Discover The Facts


This section contains non-partisan factual information about Devolution. It has been compiled by the site editor and is updated periodically. It cannot be re-edited by site users. If you believe any of this material is factually incorrect or politically biased please contact the editor.

Key Questions

The West Lothian question: what representation should a devolved region have in Westminster?

In 1977 Tam Yayell, MP for West Lothian asked whether it was acceptable for members from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales to vote in legislation which only affected England. Since the devolution of powers created legislative bodies to enact laws in these three regions the question has become all the more pertinent.

There are a number of options for the representation of devolved regions in Parliament, all of which are problematic.

No representation at all

This is arguably unfair, because the people of all three regions continue to pay taxes to the central government and therefore should have representation there.  

The ‘in and out’ solution: representation, but exclusion on particular subjects

Currently, Scottish MPs in Westminster can vote on matters affecting the English, Welsh and Northern Irish; but not on matters transferred to the Scottish Parliament.

One solution, then, is to allow MPs from devolved regions to remain at Westminster, but be excluded from matters exclusively concerned with matters from the other regions.  Thus, a Scottish MP would not be allowed to speak or vote on matters exclusively concerned with England, Wales, or Northern Ireland.  However, there may be problems defining what is a matter ‘exclusive’ to one particular region.

There is a political imperative both in relation to 'no representation' or the 'in and out solution'.  The Labour Party has always needed the MPs returned from Scotland and Wales to maintain a majority in Government.

The 'in and out' solution could create great disruption because in cases where the ruling party holds a slim majority in Westminster, the composition of the government might change depending on the matter being debated. For instance, on a matter affecting only the English, it might be that a Labour government could not muster a majority, and so ‘the government’ might shift to the opposition. This would force a Labour administration to introduce all of its legislative programs across the entire nation in order to take advantage of their full base of MPs.

Reduced representation

This is the solution which has been used historically.  For instance, after the establishment of a Parliament in Northern Ireland, Northern Irish MPs in Westminster continued to have full voting rights.  However, their number was reduced to 13, or about two-thirds of what Northern Ireland should have had in Westminster on the basis of population. More

The number of Northern Irish MPs was increased when direct rule was imposed in the 1970s to compensate for the loss of local control.   This number has not been reduced again since the re-establishment of a devolved parliament in Northern Ireland

One answer, then, might be to allow MPs from devolved areas to retain full voting rights, but reduce their number by some specified proportion. Doubtless the extent of this reduction would be difficult to decide.

Leave things as they are

This approach would recognise that asymmetry between regions in the UK has long been present, and need not be answered.

It is worth noting that the Coalition Agreement pledges to set up a Commission to ‘consider the ‘West Lothian Question’’, although as yet no commission has been formed. Since the announcement in 2010 several MPs have raised the issue in Parliament, urging the government to announce its plans.


For more on the West Lothian Question


The English Question: It is argued that there are two key questions here: - More

Robert Hazell The English Question (The Constitution Unit, UCL, 2006)

1. Does England’s place within the Union need strengthening?

Two commonly-made suggestions are an English Parliament and English votes on English laws.

  • An English Parliament

There are a number of practical problems associated with the establishment of an English Parliament.

Given that English MPs make up 80% of all Westminster MPs, and make law for 85% of the UK, an English Parliament would seem an unnecessary replication of the UK Parliament.  What would be the role of the English Parliament, and what then would be the role of the UK Parliament? Similarly, where would the English Parliament be located?

An English Parliament would also create, in effect, a federal system; but it would be a federal system which was highly asymmetrical, with one constituent unit—England—being dominant.  It would, in effect, be more important than Westminster.

On the other hand, as indicated above, there is a political issue when the government of the day depends on the MPs from the devolved regions to achieve the necessary majority to form the government. More

For example the Scottish MPs in the case of the last Labour government, particularly under Blair.  Previous Conservative administrations have also depended on support from the Ulster Unionist MPs to control Parliament.


  • English votes on English laws

See the discussion above in ‘the West Lothian Question’.


2. Does England’s government need decentralisation?

If the concern raised by the English question is that power is too distant from the English people, then one potential solution is regionalism.  However the Blair government's attempt to create a regional assembly in the Northeast (an intended precrusor to a wider program of regionalism) failed, damaging the credibility of such ideas.


