Parliaments and assemblies

The creation of new legislatures in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast marked the beginning of the new era of devolution. They were designed to give expression to the distinct identities of the devolved nations and to foster a more collaborative, consensus-based politics than at Westminster. Since then, the three legislatures have used their powers to shape the statute book in their respective nations. While the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly gained full legislative powers in 1999, the National Assembly for Wales initially held executive power only, taking on full legislative powers in 2011.

The Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly were designed to limit executive dominance. Proportional electoral systems were established, in the expectation that single parties would rarely be able to form a majority government. Instead, minority and coalition governments have had to work across party lines. In addition, procedures were set up to make it easier for backbenchers and committees to introduce and advance legislation. But in practice the Scottish and Welsh executives have introduced a larger share of legislation than the UK Government has at Westminster. This may indicate that ambitions to promote more backbench and committee participation have not fully been realised.

The Northern Ireland Assembly was designed to “ensure that all sections of the community can participate and work together successfully”,[1] to facilitate power- sharing between unionists and nationalists. However, power-sharing has collapsed several times, including between 2002 and 2007, and since January 2017. And even before the most recent collapse of power-sharing, there were signs of escalating tension between unionist and nationalist parties, with growing use of the ‘petition of concern’ process that enables either side to exercise a veto.

The devolved parliaments and assemblies have created new bodies of legislation for their respective nations

Until 1999, the UK Parliament was the source of all legislation across the whole of the UK. Since devolution, the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly have taken on the task of passing laws for their respective nations and have developed distinctive new bodies of law in areas of devolved responsibility.

Volume of primary and secondary legislation passed by the devolved legislatures, 1999 to 2018

The Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly have had the power to pass primary legislation since 1999. Between 1999 and the end of 2018, there were 282 Acts of the Scottish Parliament (including 19 private Acts*) and 173 Acts of the Northern Ireland Assembly.** The volume of Northern Ireland Assembly legislation is lower due to the extended collapses of power-sharing. In the periods that it has been active, the Assembly has passed 14 pieces of primary legislation a year, nearly as many as the Scottish Parliament (15). The Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly have each passed almost 40% as many Acts as Westminster: the UK Parliament passed 825 Acts (including 77 private Acts) between the May 1997 general election and the end of 2018, or 38 Acts a year. In Northern Ireland, there have been spikes in legislation in the final years before scheduled elections (in 2011 and 2016).

The Welsh Assembly had no power to pass primary legislation when it was first established. But from 2007, it was empowered to pass pieces of primary legislation known as Measures. This power was dependent on a mechanism called the Legislative Competence Order, by which Westminster granted the Assembly legislative powers over specific policy areas on a case-by-case basis.[2] Between 2007 and 2011, the Assembly secured 15 Legislative Competence Orders and passed 22 Measures. In 2011, it gained the power to pass Acts within all devolved policy areas, without first needing approval from Westminster. It has since passed 37 Acts, or 4.8 Acts a year. The Welsh Assembly has powers in fewer policy areas than the Scottish Parliament or the Northern Ireland Assembly, so passes less legislation overall.

*A private Act is legislation that only applies to a certain group of people or organisations. For example, the University of Manchester Act 2004 merged two universities in Manchester. The Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly have procedures to pass private legislation, but have not done so in practice.

**Unless otherwise stated, all figures are as of 31 December 2018.

 

The legislatures have made new laws across the range of devolved policy areas

The devolved parliaments and assemblies can legislate on any matter that is not ‘reserved’ to the UK Parliament.* The balance between reserved and devolved matters varies between the three devolved nations. For example, Wales has no powers over justice and home affairs (such as policing, crime and fire services), while Northern Ireland has powers over transport and energy that are not devolved elsewhere.

Number of Acts and Measures of the devolved legislatures by policy area, 1999 to 2018

Since devolution, about 40% of all Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly legislation has been on health, education, communities and the environment.** In the Welsh Assembly this is closer to 75%.

