Explaining the background to devolution and how the legislatures and administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland work.
Devolution is a process of decentralisation. It 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.
You can also download to keep on hand:
Cyflwyniad i Ddatganoli (Welsh version)
Datganoli: Ffeithlen (Welsh version)
Canllawiau Datganoli i Lunwyr Polisi (Welsh version)
Beth yw datganoledig (Welsh version)
of what powers are devolved and reserved
A more detailed breakdown of the changes in each territory is given on the following guidance pages:
- Devolution settlement: Scotland
- Devolution settlement: Wales
- Devolution settlement: Northern Ireland
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the Scotland Act 1998, the Northern Ireland Act 1998, and the Government of Wales Act 1998 (which was later effectively superseded by the Government of Wales Act 2006).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.
The UK Parliament remains sovereign, and retains the power to amend the devolution Acts or to legislate on anything that has been devolved. That said, the UK 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 Senedd Cymru/Welsh Government (the name was changed following the Wales Act 2017, which gave the then National Assembly for Wales the power to change its name) 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
- the Welsh Government
- the Northern Ireland Executive: a power-sharing executive, as established in the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
Officials in the devolved administrations do not serve the same ministers as HM Government - that is they do not report 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. Their job is to ensure the smooth running of the devolution settlements and act 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 each department’s duties and activities, see the respective web pages for:
- Office of the Secretary of State for Scotland
- Office of the Secretary of State for Wales
- Northern Ireland Office
Relations between administrations
Relations and the agreed ways of working between UK Government and the three devolved governments are set out in the Memorandum of Understanding on Devolution (MoU), most recently updated in October 2013, and in the review of Intergovernmental Relations (IGR), published in January 2022. The historic system of intergovernmental working in the MoU was out of date for the context in which devolution is a mature part of UK governance. Years of joint work with the devolved governments on the review of IGR has produced a fair, fit-for-purpose and improved protocol for constructive intergovernmental working.
New ways of working set out the structures and processes to ensure that ministers at all levels of government have effective and formalised routes for discussion, with accountability grounded in an impartial IGR secretariat and dispute avoidance and resolution arrangements. The system serves all governments equally, fairly and with respect for each government’s respective responsibilities. It is underpinned by five IGR principles to support positive and constructive relations and proposes a three-tiered ministerial engagement structure that includes:
- the top-tier Prime Minister and Heads of Devolved Governments Council
- 2 middle-tier forums, the Interministerial Standing Committee (IMSC), for cross-cutting and strategic issues, and the Finance: Interministerial Standing Committee (F:ISC) for financial discussions
- portfolio engagement at departmental level via Interministerial Groups (IMGs)
This is underpinned by extensive engagement between officials across the 4 governments. Informal and ad-hoc engagement, at both official and ministerial level, is crucial and continues as the opportunity and needs arise, and through correspondence.
The UK government has committed to greater transparency in reporting on our engagement with the devolved government. This includes publishing quarterly transparency reports and annual transparency reports on gov.uk, which sets out the engagement that occurs between ministers across the 4 governments.
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 (PDF 1.3mb) and, where appropriate, the agreement between the Scottish government and the United Kingdom government on the Scottish government’s fiscal framework and agreement between the Welsh government and the UK government on the Welsh government’s fiscal framework. More detail on how the block grants are calculated is available in the UK government’s Block Grant Transparency publication.