Does the funding of the devolved regions need to be reviewed?

Many are critical of the Barnett formula and the way in which funding is set for the devolved regions. The formula actually dates from 1979 when it was devised by the then Chief Secretary for the Treasury. In terms of public expenditure, the per capita spend is lowest in England, and there are many English people who consider they subsidise the devolved regions at their own expense.

The devolved regions themselves argue that they lose out in terms of funding and that the Barnett formula takes no account of the actual needs of each region and its people. The white paper issued by the Scottish government on 30 November 2009 - "Your Scotland, Your Voice, A National Conversation"- notes 'the Scottish budget depends on unilateral decisions by the United Kingdom Government on spending in England.  For example, the implementation of efficiency savings across the United Kingdom Government, and reductions in Department of Health baselines in England in the 2009 Budget, resulted in the Scottish budget being cut by £500 million in 2010/11."

The Liberal Democrat and Conservative manifestos in 2010 both contained proposals for changing the formula. In the Coalition Agreement however the parties indicated that any change would have to wait for 'stabilisation of public finances' (with a theoretical date set of 2015, at the very end of the current Parliament).

Differences in government spending in the devolved regions has alread caused tensions through the student fees issue. How well suited is the current system to dealing with this sort of divergence?

What would be the appropriate way to calculate the formula?  Should the devolved regions have more autonomy over revenue raising?


Last updated May 2011

What you need to know

Devolution involves the delegation of state power by national government to a sub national level.  The United Kingdom is a multinational state, comprising Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) and Northern Ireland, and managing the relationship between the centre and its constituent parts is a perennial issue.  Since 1998, many powers and functions, formerly held by the UK Parliament, have been transferred to sub national bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Independence for one or more of the devolved regions remains possible, with the current Scottish Parliament intending to introduce a referendum within the next 5 years (although polls show that a referendum, if taken now, would reject independence).

Under the British constitution, the UK, central government ultimately remains supreme.  In theory, Westminster could take back the power it delegated, or legislate in spite of the devolved legislatures.  By contrast, in a federal state, the division of powers between the centre and constituent bodies is fixed and difficult to amend; it is not the national or central government which is supreme, but rather the constitution, which distributes the power between centre and constituent parts.

The devolutionary settlements in the UK are not equal: the powers, composition and executive arrangements of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all differ from each other.  England is the only UK nation without a devolved legislature.


Why does it matter?

Devolution is the main means by which the relationships between Westminster and the 4 nations of the United Kingdom are now organised, with the exception of England.

The asymmetry of relations between Westminster and the 4 nations of the United Kingdom is leading many people to rethink the role of MPs from devolved regions at Westminster and whether or not England itself should have its own devolved government.  Devolution is also viewed as the first stage on the road to independence.

What are the key dates?

Union of England and Wales
Union with Scotland
Union with Ireland
Speaker's Conference to consider devolution held
Anglo - Irish Treaty signed - 26 counties of Ireland effectively become the Irish Free State; 6 counties remain to become Northern Ireland
Government of Ireland Act passed - establishes Northern Ireland Parliament with broad powers of legislation
Scottish Covenant calling for devolved government signed by 2 million Scots
direct rule is imposed on Northern Ireland; the Northern Irish Parliament is suspended
The Royal Commission on the Constitution (the 'Kilbrandon Commission') reports, recommending devolved legislatures for Scotland and Wales
referendum on Scottish and Welsh devolution held
Scottish Constitutional Convention holds its first meeting
Scottish Constitutional Convention publishes Scotland's Parliament, Scotland's Right - a call for devolved government
referendum on Scottish and Welsh devolution held, with majorities in both areas voting in favour of devolution; introduction of proportional representation at devolved level
Scotland Act creates a Scottish Parliament able to pass laws on devolved matters and with tax-levying powers
Wales Act creates a Welsh Assembly able to implement laws
Good Friday agreement signed; referendums held in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic later ratify it
Northern Ireland Assembly suspended
referendum on regional government for the Northeast of England fails
Government of Wales Act enables Welsh Assembly to enact ‘measures’ on devolved matters
power restored to the Northern Ireland Assembly
Northern Ireland Assembly takes control over policing and justice
Welsh referendum on extending the powers of the Welsh Assembly produces a decisive 'Yes' result on low turnout

What are the key facts?