When the Scottish Parliament was established, it took on powers over crime, policing and justice. More than a quarter of Scottish Parliament legislation relates to these policy areas. Crime, policing and justice were also devolved to Northern Ireland in 2010,[3] which was hailed as a significant step forward in the peace process: before this, the UK Government had to give consent to Northern Ireland Assembly legislation in these policy areas.[4] Since 2010, eight bills relating to justice have been passed. The Welsh Government has now commissioned a panel to look at whether aspects of justice policy should be devolved to Wales.[5]

The devolved legislatures have taken the opportunity of devolution to do things differently from Westminster, leading to growing legislative divergence across the UK. For example, the Labour–Liberal Democrat coalition in Scotland brought in legislation to introduce free personal care for older people in 2002, and in 2018 the Scottish National Party (SNP) Government amended the law to extend it to the under-65s too.[6]

In several cases, temporary divergence has been followed by re-convergence as the legislatures have made changes to the law that have gone on to be adopted in other parts of the UK:

  • The Scottish Government brought in legislation to ban smoking in enclosed public places from 2006. The UK Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies subsequently passed similar legislation.[7]
  • The Labour–Plaid Cymru coalition in Wales introduced a levy on plastic carrier bags in 2011 and the other governments followed suit.[8]
  • The minority Labour Government in Wales introduced a soft opt-out system for organ donation in 2015. Similar legislation will come into effect in England in 2020.[9]
  • The Scottish Government introduced proportional representation for local elections in 2004,[10] which was already in place in Northern Ireland. Scotland also introduced votes for 16- and 17-year-olds in 2015.[11] The Welsh Assembly is now considering legislation to lower the voting age to 16 for Assembly and local elections.[12]

Devolution has thus enabled the new parliaments and assemblies to experiment with different policies. The Institute for Government has called this, in principle, an important benefit of devolution.[13]

*Before the Wales Act 2017, the Welsh Assembly could only pass legislation relating to explicitly devolved matters (see Jones E, Richards M and Thomas A, The Wales Bill: Reserved matters and their effect on the Assembly’s legislative competence, National Assembly for Wales Research Service, 2016, pp. 1–2, www.assembly.wales/research%20documents/16-051/16-051-web-english.pdf).

**Excluding finance bills, as the Scottish Parliament passes only one budget a year and the Northern Ireland Assembly passes two. The Welsh Assembly passes one budget a year, but this is not enacted in primary legislation in the same way.

 

Government bills dominate the devolved legislatures

The devolved legislatures were designed to be more inclusive than Westminster, and to enable members from all parties to contribute to the legislative process. The architects of the Scottish Parliament in particular wanted the new parliament to be less dominated by the Executive than Westminster. Their vision was of a parliament that embodied the sharing of power between the Executive, the legislature and the people.[14] In all the legislatures, procedures were established to enable members and committees to introduce legislation of their own.

government and non-government bills that became law in the devolved legislatures (1999 to 2018) and the uK Parliament (1997 to 2018)

In practice, the Scottish and Welsh Governments have introduced a slightly higher share of the bills that became law (87% and 88% respectively) than the UK Government (84%). Even during periods of minority government, the government in question has sponsored the bulk of the legislation. For instance, the minority SNP Government of 2007 to 2011, which held just 47 of 129 seats (36%), introduced 82% of the bills that became law.* This suggests that ambitions to reduce executive dominance have not fully been realised. In 2011, a major study of the Scottish Parliament similarly found that both majority and minority governments have been able to dominate the Parliament.[15] Our findings indicate that this is still true for Scotland and has also been true for Wales since the devolution of primary legislative power.

Members’ bills make up just 10% of Scottish and 7% of Welsh primary legislation, compared with 16% of UK legislation. Unlike in Westminster, committees in the devolved legislatures can also introduce legislation. Committees have introduced seven successful bills in Scotland and one successful bill in Wales. In Wales, the Assembly Commission – a cross-party body responsible for the administration of the Welsh Assembly – has also introduced two bills that have become law. In February 2019, the Commission also introduced the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Bill, which aims to reduce the voting age for elections to the Assembly to 16 and to rename the Assembly the Senedd (or Welsh Parliament in English).[16] However, concerns have been raised that the volume of non-government legislation has been lower than initially expected. In 2017, a commission set up to review the performance of the Scottish Parliament warned that it had “heard concerns that overall the members’ bills process has not been as widely used as was originally envisaged”, partly because the Scottish Government is able to stop members’ bills from progressing if it or the UK Government wants to introduce legislation to give effect to the same proposal.[17] The fact that members’ bills make up a low proportion of all Scottish and Welsh legislation may indicate that ambitions to promote backbench and committee participation in the legislative process have not fully been realised.

