Legislative Consent Motion.
One of the main differences between Parliament and the devolved legislatures is in the way members are elected. Whilst all Members of Parliament are elected using first-past-the-post, elections to the devolved legislatures involve an element of proportional representation:
Members of the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales are elected to represent either a constituency using first-past-the-post, or a region on the additional member system, which uses the d’Hondt model of proportional representation. Members elected in different ways have equal roles in these two legislatures.
All members of the Northern Ireland Assembly are elected on the single transferable vote form of proportional representation.
In a similar way to how the government is formed from members from the two Houses of Parliament, members of the devolved legislatures nominate ministers from among themselves to comprise an executive, known as the devolved administrations, as follows:
- the Scottish Government is a minority government comprised of the Scottish National Party
- the Welsh Government is a minority government formed by the Labour Party.
- the Northern Ireland Executive is formed of a power-sharing executive, as established in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Since January 2017, there has been no power-sharing Executive in place. Talks to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland continue
Officials in the devolved administrations do not serve the same ministers as HM Government; that is they do not work to the Prime Minister or to Secretaries of State who form the Cabinet, but to their own ministers with their own political priorities and mandates.
Within HM Government, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are each represented in Cabinet by a territorial Secretary of State, who ensures the smooth running of the devolution settlements and acts as the lynchpin of the relationship between the devolved administration and HM Government. The responsibilities of the territorial Secretaries of State are:
- handling legislation as it affects the territory
- representing the territory’s interests in Cabinet and Cabinet committees
- responding to parliamentary interests in territorial affairs
- transmitting the block grant to the devolved administration
- supporting collaboration between HM Government and the devolved administration
- promoting the interests of the territory
Each devolved territory has its own department, responsible for liaising between the UK Government and the relevant territory. For further details of duties and activities, see the respective web pages for:
- Scotland Office
- Wales Office
- Northern Ireland Office
Memorandum of Understanding
The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the UK Government and the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland was first agreed in 2001 and most recently updated in October 2013. It sets out the principles which support relations between these administrations. The MoU puts emphasis on the principles of good communication, consultation and cooperation.
Attached to the MoU is an agreement on the Joint Ministerial Committee, including a protocol on the avoidance and resolution of disputes, and concordats on the coordination of European Union Policy Issues, Financial Assistance to Industry, and International Relations (see the section on the Joint Ministerial Committee below.)
Funding the devolved administrations
The devolved administrations’ budgets are generally determined through block grant funding from the UK Government and their own revenue-raising powers.
Block grant funding from the UK Government is determined in accordance with the Statement of Funding Policy and, where appropriate, the Scottish and Welsh Governments’ Fiscal Frameworks. More detail on how the block grants are calculated is available in the UK Government’s annual Block Grant Transparency publication.
Relations between administrations
Relations between Whitehall and the three devolved administrations are based on extra-statutory principles and arrangements.
The main elements are set out in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the UK Government and the devolved administrations. The MOU lays emphasis on the principles of good communication, consultation and co-operation.
Concordats between the government and the devolved administrations recognise the interest of the latter in aspects of international and EU relations, matters which remain the responsibility of UK Government, and set out working arrangements to deal with them. A large number of further concordats have been agreed between UK departments and the devolved administrations.
There is further provision about working practices in the comprehensive guidance on working with the devolved administrations.
The MoU also sets out the agreement between the UK Government and the devolved administrations on the procedure for avoiding and resolving disputes. Like the MoU itself, this agreement is a statement of intent, creating no legal obligations between the parties and binding in honour only.
Most contact between administrations occurs on a bilateral or multilateral basis but to provide central coordination of the overall relationship, the Joint Ministerial Committee was established by the MoU.
Joint Ministerial Committee
The Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) is established by the MoU between the UK Government and the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Its purpose is to provide central coordination of the overall relationship between the administrations.
Its terms of reference are:
- to consider non-devolved matters which impinge on devolved responsibilities, and devolved matters which impinge on non-devolved responsibilities;
- where the UK Government and the devolved administrations so agree, to consider devolved matters if it is beneficial to discuss their respective treatment in different parts of the UK;
- to keep the arrangements for liaison between the UK Government and the devolved administrations under review;
- to consider disputes between the administrations.
The MoU makes clear JMC is a consultative, rather than an executive body.
The JMC may meet in a range of formats, including plenary meetings chaired by the Prime Minister or her representative. You can see details of the most recent meeting on the No 10 website.
The JMC also currently meets in the following ‘functional’ formats:
- JMC (Europe), chaired by the Minister of State at the Department for Exiting the EU, which meets quarterly, ahead of the European Council, to discuss matters bearing on devolved responsibilities that are under discussion within the EU
- JMC (EU Negotiations), chaired by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, meets at regular intervals to facilitate political engagement and collaboration between the UK Government and the devolved administrations on the UK’s exit from the European Union.