Devolution is one approach to the problem of governing the four nations of Britain.  It involves the delegation of state power by national government to a sub national level.  Why is devolution necessary?  There are a number of general arguments for and against devolution.


  • Devolution provides recognition of the historic existence of separate nations and acknowledges their right to determine their own affairs
  • Devolution eases pressures on sub national units to secede from the state to satisfy the above
  • Devolution may increase efficiency; power is best exercised and held accountable at the level at which it most directly affects people
  • Devolution may free the central government from focusing on local issues and allow it to concentrate on broader issues



  • Devolution may lead to the fragmentation and eventual breakup of the United Kingdom
  • Devolution may lead to inequality between regions; there should be uniformity in the treatment of citizens within a state
  • Devolution means the addition of another layer of government


Since 1999 both Scotland and Northern Ireland have had legislatures which can enact primary legislation on certain devolved matters; the Welsh National Assembly acquired a similar capacity in 2006.  Where power is not devolved, it is ‘reserved’ to the UK Parliament.  Generally speaking, matters which remain the responsibility of the UK Parliament include foreign relations, national security, the constitution, and taxation.

All three devolved legislatures, being ultimately ‘subordinate’ to Westminster, specifically lack the power to legislate incompatibly with EC law, the European Convention on Human Rights, and the Human Rights Act 1998.

The devolution arrangements made for each country, often termed the 'devolutionary settlements' are not equal: the powers, composition and executive arrangements of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all differ in form and scope and have been suject to different schedules.  Thus Douglas Hurd argued that devolution was “producing a system of amazing untidiness … a Kingdom of four parts, of three Secretaries of State each with different powers, of two Assemblies and one Parliament, each different in composition and powers from the others.”

The devolutionary settlements of 1998 have made prominent the English Question: what should be done about England, given devolution elsewhere?  England is the only UK nation without a devolved legislature, although it does have regional ministers.  Why should England not have a greater political voice?  There has been talk about creating an English Parliament, but there are a number of practical problems in establishing such an institution.


Each region remains represented by a number of MPs at Westminster roughly in proportion to its population. More


Seats at Westminster by region

  Seats at Westminster % of seats at Westminster % of total UK population
England 533 82 84
Scotland 59 9 8
Wales 40 6.2 5
Northern Ireland 18 2.8 3
Total 646 100 100


One problem highlighted by devolution is the issue of determining what representation a devolved region should have in Westminster.  This is known as the West Lothian question, named after the constituency of the MP who first popularised the issue. More

At the 2005 election, the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster was reduced from 72 to 59; but this only reduced the number of Scottish MPs to parity—that is, Scottish MPs were now represented at Westminster in proportion to its population.  This did not take account of the fact that Scotland now had a devolved legislature

The devolutionary settlements have been accompanied by a set of administrative arrangements setting out mutual understandings and to make relations between Westminster and the devolved regions smoother. More

These administrative arrangements can be found at: House of Commons Library Standard Note “Concordats and Devolution Guidance Notes” 

The Lord Chancellor and the Ministry of Justice have current overall responsibility for devolutionary policy at Westminster.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each have a Secretary of State and an office located at Westminster.  Each Secretary of State represents the interests of his or her respective nation at Westminster, acting as a guardian of devolution and ensuring the region’s interests are fully taken into account.

These Secretaries are responsible to the UK Parliament, not the respective devolved legislatures.  In their respective regions, the Secretaries of State represent UK government interests.  In practice, however, the devolved regions usually liaise with the relevant UK government departments. More

The role and functions of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is considerably broader, because of Northern Ireland’s political and historical issues.  See:

England has nine regional ministers at Westminster.  Appointed as part of the Governance of Britain policy in 2007, the regional ministers have a similar role to the devolved regions’ secretaries of state, with a particular emphasis on economic development. The regional ministers’ role is to ‘provide a clear sense of strategic direction’ for their respective regions, to represent the regions’ interests in central government, and represent the central government in the regions.