In the Northern Ireland Assembly, the larger parties form a mandatory coalition together. Backbenchers and committees may also introduce bills. Over this period, the Northern Ireland Executive passed 92% of public legislation. Fewer members’ bills and committee bills have passed the Northern Ireland Assembly than the Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly, perhaps because members from most parties are represented in the Executive. However, before the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2017, an unprecedented number of members’ bills were proposed: members proposed 19 bills between May and October 2016, compared with 25 in the period between 2011 and 2016.[18]

*Excluding private legislation (Scottish Parliament and UK Parliament only).

 

Government bills are more likely to pass in the devolved legislatures – and so are members’ bills

Bills that became law and that fell in the UK Parliament (1997 to 2017), Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly (1999 to 2016), and Northern Ireland Assembly (1999 to 2017)

In all four UK legislatures, the vast majority of government bills introduced into the legislature reach the statute book. But government bills in the devolved legislatures are less likely to fall than those in Westminster. A total of 31 government bills (5%) introduced into the UK Parliament between 1997 and 2017 failed to become law, mostly often because time ran out for the bill at the end of the parliamentary session, which is normally just a year long. In the devolved legislatures, sessions run for the four or five years between scheduled elections, giving governments more time to get their legislative programmes through. Very few government bills in Scotland and Wales have failed to become law. This happened four times (1.9% of all government bills) in Scotland between 1997 and 2016 and just once in Wales (2.3% of all government bills). In Northern Ireland, 30 government bills have failed to become law (16% of all government bills). However, in all but five cases this was because the bills were lost when power-sharing collapsed.

All the government bills that have fallen in Scotland and Wales were lost during periods of minority government. In Wales, the minority Labour Government failed to get a Public Health Bill through the legislative process in 2015 after Plaid Cymru unexpectedly voted it down.[19] In Scotland, the minority SNP Government between 2007 and 2011 failed to get three bills through, including the 2009 budget.[20] After the 2009 budget was defeated, the Scottish Government negotiated with other parties, reached agreement and succeeded in passing a new bill a week later.[21] However, minority governments in Scotland and Wales have succeeded in passing all the other legislation they introduced. Generally they have been successful in avoiding embarrassing defeats of the sort that the minority government formed at Westminster after the 2017 general election has suffered.*

Members’ bills introduced in the devolved legislatures are also more likely to be passed than private members’ bills at Westminster. This is because the devolved legislatures set a higher bar for the initial introduction of members’ bills. At Westminster, any Member of Parliament (MP) can choose to introduce a bill, but few get very far: just 5% of bills introduced between 1997 and 2017 became law. In the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, a member must be able to show that their proposed bill has cross-party support before it is introduced. In Scotland, the member must gain support for their bill from at least 18 other members from at least a half of the other parties for it to be introduced.[22] In Wales, the member must first enter their proposed bill into a ballot. When the bill is selected, the Welsh Assembly votes on whether it should be introduced.[23] Unlike at Westminster, staff services are routinely made available to help members formulate proposals for and draft their bills: the Non-Government Bills Unit in the Scottish Parliament is available to help members who want to develop a bill proposal, while in Wales a team of officials is assigned to help draft a bill once the Assembly votes that it can be introduced.[24] In Scotland, 24 members’ bills (40% of the 60 introduced) have become law, and in Wales four out of eight (50%) became law. Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly do not have to gain cross-party support to introduce bills, and are offered access to the drafting service on a first-come, first-served basis.[25] Of the 29 Northern Ireland members’ bills introduced, 10 (34%) have become law.

