Devolution refers to the transfer of administrative, executive, or legislative authority to new institutions operating only within a defined part of the United Kingdom. Devolved institutions have been created for Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales.
Devolution differs from federalism in formally being a unilateral process that can be reversed at will; formal sovereignty is still retained at the centre. Thus, while the US Congress cannot reduce the powers of a state legislature, Parliament has the legal capacity to even go so far as to abolish the devolved legislatures.
Devolution in Wales was originally restricted to the executive/administrative sphere, whereas in Scotland and Northern Ireland devolution extended to wide powers to pass laws.
The Scottish legislative authority is the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Parliament is a unicameral body composed of 129 members (called Members of Scottish Parliament, or MSPs) elected for fixed four-year terms. Each of 73 members is elected by a constituency. The remaining are elected by eight regions, with each region electing seven members. Each voter has one constituency vote—cast for a single individual—and one regional vote—cast either for a party or for an independent candidate. Regional members are allocated in such a way as to permit a party's share of the regional vote to be proportional to its share of seats in the Scottish Parliament.
The Scottish Government is the executive authority of Scotland; it is led by the First Minister. Other members of the Scottish Cabinet are generally given the title of Minister. The First Minister must retain the confidence of the Scottish Parliament to remain in power.
Scotland has responsibility over several major areas, including taxation, criminal justice, health, education, transport, the environment, sport, culture and local government. The Parliament at Westminster, however, retains authority over a certain number of reserved matters. Reserved matters include foreign affairs, defence, immigration, social security and welfare, employment, and general economic and fiscal policy.
The National Assembly for Wales is the Welsh legislative authority. It is, like the Scottish Parliament, a unicameral body; it also uses a similar electoral system. Forty of its sixty members are chosen from single-member constituencies, while the remaining twenty are regional members. (There are five regions.) The Welsh Government is led by the First Minister and includes other Ministers, who must retain the confidence of the Assembly.
The third Welsh Assembly can legislate using a system called "Assembly Measures". This system is a lower form of Primary Legislation similar to Acts of Parliament. They can be used to repeal laws, create provision and amend laws. The difference with "Assembly Measures" and "Acts of the Assembly" is that Measures do not have a bulk of powers with them, each Measure will come with a LCO, or Legislative Competency Order, which transfers powers from the UK Parliament to the Welsh Assembly Government. Devolution in Wales has changed a lot since 1999.
In order for the National Assembly to have full legislative powers, they will need to trigger a referendum through both the Assembly and both houses of the United Kingdom parliament. Once done, Wales will for the first time ever, will be able to legislate and make their own Acts. (To be known as Acts of the Assembly, or Acts of the National Assembly for Wales). In early 2011, a referendum held in Wales approved the transfer of full legislative competence to the National Assembly in all devolved matters.
Northern Ireland was the first part of the United Kingdom to gain devolution, in 1921. However, it has had a troubled history since then, caused by conflict between the main Unionist and Nationalist communities. Because of this historical background, the present system of devolution requires power to be shared between political parties representing the different communities, and there are complex procedural checks in place to ensure cross-community support for legislation and executive action.
The Northern Ireland Assembly comprises 108 members elected to represent 18 six-member constituencies.
The Executive (government) is made up of members from the largest parties in the Assembly, with ministerial portfolios allocated in proportion to party strengths. The Executive is headed jointly by a First Minister and Deputy First Minister, who are jointly elected by the Assembly.
The Assembly's legislative powers are broad, and are similar to those of the Scottish Parliament (with the notable exception of taxation). The transfer from the United Kingdom's central government of responsibility for the criminal justice system has been highly contentious, and has only recently been carried out.