At Westminster, there are also regional select committees and grand committees for the English regions, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  Select committees for the regions (English and devolved) operate in a similar manner to other select committees: they examine the work of the Westminster departments responsible for a particular region.  So, for instance, the Scottish select committee examines the expenditure, administration and policy of the Scotland Office, and its relations with the Scottish government. Grand committees consist of all the MPs of that region.  They debate broad issues relevant to their region, question the relevant minister, and can if necessary examine relevant legislation.  Grand Committees can also meet outside Westminster. More

Source:  House of Commons Library “Regional Accountability at Westminster”



England, alone of the three nations, has no separate legislature and government; it is governed solely by Westminster.  This raises starkly ‘the English question’.

In light of this issue, the Labour government suggested the establishment of regional assemblies.  The public appetite for such bodies was tested in 2004, when a referendum was held in the Northeast of England on the matter.  On a 50% turnout, 78% of those voting rejected the idea of a regional Parliament.  The idea of regional government for the Northeast was dropped.

Instead, England currently has nine regional ministers at Westminster, appointed as part of the Governance of Britain policy in 2007.  These nine regions represented are:

  • East Midlands
  • East of England
  • London
  • North East
  • North West
  • South East
  • South West
  • West Midlands
  • Yorkshire and the Humber More
    See Government Offices for the English Regions: 



In the 1997 referendum, the Scottish electorate was asked two questions: should there be a Scottish Parliament, and should such a Parliament have tax-varying powers.  Of those who voted, 74.3% voted yes to a Scottish Parliament, and 63.5% voted yes for tax-varying powers.  A Scottish Parliament with tax-varying powers was established under the Scotland Act 1998. In May 2010 The Scottish Nationalist Party won a majority on the Scottish Parliament, and announced plans for a referendum on independence from Britain.


The composition of the unicameral Scottish Parliament is determined by a proportional representation system (AMS).  There are 129 MSPs in the Scottish Parliament: 73 are elected by constituency vote and the remaining 56 by party vote.  There are constitutionally required fixed-term elections every 4 years. More

Election results

Party 1999 2003 2007 2011
Conservative 18 18 17 15
Labour 56 50 46 37
Liberal Democrats 17 17 16 5
SNP 35 27 47 68
Greens 1 7 2 2
Others 2 10 1 2
Total 129 129 129 129
Form of Government Labour-Lib Dem majority coalition Labour-Lib Dem majority coalition

SNP minority government

SNP majority government


As a result of proportional representation, it is difficult for any one party to win a majority in the Scottish Parliament.  This has meant that on election night, Scottish political parties negotiated amongst themselves to form a stable government. In the first two parliamentary terms, the Scottish Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats functioned relatively well as a majority coalition; the next Scottish government was the Scottish Nationalist Party, running as a minority government. They proceded to increase their advantage in the 2011 election, winning a majority in spite of the fact that Scotland's Additional Member system (by design) involves a tendency towards coalitions.

As a practical matter the Scottish government is usually the party with the most seats in Parliament.  A First Minister is chosen by the Scottish Parliament.  The First Minister then appoints the other members of Cabinet, who collectively then make up the Scottish government. The Scottish government must retain the support of a majority of the Scottish Parliament in order to govern. There is a Scottish civil service, who are responsible to the Scottish government.


The powers of the Scottish Parliament are determined by the Scotland Act 1998.  In essence, the Scottish Parliament can enact primary and secondary legislation on any matter not reserved to the UK Parliament.

The areas reserved to Westminster are set out in the Scotland Act, and include matters such as:

  • the constitution
  • defence and national security
  • the fiscal, economic and monetary system
  • trade and industry
  • some aspects of transport
  • social security
  • foreign affairs
  • the civil service
  • immigration and nationality
  • energy: electricity, coal, oil, gas, nuclear energy
  • employment
  • equal opportunities


Matters devolved to Scotland include:

  • health
  • education and training
  • local government
  • social work
  • housing
  • planning
  • tourism, economic development and financial assistance to industry
  • some aspects of transport
  • law and home affairs, including most aspects of criminal and civil law
  • the police and fire services
  • agriculture, forestry and fishing


There is an understanding that the UK Parliament will not legislate on a devolved matter without first obtaining the consent of the Scottish Parliament: this is known as the Sewell convention.  Although the Westminster Parliament in theory could legislate on any matter in contravention of the Scotland Act, it does not, because this violates the spirit of devolution. More

In practice, ‘Sewell motions’, or legislative consent motions—where the UK Parliament seeks the consent of the Scottish Parliament to legislate for Scotland—have been used relatively frequently, attracting criticism: it is argued that it was not intended that the Westminster Parliament legislate often for Scotland; moreover, legislating via the Westminster Parliament prevents the Scottish Parliament from scrutinizing laws passed for Scotland.  See:  House of Commons Library Standard Note “The Sewell Convention”
Scottish Parliament


Scottish Government


Original empowering legislation: the Scotland Act 1998

The Calman Commission

The Calman Commission was set up in 2007 to re-examine the devolutionary settlement 10 years on.  It was established at the behest of the pro-union opposition parties at the Scottish Parliament, and was a response to the SNP government’s ‘National Conversation’ paper designed to look at options for Scotland’s constitutional future—in particular, independence.