The devolved legislatures can only pass legislation on matters that are not reserved to Westminster and that are compatible with European Union (EU) law and the European Convention on Human Rights.[26] When a bill is introduced, the presiding officer must certify that they believe it is within devolved competence. After a bill is passed, there is a four-week period in which the legislature’s competence to pass it can be challenged in the courts before the bill receives Royal Assent.[27]

The UK Government has referred three Welsh Assembly bills and one Scottish Parliament bill to the Supreme Court to assess whether they are within devolved competence. It referred the Local Government Byelaws (Wales) Bill 2012 and the Agricultural Sector (Wales) Bill 2014 to the court. Both were found to be within competence and became law.[28] In 2015, the Welsh Government referred a members’ bill – the Recovery of Medical Costs for Asbestos Diseases (Wales) Bill 2015 – to the Supreme Court: on this occasion the bill was struck down.[29] Private actors can also challenge the legality of devolved legislation. For instance, in 2016, part of the Scottish Children and Young People Act 2014 was judged to be outside devolved competence, after a case brought by the Christian Institute and others.[30]

Most recently, the UK Government referred the Scottish and Welsh Governments’ bills to incorporate EU law into devolved law after Brexit to the Supreme Court. The Welsh Government withdrew its bill – the Law Derived from the European Union (Wales) Bill 2018 – after reaching agreement with the UK Government, but the Scottish Government did not. In December 2018, the Supreme Court found that large parts of the Scottish Government’s bill – the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill 2018 – were outside devolved competence due to the passage of the UK’s European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018.[31] In April 2019, the Scottish Government confirmed that it would not be bringing back the bill to be amended in line with the court’s ruling, but would bring back the bill’s provisions on keeping pace with EU law in new legislation.[32]

*Between the start of the 2017 Parliament and the end of March 2019, the UK Government was defeated 14 times in the House of Commons (excluding Opposition Days). Not all of these defeats were on legislation.

 

There are fewer members to scrutinise the Government in the devolved legislatures

The devolved legislatures are much smaller than the UK Parliament, and have no second chamber. This means there are fewer members to fill government posts, and fewer members to scrutinise the government in the chamber and committees. This may contribute to the greater ability of the devolved governments to pass legislation.

Composition of the House of Commons and devolved legislatures by government roles and membership of scrutiny committees

A larger proportion of members of the devolved legislatures are in the government in Scotland and Wales than at Westminster. In the House of Commons, 15% of MPs are members of the government, while 20% of the 129 members of the Scottish Parliament and 23% of the 60 members of the Welsh Assembly are also ministers. This reflects the smaller size of the devolved bodies. Governments should be able to rely on ministers to support them in votes.[33] The large size of the governments, in proportional terms, in both Scotland and Wales may make it easier for the governing parties to maintain party discipline and to keep control even when they do not have a majority.

In the Northern Ireland Assembly, the number of ministers is fixed in legislation, rather than being left to the discretion of the governing parties. Just 10% of members were in the Northern Ireland Executive when it collapsed in January 2017. This was because there were only two junior ministers, compared with 16 now in Scotland and five in Wales. But for ministers in Northern Ireland, the bigger challenge is usually reaching agreement with their coalition partners, rather than maintaining party discipline.

In all the UK’s legislatures, non-government members have two main ways to scrutinise the government: in the chamber and in committees. At Westminster, the UK Government usually decides what the House of Commons will debate and determines the scheduling of time set aside for opposition and backbench business. The architects of the devolved legislatures established business committees for representatives from different parties to set the agenda for debates and to agree on the time to be spent on non-government business. The intention, in the Scottish case at least, was “that the arrangements for the programming of business in the Scottish Parliament should be inclusive and transparent”.[34] In 2010, the House of Commons Reform Committee called for a similar business committee to be introduced at Westminster.[35]

It is not clear whether the existence of business committees changes the proportion of time spent on government business. While full data on the use of time is not available for the Northern Ireland and Welsh Assemblies, we estimate that in 2017/18 the Scottish Parliament spent a little less time on government business (35% compared with 38%) and a little more time on backbench business (26% compared with 23%) than the House of Commons.[36]*

