Devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

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 Agreement, sometimes referred to as the Good Friday Agreement or the Belfast Agreement, supported by voters in a referendum in May 1998.

Following this public endorsement, Parliament passed 3 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the Scotland Act 1998; the Northern Ireland Act 1998; and the Government of Wales Act 1998 (which was later effectively superseded by the Government of Wales Act 2006).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 3 devolved legislatures, which were given some power previously held at Westminster.

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.

Devolved legislatures

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 2 legislatures.

All members of the Northern Ireland Assembly are elected on the single transferable vote form of proportional representation.

Devolved administrations

In a similar way to how the government is formed from members from the 2 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 working majority government comprised of the Scottish National Party.
  • the Welsh government is a minority government formed by the Labour Party.
  • the Northern Ireland Executive is a five-party power-sharing executive comprising the largest parties in the Assembly:
    • the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland
    • the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)
    • Sinn Féin
    • the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP)
    • the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP)

Officials in the devolved administrations do not serve the same ministers as HM government – ie, 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.

Territorial offices

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 the 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:

Memorandum of Understanding

The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the UK government and the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland was agreed in September 2012. It sets out the principles which support relations between these administrations. The MOU lays emphasis on the principles of good communication, consultation and co-operation.

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 JMC below.)

Funding the devolved administrations

The devolved administrations’ budgets are normally determined within a Comprehensive Spending Review alongside departments of the UK and in accordance with the policies set out in the Statement of Funding Policy (pdf) published by HM Treasury.

Funding is provided to the devolved administrations from the government as a block grant. This means once the money is received by the devolved administration, it can be spent on any devolved responsibility as the administration sees fit and with the approval of the devolved legislature (in the same way Parliament at Westminster approves HM government’s budget).

Changes in the devolved administrations’ budgets are normally determined by the Barnett formula, which provides them with a population-based share of changes in comparable spending by HM government departments. This is set out in the Statement of Funding policy and largely removes the need for detailed negotiations directly the allocation between Treasury ministers, secretaries of state and ministers of the devolved administrations.

This example shows what would happen if the government gave the Department for Transport (DFT) an additional £100 million:

  Comparability factor Population proportion Consequential
  How much of what the Department for Transport is done by the devolved administration Percentage of the population of England Amount received
Scottish government 91.50% 10.08% £9.22 million
Welsh Assembly 68.30% 5.84% £3.99 million
Northern Ireland Executive 94.00% 3.43% £3.22 million

These consequentials (adjustments of funding) are provided in addition to the DFT’s £100 million, so while £100 million is provided to the UK department, HM Treasury will actually be giving out £116.43 million. This means any in-year increases in departmental budgets may mean additional funds will be given to the devolved administrations, which HM Treasury need to take account of.

It is also important to note that these consequentials can also be negative – if DFT’s budget is reduced by £100 million, the Scottish government’s budget will be reduced by £9.22 million, the Welsh government’s by £3.99 million and the Northern Ireland Executive’s by £3.22 million.

There are some small variations to this in Scotland and Northern Ireland:

  • the Scottish Parliament can vary the basic rate of income tax by 3 pence (with the increased yield arising from an increase in the rate going to the Scottish government to spend, and the opposite occurring if the rate is lowered) - this power has never been used
  • the Northern Ireland Executive has a borrowing power, whereas the Scottish and Welsh governments do not
  • by 2016 provisions of the Scotland Act 2012 will provide the Scottish Parliament with new borrowing powers and create a Scottish variable rate of income tax

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 (‘the 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 recognised the interest of the latter in aspects of international and EU relations, matters which remained the responsibility of Whitehall, and set out working arrangements to deal with them. A large number of further concordats were 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 would be on a bilateral or multilateral basis, but to provide central coordination of the overall relationship a Joint Ministerial Committee was established by the Memorandum of Understanding.

Much the greater part of the finance for the devolved administrations is provided by the UK Parliament, which is however in the form of a block grant which the administrations are free to spend as they wish. The Statement of Funding policy (pdf) published by HM Treasury sets out how these arrangements operate.

Joint Ministerial Committee

The JMC is established by the Memorandum of Understanding 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 his 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 (Domestic), which is chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister and meets 2 to 3 times per year
  • JMC (Europe), chaired by the Foreign Secretary, which meets approximately quarterly to discuss matters bearing on devolved responsibilities that are under discussion within the EU
Published 18 February 2013