Devolution: A Decade On - Justice Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by the Ministry of Justice


  1.  The Committee has invited written submissions of evidence on its inquiry into devolution. The Government welcomes the chance to contribute to the discussion, after nearly 10 years of successful devolution in Scotland and Wales and following on from the successful restoration earlier in the year of devolution in Northern Ireland.

  2.  The Government was elected on a platform of constitutional reform and remains committed to delivering a far reaching constitutional reform agenda. The Human Rights Act, the Freedom of Information Act and the Constitutional Reform Act were all introduced by this Government. They were aimed at protecting existing rights, increasing transparency of decision making, and updating, refreshing and safeguarding the relationships between the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary.

  3.  Devolution sits squarely within this wider constitutional reform agenda, and the devolution legislation in 1998 and 2006 has introduced significant and much needed change to the UK Constitution. The settlements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland catered for specific demands for new democratic institutions in those parts of the UK, while maintaining the sovereignty of the UK Parliament in Westminster.

  4.  For Scotland, legislative devolution built upon the distinctive Scottish institutions which remained after the Union of 1707, including the legal and educational systems. The extensive administrative devolution, built around the Office of Secretary for Scotland from 1885, provided the basis for the creation of the Scottish Executive and Parliament.

  5.  Wales has its own history within the Union, and until the early twentieth century Wales and England were administered as one. In 1964 the first Secretary of State for Wales was appointed with his own department—the Welsh Office—and over the ensuing thirty years or so its role was progressively widened. The creation of the Welsh Assembly in 1999 put those domestic Welsh policy matters under the democratic control of the Assembly. The Government of Wales Act 2006 built on the foundations of that settlement and provides for greater devolution in Wales by increasing the legislative competence of the National Assembly. The Act provides the National Assembly, for the first time, with opportunities to seek from Parliament legislative powers to pass Assembly Measures, a new type of legislation specific to Wales, whilst also putting on statute the process by which primary legislative powers could in future be granted to the Assembly.

  6.  Northern Ireland has for many years been served by a separate civil service, and separate Northern Ireland departments have carried out the functions of their Whitehall counterparts. Since the prorogation of the Stormont Parliament in 1972, it has been the policy of successive Governments to seek to find a way to restore devolution in Northern Ireland. In 1998 the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement paved the way for devolution in 1999, restoring responsibility for a wide range of social and economic matters to locally elected and locally accountable politicians in the Assembly and power sharing Executive. Following restoration of the devolved institutions in May 2007, work is underway to complete the process of devolution with the transfer of policing and justice powers in line with the St Andrews Agreement.

  7.  Devolution allows for the democratic representatives of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to give expression to the views of people in those nations, and to deal with issues that are best dealt with at that level, whilst still ensuring that UK issues are delivered by Westminster. The devolution settlement is asymmetric, reflecting the different sizes, historic backgrounds and aspirations of the different parts of the UK. This is true of England too: that is why the Government created the office of Mayor for London, and more recently Regional Ministers as well as well as suggesting better Parliamentary oversight, building on the existing decentralisation to English Regions.

  8.  Constitutional reform is an evolving process, and the Government's reform programme continues with the recently published Governance of Britain Green Paper. This begins a national discussion on how we should hold power accountable, and how we should uphold and enhance the rights and responsibilities of the citizen throughout the United Kingdom.


  9.  Devolution strengthens the Union by allowing a shared culture and a single UK identity to thrive alongside distinctive national identities. Over generations, cross border links between Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England have forged our shared identity. But devolution has enabled individual national identities better to be expressed.

  10.  At the heart of the Government's devolution policy is the desire to develop flexible arrangements which will accommodate different policy approaches on a wide range of domestic matters in order to meet the specific wishes of people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This basic principle is realised by separate constitutional settlements in each of those places. These arrangements have allowed devolution to work successfully in Scotland and Wales for nearly ten years, alongside the sovereign UK Parliament and, going forward, the Government's policy and objectives are clear: the current flexible forms of devolution deliver benefits and it is our wish to maintain them. Restored devolution in Northern Ireland has delivered, for the first time, inclusive power sharing.

  11.  The Government believes that devolution has delivered real benefits to people across the UK, providing the right balance between responsibility, accountability and representation while freeing the constituent parts of the United Kingdom to provide innovative local solutions to the problems they face.