The Calman Commission’s final report was published in 2009.  It was not concerned with Scottish independence; it accepted the current division of powers and was only concerned with improving the current devolutionary relationship.  Key recommendations included:

  • The reduction of income tax by 10p across all rates by the UK Treasury, with a corresponding reduction in the block grant from Westminster. Holyrood would then be given the power to make up the difference: they can choose to tax more or less.
  • The Barnett formula should remain in place pro tem, as the Scottish Parliament still requires a grant from Westminster as many taxes are still not resolved or defined.
  • Devolving to the Scottish Parliament a number of other taxes, such as the Stamp duty, aggregates levy and landfill tax.
  • The devolution of powers to legislate on such matters as drink-driving, speeding limits and the running of Scottish elections. More
    The Calman Commission’s final report can be found here:


The Coalition Government commentedthat they will implement the proposals of the Calman Commission and have recognised the concerns of the Holtham Commission regarding devolution funding. However, subsequent statements indicated that tackling the deficit will be priority.

For background on the Calman Commission, see House of Commons Library Standard Note “The Commission on Scottish Devolution—The Calman Commission”

The current Scottish government’s ‘National Conversation’ website with its proposals for an independent Scotland can be found here:

On St Andrew’s day, 30 November 2009, the Scottish government published a white paper on the constitutional future of Scotland, with independence as its favoured option.  In the view of the First Minister, Alex Salmond, independence is the only way that Scotland will be able to achieve its full economic potential. During that sitting of the Assembly Salmond was unable to muster the support needed for a referendum on independence. Since winning a majority he has called for a referendum to be held to decide the issue during the next 4 years.

Three other options were contained in the 2009 white paper:

  • The present set up should remain
  • Acceptance of the recommendations in the Calman Commission
  • Further and more significant transfer of responsibilities from Westminster to Scotland. More{{MOREBOX}} The white paper -  Your Scotland, Your Voice: A National Conversation - can be accessed here



In the 1997 referendum, the Welsh electorate was asked simply if there should be a Welsh Assembly.  Of those who voted, 50.3% voted yes.  The Welsh National Assembly was accordingly established under the Wales Act 1998.


The composition of the unicameral Welsh National Assembly is determined by a proportional representation system (AMS).  There are 60 AMs (Assembly Members): 40 are elected by constituency vote and the remainder by party vote.  There is a fixed 4-year electoral term.

Election Results

Party 1999 2003 2007 2011
Conservatives 9 11 12 14
Labour 28 30 26 30
Liberal Demnocrats 6 6 6 5
Plaid Cymru 17 12 15 11
Others 0 1 1 0
Total 60 60 60 60
Form of Government 1999-2000 Labour minority government. 2000-2003 Labour-LibDem majority Labour 'majority' (because Presiding Officer chosen from opposition party) Labour-Plaid Cymru majority coalition Labour-Plaid Cymru majority coalition


Under proportional representation no single party has gained a majority in the Assembly, although currently the Labour party has exactly half of the members (i.e. 1 seat short of a majority).  Welsh governments have been reasonably stable, aided by the four-year fixed parliamentary term.

The Welsh Assembly chooses a First Minister, who then appoints Assembly Ministers who make up the government.  Under the Government of Wales Act 2006, the maximum size of the government will be 14.  The Welsh government must retain the confidence of the majority of the National Assembly in order to govern.  There is a Welsh civil service, who are responsible to the Welsh executive.


Initially, under the Government of Wales Act 1998, the Welsh National Assembly had no power to make primary legislation: it could only enact secondary legislation via primary legislation made by the Westminster Parliament.

