Devolution is a process of delegating power, but not sovereignty, from the UK Parliament to specific regions of the country. This is power which can be returned to Parliament through a constitutional statute. Therefore it is a transfer of power without eroding the sovereignty of Parliament.
What is Devolution?
A difference between devolution in the UK and federalism in the USA is asymmetry. In a federal system, each regional government is granted equal powers. In the UK’s system, this is not the case. The UK has what is known as asymmetric devolution.
Devolution is the transfer of power from central government to subordinate regional institutions (to ‘devolve’ means to pass powers or duties down from a higher authority to a lower one). Devolved bodies therefore constitute an intermediate tier of government between central and local government . Devolution differs from federalism in that, although their territorial jurisdictions may be similar, devolved bodies have no share in sovereignty. Their responsibilities and powers are determined by the centre, which can, in theory at least, abolish them. Devolution nevertheless comes in different forms:
• Administrative devolution allows regional institutions to implement policies decided elsewhere
• Legislative devolution (sometimes called ‘home rule’) operates through elected regional assemblies that are invested with policy- making responsibilities and, usually, have some tax raising powers.
The first elections for the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales (usually known as the Welsh Assembly) were held in 1999, following successful referendums in 1997. The Northern Ireland Assembly came into existence in 1998, as a consequence of the Belfast Agreement (also known as the Good Friday Agreement). Although highly controversial in its initial stage–the Conservatives strongly opposed Scottish and Welsh devolution, and the Welsh devolution referendum was won by a margin of less than 1 per cent of the vote – devolution has quickly become a popular and established feature of UK politics. The proportion of voters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who want to return to direct rule from Westminster has consistently fallen, and all major UK parties now support devolution.
Devolution in the UK
It is the transfer of powers but not sovereignty to the three national regions of the UK.
Originally the funding for devolved services came from a central government annual grant, but increasingly the devolved governments have gained independent control over taxes raised in their countries.
The size of the devolution grants has been calculated using the ‘Barnett formula’, which takes account of the fact that the three countries have greater needs than England.
It is asymmetric, meaning that the three regions have not been granted the same powers.
The devolved administrations each have an elected assembly (parliament in Scotland and Wales) and an executive, or government, which is drawn from the assembly.
The method of election of the assemblies is not first-past-the-post but by forms of proportional representation.
In general, devolution has been entrenched by referendums.
The UK Parliament has the option of bringing back the powers to Westminster and has suspended devolved government in Northern Ireland several times.
Has devolution made a difference?
To what extent has public policy in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland diverged from the rest of the UK as a result of devolution? Some significant changes have undoubtedly taken place, particularly in Scotland. These include the abolition of upfront tuition fees for university students, the reintroduction of free long-term care for the elderly and higher teachers’ pay. Local government elections have also been changed with the introduction of the proportional single transferable vote (STV) voting system. The Welsh Assembly has pioneered new initiatives in childcare and early years policies, and has abolished prescription charges. It has also reorganised the NHS to bring it in line with local government boundaries in Wales. The impact of devolution in Northern Ireland was limited by the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly between 2002 and 2007 (following a number of earlier, shorter suspensions between 1999 and 2002). However, the restoration of power-sharing between the DUP and Sinn Féin is likely to provide the basis for the development, over time, of a distinctive approach to domestic policy.