  12.  Differences in policy are an intrinsic part of devolution. The Scottish Parliament enacted important legislation in its last Session on a wide range of devolved matters, including family law, fire services, Gaelic language, housing, policing and criminal justice, transport, the smoking ban, health improvement and education which it felt met the aspirations of the people of Scotland. Similarly, the Welsh Assembly has delivered for the people of Wales with policies such as free bus travel for pensioners, free prescription charges for all and the opening up of previously defunct rail lines. The creation of a Children's Commissioner for Wales has been adopted elsewhere in the UK and the new constitutional arrangements brought about by the Government of Wales Act 2006 will allow the National Assembly to build upon these achievements further.

  13.  In Northern Ireland the process of devolution has delivered inclusive power sharing for the first time ever and the Government is confident the Northern Ireland Assembly will deliver important public service reforms for the people of Northern Ireland. The Government remains committed to completing the process of devolution, and is working to ensure it is ready to transfer responsibility for policing and justice, in line with the St Andrews Agreement, whenever the Assembly is ready to receive it.


  14.  The Government believes in devolution and it also believes in the Union. The Union benefits all the people of the UK, reflecting our shared history and heritage. It reinforces our common culture and supports our successful participation in the global economy, our international standing, and strengthens our security.

  15.  The peoples of the Union have shared a common history over hundreds of years, during which we have developed a common identity and shared values. This is seen in the culture that we share, our common language, and, in practice, in the ties of family and social relationships that bind the people of the UK together.

  16.  The Union has also helped to deliver a strong economy and the economic stability for all parts of the UK which is essential to improved competitiveness and to meeting the challenges of globalisation. All parts of the UK benefit from being part of a larger economy which allows us to share opportunities, maintain stability and share both risks and resources, to the benefit of all.

  17.  Devolution delivers flexibility and allows the devolved legislatures and administrations to deliver distinct devolved policies. But it also allows key policies to be delivered on a United Kingdom basis. For example, the macroeconomic policy that supports a stable UK economy, a common social security system, defence and counter terrorism matters, foreign affairs,and immigration and asylum: all of these are best looked after by a single Government taking a view for the entire UK. This is even more important in meeting the challenges of an increasingly globalised and uncertain world. In light of this, our Government defends strongly the role played by Scottish and Welsh and Northern Ireland Members of Parliament in Westminster to ensure the devolved territories' views are represented in UK policy.

  18.  As we have mentioned devolution in the UK is bound to be asymmetric, since that reflects the vastly different sizes of the constituent nations. England is by far the largest partner in the UK and that is why the idea of an English Parliament, or that only English MPs should deal with English laws, is mistaken. This is not a new question, and Parliament has always rightly resisted change. Gladstone proposed the "in and out" system for Irish MPs during the Parliamentary consideration of the second Irish Home Rule Bill in 1893. In 1964 Harold Wilson toyed with a similar idea, until the Attorney General of the time reported that it was an unworkable proposition.

  19.  On each time the conclusion was that the "in and out" solution would undermine the Union and our Parliamentary system. Restricting the rights of Scottish, Welsh or Northern Ireland members to vote on English issues leads to constitutional instability. A UK Government elected on a UK mandate might find itself unable to deliver key policies on which it has been elected. United Kingdom Government Ministers might find themselves unable to vote in support of measures for which they have collective responsibility, or even to support measures for which their department is responsible. There would be a fundamental change to the nature of UK democracy.

  20.  The right place to legislate for England is at Westminster. England has over 80% of the British population, and of seats at Westminster. If they are so minded English MPs can wholly determine English matters, and of course taxation as well as the level of public expenditure in other parts of the UK. Almost all Bills brought before the House of Commons have financial implications or require money orders. Taxation is so fundamental to government and to the economy of all the UK that all MPs must be able to vote equally on all matters.


  21.  There are strong bilateral relationships between the Scottish Executive, the Welsh Assembly Government, the Northern Ireland Executive and Whitehall Departments. The Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland Offices continue to work closely across Whitehall and with the Devolved Administrations to ensure that good practice is followed and policies and legislation are successfully implemented in a way that is consistent with the respective settlements.