However, the 2006 Wales Act granted to the Welsh National Assembly the power to make ‘measures’, which are equivalent to primary legislation, on certain areas.  This power is far more narrowly defined than the power of the Scottish Parliament, but can be expanded by legislation passed in Westminster.

A list of matters which the Welsh National Assembly can legislate on can be found at:

The 2009 All Wales Convention

The All Wales Convention was set up by the governing coalition government of Labour and Plaid Cyrmu in 2007 to examine the state of the devolutionary settlement in Wales, and to determine public opinion on whether or not the National Assembly should be given greater law-making powers as in Scotland.

Some of the findings include:

  • 72% of all Welsh people favoured the present devolutionary settlement or wanted more.
  • However, there is limited knowledge about the Government of Wales Act 2006
  • A ‘yes’ vote in a referendum for greater law-making powers is possible
  • A referendum on further devolution for the Welsh Assembly will be held in May 2011. The Coalition Government have said that depending on the result of that referendum they ‘will establish a process similar to the Calman Commission for the Welsh Assembly’

2011 Referendum

On the 3rd March 2011 a referendum was held asking "Do you want the Assembly to be able to make laws for all 20 areas it has powers for?". A 63.49% majority voted for the proposal, on a 35.2% turnout.  Previously certain powers, delegated under the original devolution legislation, required the Assembly to pass the act and then have it verified by Westminster and granted royal assent. The Yes result granted the Welsh assembly greater independence in its law-making.


Northern Ireland

Devolution for Northern Ireland was a different matter: the Northern Irish Assembly was part of a broader attempt to bring to an end ongoing hostilities within Northern Ireland and more generally to end political violence caused by issues in Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.  As part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, it was agreed that, amongst other things, a new Northern Ireland Assembly would be established, along with a power-sharing executive.

The Good Friday Agreement was ratified by referendums both in North Ireland and the Irish Republic.  In Northern Ireland, 71.1% of those participating voted in favour of the agreement; in the Irish Republic, 94.4% voted in favour of giving up territorial claims to Northern Ireland.  The Northern Ireland Assembly was established by the Northern Ireland Act 1998.


The composition of the Northern Ireland Assembly is determined by a proportional representation system (STV).  There are 108 MLAs (members of the Legislative Assembly), representing 18 constituencies.  Each constituency is represented by 6 MLAs.  There is a fixed 4-year term.

Party 1998 2003 2007 2011
Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) 9 11 12 16
Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) 28 30 26 14
Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) 6 6 6 38(37)
Sinn Fein 17 12 15 29
Others 0 1 1 11
Total 108 60 60 108
Northern Ireland Executive UUP-SDLP-DUP-Sinn Fein suspended UUP-SDLP-DUP-Sinn Fein DUP-Sinn Fein


However, the Assembly was suspended in 2002 when the key political parties were unable to work together.  When the Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended, executive functions were exercised by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—in short, there was direct rule of Northern Ireland again.  A transitional Assembly was convened in 2006 and the National Assembly re-established in 2007.

The Northern Irish government consists of a First Minister, a Deputy First Minister and 10 other Ministers.  There is a complex arrangement to ensure that power is shared between major political parties.  The First and Deputy First Minister are chosen by the Assembly, and must gain both a majority of the Assembly members voting, and a majority from both Nationalist and Unionist parties.  The First and Deputy First Ministers must act jointly in all matters.  Further, and unlike the other devolved regions, the 10 remaining ministerial positions are not chosen by the First and Deputy First Ministers, but instead allocated in proportion to the strength of the parties in the Assembly.  This in effect creates a ‘compulsory coalition’.

There is a Northern Irish civil service, which is responsible to the Northern Irish executive.


The allocation of powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly is somewhat complex. Under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, there were three categories of legislative powers:

  • excepted matters, which can only be transferred by primary legislation at Westminster; but are envisaged to always be the responsibility of the UK Parliament
  • reserved matters, which can be transferred by order, if there is cross-community consent
  • transferred matters, which are the responsibility of the Assembly.

However on the 12th April 2010 the Assembly took responsibility for policing and justice following an agreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein. Only the Ulster Unionist Party opposed the vote in the Assembly.

