In 1997, the Government
began a programme of devolving
power from central government, with the intention
of giving people in Wales and Scotland greater control over matters
that directly affect them. Since 1999 there has been
an Assembly in Wales, and a Parliament in Scotland, and the Government is now proposing the
idea of regional governments in England when there is a clear local
However, policy and laws governing defence,
foreign affairs, taxation, and social security remain
under the control of the UK Government in London,
although these issues may be debated in the Welsh
Assembly and the Scottish Parliament.
The National Assembly for Wales
The National Assembly for Wales
is situated in Cardiff.
It has 60 Assembly Members (AMs)
and elections are held every four years. Members can
speak in either English or Welsh and all its publications
are in both languages. The Assembly does not have
the power to make separate laws for Wales
but it may propose laws for the decision of the UK
Parliament in Westminster.
However, it does have the power to decide on many
other important matters, such as education policy;
the environment, health services, transport and local
government, where the present laws allow Welsh ministers
a great deal of discretion in making detailed regulations.
The Parliament of Scotland
The Parliament of Scotland in Edinburgh
arose as the result of a long campaign by people in
Scotland for more independence and
democratic control. For a long time there had been
a devolved administration run by the Scottish Office,
but no national elected body. A referendum for a Scottish
Parliament, in 1979, did not gain enough support,
but when another was held in 1997, the electorate
gave a clear "yes' both to establishing a Scottish
Parliament and to it having limited powers to vary
national income tax.
Today there are 129 Members of the Scottish Parliament
(MSPs) in Edinburgh,
who are elected by a form of proportional representation.
Unlike the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament
may pass legislation on anything not specifically
reserved to Westminster
(foreign affairs, defence,
general economic policy, and social security).
The Scottish Parliament is funded by a grant from
the UK Government and can spend it how it chooses.
It has the legal power to make small changes in the
lower base rate of income tax, which it has not exercised
so far, and has adopted its own procedures for debate,
the passage of legislation and access to the public
- all deliberately
different from the traditional ways of Westminster.
The Northern Ireland
The Northern Ireland Parliament, often called Stormont after the building where it met, was established
in 1922, following the division of Ireland after civil war. Protestant
political parties however, dominated the Parliament,
and abolished the electoral system of proportional
representation that was designed to protect the Catholic
minority - a community who faced considerable discrimination in
housing and jobs in the public services.
The Government in London
paid little attention to these problems until, 50
years later, protests, riots, and a civil disobedience
campaign led them to abolish Stormont
when reforms failed to materialise.
Conflicts increased between Protestant and Catholic
groups, the former determined to remain part of the
while the latter determined to achieve unity with
the Irish Republic.
There followed many
years of communal distrust, violence, and terrorism.
But after a negotiated cease-fire by both the main
para-military groups - the IRA (the Irish
Republican Army), and the UDA (the Ulster Defence
Association) - the Good Friday
Agreement was signed in 1998 between the main parties
and endorsed by the Irish and British governments,
working closely together.
Shortly afterwards, the Northern Ireland Assembly
was established, with a power- sharing agreement in
which the main parties divided the ministerial offices
between them. The Assembly has 108 elected members,
with powers to decide on matters such as education,
agriculture, environment, health, and social services
In view of the political
situation in Northern
Ireland, the UK
government kept the power to suspend the Assembly
if the political leaders could no longer agree to
work together or if the Assembly was not working in
the interests of the people of Northern
Ireland. This has
happened on a number of occasions.
Non-departmental public bodies
Much of government that affect
us all is conducted not directly, but through a multitude
of agencies with various degrees of independence.
These are organisations
that Parliament can create or abolish, or change their
powers and roles, but are not a direct part of the
civil service. They are sometimes called quangos - quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations.
A few examples of non-departmental public bodies
Trading bodies set up by central
government that raise revenue :
Her Majesty's Stationery Office (official and semi-official
publications), Forestry Commission, National Savings
Bank, Crown Estates Commission...
Spending agencies funded by government : Regional Health Authorities,
Higher Education Funding Councils, Sports Council,
Arts Council, Legal Services Commission, Medical Research
Quasi-judicial and prosecuting bodies : Monopolies and Mergers Commission, Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority,
Police Complaints Authority, Crown Prosecution Service....
Statutory Advisory Bodies to Ministers : Gaming Board, Health and Safety Commission, Law Commission, Commission
for Racial Equality, Equal Opportunities
Commission, Advisory Board on Naturalisation
Development agencies (many of which are public-private partnerships): Scottish Enterprise,
Highlands and Islands Development Board (Scotland),
Development Agency, Rural Development Commission,
several regional Urban Development Corporations....