  22.  Government Departments have adapted well to working in a different and complex political landscape, and the divergence in policy making which is an inevitable, intended by-product of devolution. Ultimately this has led to a more inclusive approach to policy making and to legislative processes.

  23.  While the capacity for delivering different outcomes is at the heart of Government's drive to devolve power, there are frequently times where the same or similar outcomes are desirable and the United Kingdom's governance arrangements are flexible enough to deliver this without unnecessary duplication or one legislature legislating against another. The fact that differences of approach can coexist demonstrates the robustness of the settlements and of the UK's constitutional arrangements as a whole.

  24.  The broad principles set out in Departmental concordats and the Memorandum of Understanding between the UK government and the Devolved Administrations have remained consistent, with a strong emphasis on communication and early information sharing. Over the last eight years the concordats and the Memorandum Of Understanding, and the processes behind these agreements, have been shown to work. These documents act as a useful reference tool to guide departmental interactions with the devolved administrations and continue to provide an important expression of the principles which underpin inter-governmental relations.

  25.  Those inter-governmental relations remain strong. The Government is committed to continuing to work constructively with the devolved administrations to ensure delivery of public services across the United Kingdom that best meets local need. With a new devolution settlement in Wales and restored devolution in Northern Ireland, the Government is keen to ensure that its strategy and co-ordination capabilities are able to respond effectively to the three devolved administrations. Responsibility for devolution strategy now sits in the Ministry of Justice, which works closely with the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland Offices and the Cabinet Office, which has a co-ordinating role.


  26.  A decade on, the UK Parliament remains sovereign, but the Union now functions in a more inclusive and consultative way. The UK Constitution has demonstrated its unique flexibility and its capacity to evolve and to accommodate change and the constitutional renewal agenda continues.

  27.  The Government is committed to continuing devolution and decentralisation for the whole UK. It believes in strong and accountable local Government. It has restored London Government through the creation of the Greater London Authority, and a Bill is currently is before the House strengthening the powers of the London Mayor and Assembly. In London boroughs and elsewhere, electors have the right to decide whether a Mayor will lead their local Council.

  28.  Within England, the Government believes a regional approach is necessary to analyse and address the causes of economic disparity; to ensure planning and investment decisions are properly integrated; and to co-ordinate issues which extend beyond the boundaries of even the largest local authority.

  29.  The Government does not, however, believe in a prescriptive or "one size fits all" approach. Respecting the outcome of the November 2004 North East referendum, it has no further plans for directly-elected regional bodies. Instead, the July 2007 Review of sub-national economic development and regeneration announced that reformed Regional Development Agencies will work closely with local authorities and other partners to develop a single integrated strategy for housing and economic growth in their region. Regional Development Agencies will be expected to delegate funding to local authorities, who will have new powers and incentives encouraging them to work with other delivery partners through Local Area Agreements and with other Local Authorities through Multi Area Agreements. The Government will consult later this year on how to implement these reforms. The Prime Minister has appointed nine dedicated Regional Ministers, helping strengthen the authority and visibility of Government Offices as facilitators of partnership working in the regions and localities. The Government is also working with Parliament to agree how best to enhance parliamentary scrutiny of the work of regional bodies.

  30.  The Governance of Britain Green Paper published on 3 July sets out the Government's continued commitment to the principles of devolution within a wider constitutional context. It examines the challenges faced by an advanced democracy in the 21st century and represents the beginning of a national debate aimed at accelerating the process of constitutional reform. Power should not just be devolved: it must also rest with the local communities. Individuals and communities should not be seen as passive recipients of services provided by the state. They have demonstrated that they are willing to take a more active role, which can both help and improve services and create stronger communities.

  31.  The Government believes that it must find new ways to enable people to become active citizens, empowered and fully engaged in local decision-making. The Government will enhance democracy by devolving more power directly to the people. By rebalancing the way power is exercised, the Government hopes to ensure that individual citizens feel more closely engaged with those representing them, able to have their voice heard, active in their communities and bound together by common ties.

  32.  The Government will continue to reform the constitution to make it more relevant in a modern society, to enable power to be distributed to the proper level, and to safeguard rights. The devolution settlements in our constitutional arrangements are asymmetrical, reflecting the different individual historic circumstances, aspirations and economic and political ties between the nations of the Union. This is one of the great strengths of our national constitution.

October 2007

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