The devolved nations

In addition to having representation in the UK Parliament, the nations of Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales are also represented by their own elected national assemblies or parliaments, and associated executive bodies. These are known as the ‘devolved administrations’, and they have certain restricted powers to legislate and govern on matters which relate only to that nation.

‘Devolution’ is a process of administrative and legislative decentralisation. The degree to which power has been devolved to each national assembly varies according to the terms of the individual devolution settlements, but the UK government generally retains responsibility for the following areas:

  • the constitution
  • international relations and defence
  • national security
  • nationality and immigration
  • nuclear energy
  • broadcasting
  • taxation (likely to change in Scotland following the Scotland Bill 2015-16)
  • employment and social security (except in Northern Ireland)

The UK government also funds the devolved administrations, via a block grant, which can then be allocated to any devolved responsibility as the administration sees fit. You can find more information about the devolved administrations, including the details of each nation’s settlement, here.

Devolved legislatures

Like the UK Parliament, the three devolved legislatures are made up of elected Members, who each represent a constituency or an area. Members usually belong to political parties, with the party/parties holding the most seats forming a devolved government. Although many of the major UK parties are represented in the devolved legislatures, they have subsidiary national parties (i.e. Scottish Labour is closely tied to, but independent from, the UK Labour Party). There are also parties specific to particular nations, for example the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru (National Assembly for Wales), or the Democratic Unionist Party (Northern Ireland Assembly). These parties may contest both constituency seats in the national assemblies, and seats in Westminster, although in practice they have only ever fielded candidates in Westminster constituencies within their nation.

Unlike the UK Parliament, Members are elected via proportional representation. Frequency of elections also varies, and the devolved legislatures are also unicameral (single house), rather than bicameral (two houses). There is no official Opposition party, unlike the UK Parliament; all parties not in government are simply ‘opposition parties’.

Devolved administrations

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.

Civil servants in the devolved administrations do not serve the same ministers or work in the same departments as the UK government – i.e., they do not answer 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 the UK 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 the UK government. Each territorial secretary of state is supported by a territorial department.

Below are summarised the key differences between the three devolved legislatures and administrations, and the UK Parliament and government.

Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government

  • 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs), representing 73 constituencies and 56 regions
  • Elections every 4 years
  • Constituency MSPs elected via first-past-the-post, regional MSPs via a party vote (also known as the Mixed Member Proportional system)
  • Scotland already has some powers to adjust income tax rates
  • Following the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014, which was narrowly lost by the ‘yes’ vote, the Smith Commission recommended further devolutionary powers be transferred to Scotland, including complete control over income tax and some welfare issues. Debate about devolution continues, but a Scotland Bill will be debated by the House in the 2015-16 session, so further devolution of some sort is likely.

Northern Ireland Assembly and Northern Ireland Executive

  • 108 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) representing 18 six-member constituencies (to be reduced to 96 after the 2016 elections)
  • Elections are supposed to occur every 4 years unless the Assembly is dissolved
  • MLAs are elected via single transferable vote
  • The Assembly has been dissolved four times since it gained full powers in 1999; the longest dissolution was between October 2002 and May 2007. When the Assembly is dissolved, the UK government assumes executive powers over Northern Ireland

National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Government

  • 60 Assembly Members (AMs) representing 40 constituencies and 5 regions
  • Elections every 4 years
  • Constituency MPs elected via first-past-the-post, regional MPs via a party vote

The Engaging with central and devolved government guide has advice and information on how to work with policymakers in the devolved nations.