The current Government elected in May 1997 came to power committed to wide-ranging constitutional reform. Its programme included a substantial decentralisation of power by the establishment of a Parliament and Executive in Scotland, an Assembly in Wales, and over a longer timescale, the devolution of power to regional level in England. The Belfast Agreement reached in Northern Ireland in April 1998, approved in a referendum the following month, also opened the way for constitutional development there.
In 1969 the Crowther (later Kilbrandon) Commission was appointed by the Labour government to consider devolution in Scotland and Wales. Its recommendations were published in 1973 and formed the White Paper, 'Democracy and Devolution: proposals for Scotland and Wales' published in 1974.
The Scotland Act and Wales Act were passed in 1978, but would only be enacted if voted for by the people of Scotland and Wales in referendums. In addition, the Scotland Act also contained the 'Cunningham Amendment' which stated that if less than 40% of the electorate voted yes in a referendum then the Scotland Act would be repealed.
The referendums were held on 1 March 1979. In Scotland, 51.6% voted in favour of a Devolved Administration, but this only accounted for 32.9% of the electorate - thus the Scotland Act was repealed in 1979. In Wales, 79.7% voted against the establishment of a Devolved Administration.
The current Government elected in May 1997 came to power committed to wide-ranging constitutional reform. Its programme included a substantial decentralisation of power by the establishment of a Parliament and Executive in Scotland, an Assembly in Wales, and over a longer timescale, the devolution of power to regional level in England.
The Government published detailed proposals for Scotland and Wales in July 1997, and these were approved by referendums in Scotland and Wales in September of that year. The Scotland Act and the Government of Wales Act both completed their passage through the UK Parliament in 1998 and the first elections to the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales took place on 6 May 1999. Following a short transitional period, the devolution arrangements became fully operational on 1 July 1999.The Belfast Agreement reached in Northern Ireland in April 1998, approved in a referendum the following month, also opened the way for constitutional development there.
Scotland has a Parliament of 129 members elected every four years on the Additional Member System of proportional representation. The Parliament operates broadly on the Westminster model, electing a First Minister who heads an Executive. The Parliament and Executive have responsibility for most aspects of domestic, economic and social policy, while the United Kingdom Parliament retains control of foreign affairs, defence and national security, macro-economic and fiscal matters, employment and social security. The Scottish Parliament is funded by a block grant from the UK Government but has the power to increase or decrease the basic rate of income tax set by the UK Parliament by up to three pence in the pound.
Schedules 4 and 5 of the Scotland Act lists all matters which are "reserved" to Westminster and the UK Government. All matters not listed are considered to be devolved.
The National Assembly for Wales has 60 members, also elected by the Additional Member System of proportional representation. It does not have the power to make primary legislation, but enjoys extensive executive powers and may make secondary legislation (i.e. orders and regulations fixing the detail of implementation). Its responsibilities are not as wide as those of the Scottish Parliament: in particular, the UK Government retains responsibility for the police and the legal system. The Assembly has chosen to establish a Cabinet system on the Scottish Executive model, albeit combined with a strong committee system. The Assembly is funded by a block grant and has no powers of taxation.
The responsibilities of the National Assembly for Wales set out in two Transfer of Functions Orders, plus further functions conferred by primary legislation since devolution. The Government of Wales Act lists the main areas of devolved responsibility.
In June 2005, the 'Better Governance for Wales' white paper proposed legislation, which resulted in the Government of Wales Act 2006. This Act:
Further information see the Wales Office website
One of the new institutions created following the Belfast Agreement of April 1998 was an Assembly of 108 members with a similar range of legislative and executive powers to the Scottish Parliament. The Northern Ireland Executive comprises of a First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and 10 Ministers, allocated in proportion to party strengths represented in the Assembly.
There are Committees for each of the main executive functions of the Northern Ireland Executive. The membership and chair of each committee is again allocated in proportion to party strengths. These Committees have scrutiny, policy development and consultative functions. Elections were held in June 1998, a First Minister and Deputy First Minister were elected and agreement reached on most of the detail of institutions dealing with relationships between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The Executive and the institutions were first set up on 2 December 1999 but were suspended when direct rule was re-introduced by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on 11 February 2000. The Executive and institutions were re-established following negotiations between all the parties on 29 May 2000. Devolution has been suspended on two further occasions, on 10 August and 21 September 2001 for 24 hours on each occasion. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland suspended the Northern Ireland Assembly on 14 October 2002 and Northern Ireland has been returned to direct rule.
The Northern Ireland Act lists those matters which are "reserved" (matters which can only be legislated on by the Assembly with the Secretary of State's consent) and "excepted" matters. For further information see Devolution Guidance Note 11, or refer to the legislation involved.