Excepted matters unde the Northern Ireland Act included:

  • the Crown
  • parliamentary elections, and Assembly elections including the franchise
  • international relations
  • defence of the realm
  • nationality
  • national taxation
  • appointment and removal of judges
  • registration of political parties
  • national security
  • nuclear energy and installations
  • provisions dealt with in the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973
  • the subject matter of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 with specified exceptions

Reserved matters included:

  • criminal law
  • policing
  • prisons
  • civil aviation
  • the Post Office
  • disqualification from membership of the Assembly
  • emergency powers
  • civil defence

Transferred matters included:

  • finance and personnel
  • health, social services and public safety
  • education
  • agriculture and rural development
  • enterprise, trade and investment
  • learning and employment
  • regional development
  • social development


In essence, the Northern Ireland Assembly has a similar broad set of legislative powers to the Scottish Parliament: but where it differed is in the matters reserved to Westminster—matters linked to social order, policing and criminal justice. Accordngly the vote of April 2010 is of considerable signifiance to the status of the Assembly.  In addition to the elements set out above, the Assembly cannot pass a law which discriminates on the basis of religious belief or political opinion.

Northern Ireland Assembly

Northern Ireland Executive

Original empowering legislation: the Northern Ireland Act 1998

The Barnett Formula

The devolved regions have few means of raising their own revenue. The Scottish Parliament currently has a very limited power to raise or lower the amount of income tax under the Scotland Act 1998. Generally speaking, much funding for the devolved areas comes by block grant from Westminster, allocated in accordance with the ‘Barnett formula’.  In essence, the Barnett formula takes per capita spending levels in England as the baseline.  Where changes are made to spending levels in England, funding to the other three regions is changed accordingly.  The changes in per capita spending to the other three regions are made with the ultimate aim of bringing spending levels down to England’s level: historically, the three regions have received more public funding than England.

Index of changes in the territorial distribution of overall per capita public spending,

  England Wales Scotland NI
2001-2002 96 112 119 132
2002-2003 96 113 118 133
2003-2004 97 113 117 126
2004-2005 97 111 114 126
2005-2006 97 111 117 124
2006-2007 97 112 118 123
2007-2008 97 111 118 125
2008-2009 (plans) 97 111 116 122

Source: House of Lords Select Committee on the Barnett Formula


Many people are critical of the Barnett formula, including Lord Barnett, the Treasury official after whom the formula was named. Some of the problems with the Barnett Formula are:

  • There is no reason why England should function as the baseline
  • The formula is concerned with changes in the levels of public expenditure, not the levels themselves
  • The formula takes no account of the actual needs of the regions; it may be that one region needs more public funds than another region
  • The formula pits the devolved regions against the central government.  The devolved regions are not responsible for raising their own revenue and the formula ultimately aims to reduce the devolved regions’ per capita spending to the level of England. Source: Anthony King The British Constitution (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007.  One frequently cited aspect of this is that per capita spending in Scotland is at least 15.8% higher than in England


A recent House of Lords select committee on the Barnett formula argued that while simple, stable and avoiding ring-fencing, the Barnett formula failed to take account of population change in the various regions, and thus was arbitrary and unfair. Moreover, the Treasury, who administered the formula, was in effect a judge in its own cause.

The committee recommended that devolution funding should be based on relative need and that an independent body be established with the responsibility for making recommendations about the allocation of public monies based on population and a needs-based formula.

Practical Issues

It is probably still too soon to tell what practical issues may arise by reason of the creation of the devolved regions.  However, the 2009 case involving the decision by the Scottish justice secretary to release from prison convicted Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, for the first time focused on the possibility that decisions taken in the devolved settlements might have wider implications for the United Kingdom as a whole.  From the international perspective at least, decisions of the Scottish executive are imputed to the United Kingdom as a whole, so that the al-Megrahi affair has foreign affairs ramifications for the UK despite arising technically in an area for which responsibility has been devolved (law and home affairs). 

The Coalition’s plans for reducing the number of MPs, and thereby making constituencies larger, may have an effect on representation at Westminster. The guidelines suggested for such provisions are that new constituencies will have to number within 5% of a target quota–a suggested figure of around 75,000 people. Scotland has already had two of its constituencies protected from these conditions: Orkney & Shetland and Na h-Eileanan an lar.  

These plans would have an asymmetrical effect on the regions. It is thought that Wales would be hit the hardest, losing 25% of their seats. Northern Ireland is expected to lose 17%, Scotland 12% and England 6%. As such, the plans have faced criticism from groups such as Plaid Cymru.

From devolution to independence

Many regard devolution as the first step towards independence.  The Scottish National Party has made clear that it regards movement towards separation of Scotland from the rest of the UK as a legitimate and realisable goal.  Such separation would spell the end of the Union.  The Labour party has indicated that permitting a referendum on Scottish independence is a ‘possibility’ and the Liberal Democrats have also offered support to this proposition.  The Conservatives, remain opposed to independence and support the continuance of the United Kingdom in its current form.


The debate about transferring power from the central state to a sub national level in the United Kingdom is not new.  There was much debate about devolution at the beginning of the 20th century in relation to Ireland—this was the debate over ‘Home Rule’. Indeed, how to deal with Ireland, then entirely part of the United Kingdom, was the central political issue in early 20th century British politics.

The eventual partition of Ireland into the Irish Free State (later the Republic of Eire) and Northern Ireland, which remained part of the United Kingdom, ended with the establishment of a bicameral Parliament in Stormont, Belfast, in 1921. The Government of Ireland Act 1920 in fact established parliaments for both Northern and Southern Ireland, but ultimately the Irish Free State rejected this parliament. See:

The Parliament was empowered to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of Northern Ireland, although some areas of competence remained reserved to Westminster. 

These ‘reserved’ areas included:

  • The Crown
  • the making of peace or war
  • the defence of the realm
  • treaties
  • laws interfering with religious equality


The Northern Ireland Parliament was an early example of devolved government. In practice, the Northern Irish Parliament was dominated by the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland.

The Northern Irish Parliament was suspended in 1972 in the face of increasing violence in the region, and direct rule by Westminster was imposed.  From 1972 until 1999 Northern Ireland in effect was governed by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.  During this time legislation for Northern Ireland was enacted by Westminster.

There were other institutions in Westminster which recognised and acknowledged the United Kingdom’s multinational character.  For instance, Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were created over the 19th and 20th centuries to represent the three nations’ interests at Westminster; and so too with the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish grand committees in the UK Parliament.  All of these institutions, however, were ultimately responsible only to the UK Parliament.

Devolution became a national issue again in the 1970s.  The rise of nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales, the relative electoral success of the Scottish Nationalist Party in Scotland, and the weakness of its majority at Westminster, encouraged the Labour government to rethink devolution.  This ultimately led to referendums on devolution in both Scotland and Wales in 1979.  Both failed.  In Scotland, although 51.6% voted in favour of devolution, this only constituted 32.9% of all eligible electors.  A positive vote of 40% of all eligible electors was required to establish a devolved legislature.  In Wales, 80% voted against devolution.

The Labour Party committed itself to devolved government for the regions in its 1997 electoral manifesto.  After Labour came to power in 1997, referendums were held in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In each of those regions, the majority of those participating voted in favour of establishing devolved government.  All three regions now have legislatures elected by proportional representation.


What do others think?

The Campaign for an English Parliament


English Parliament Online


Institute for Public Policy and Research “Beyond the Constitution? Englishness in a Post-Devolved Britain”


The Scottish Independence Guide

References and Links

Research papers

Useful websites

Further reading

Research papers

The English Question, Robert Hazell (The Constitution Unit, UCL), 2006

An Introduction to Devolution in the UK, House of Commons Library, 2003

The UK Devolved Legislatures: Some Comparisons between Their Powers and Work, House of Commons Library, 2007

House of Commons Library Standard Note Concordats and Devolution Guidance Notes, House of Commons Library, 2005

The Sewell Convention, House of Commons Library, 2005

The West Lothian Question, House of Commons Library, 2010

Report on the Barnett Formula, Lords Select Committee on the Barnett formula, 2009

Useful websites

Government Offices for the English Regions

Scottish Parliament

Scottish Government

Secretary of State for Scotland

The Commission on Scottish Devolution (the Calman Commission)

Welsh Assembly

Welsh Assembly Government

Secretary of State for Wales

Northern Ireland Assembly

Northern Ireland Executive

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Further reading

- Brigid Hadfield “The Territorial“ Vernon Bogdanor (ed)

- The British Constitution in the Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003)

- Anthony King The British Constitution (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007)

- Rodney Brazier Constitutional Reform: Reshaping the British Political System (third edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007)