Members of the devolved legislatures also conduct scrutiny through scrutiny committees. Scrutiny committees carry out a wider range of functions in the devolved legislatures than in the UK Parliament. Like Westminster select committees, they conduct inquiries and produce reports. Unlike select committees, they also play a formal role in the process of scrutinising legislation. The rationale for creating subject- specific committees rather than ad-hoc bill committees to consider legislation is that this should lead to better scrutiny.[37] However, this model may pose some risks to committee independence. In 2017, the Commission on Parliamentary Reform, set up to consider the functioning of the Scottish Parliament, heard reports that party whips had co-ordinated committee votes not just on legislation but also on non-legislative inquiries, making it harder for committees to reach cross-party consensus.[38] In 2019, former First Minister Lord McConnell warned that scrutiny had not been as effective as had been hoped because of strong party discipline.[39]

Moreover, committees that have a large number of bills to consider may not have enough time to devote to conducting inquiries. Between 1999 and 2007, the Scottish Parliament Justice Committee was split into two separate committees to deal with its heavy legislative workload. Concerns remain that in some cases committees are not as effective as they could be because they have too much legislation to consider. The 2017 Commission on Parliamentary Reform also reported concerns that “some committees have seen so much legislation they have been unable to develop their own agenda with fewer opportunities to hold inquiries or focus on long-term or cross-cutting issues”.[40]

The small size of the devolved legislatures means that almost all members who are not in the government sit on committees. In the House of Commons, we estimate that 45% of members sit on scrutiny committees. By contrast, 64% of members of the Scottish Parliament, 70% of Welsh Assembly members and 80% of Northern Ireland Assembly members sit on committees. To ensure that all committee seats are filled, members of the devolved legislatures often have to sit on more than one committee. This raises questions about committee effectiveness, since members who sit on more than one committee have less time to develop subject expertise or to contribute to any particular committee’s work.[41] In the House of Commons, only 9% of MPs sit on two or more scrutiny committees. In the Scottish Parliament, 24% of members sit on two or more scrutiny committees, and 22% of members of the Northern Ireland Assembly were on two committees when power-sharing collapsed in January 2017. The Northern Ireland Assembly was reduced in size from 108 to 90 from the March 2017 election, although it has not operated since then. If devolution is restored, the proportion of members who sit on multiple committees is likely to increase.

The burden of committee membership is heaviest in the Welsh Assembly. In 1999, the Assembly was set up as a ‘body corporate’, with no distinction between government ministers and other Assembly members. This meant that members of the Welsh Government could initially sit on scrutiny committees, alongside backbenchers from both governing and opposition parties. However, Assembly members soon came to the conclusion that having ministers on committees made accountability too unclear and scrutiny too difficult. As former Deputy First Minister Lord German put it: “you could be investigating a policy which you as the Government had to put in place”.[42] The Welsh Government and Assembly split informally in 2002, and formally in 2006.[43] One consequence of removing ministers from committees, however, was to increase the burden on other members. Under the current system, 52% of the 60 Assembly members sit on two or more scrutiny committees, including nine out of eleven committee chairs. There are other indications that the Welsh Assembly may be struggling with its current volume of work. Our analysis shows that the House of Commons and Scottish Parliament have considered between 2.9 and 3.3 statutory instruments per member per year since 1999. Before the Welsh Assembly took on primary legislative power, it considered 3.0 statutory instruments per member per year; since 2011, that has risen to 5.2. In 2017, the Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform conducted an independent review and concluded that the Assembly is now too small for the scale of scrutiny functions it must fulfil, now that it has primary legislative power. It recommended that the size of the Assembly should be increased to around 90 members.[44]

*One reason why the UK Parliament spent less time on backbench business was that the UK Government did not double the amount of backbench time available to reflect the double length of the session (see Lilly A, White A and Haigh J, Parliamentary Monitor 2018, Institute for Government, 2018, www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/IFGJ6416-Parliamentary-Monitor-Report-2018-1808-WEB-FINAL.pdf).

 

The veto designed to protect community interests in Northern Ireland has proven controversial

The Northern Ireland Assembly was designed to facilitate power-sharing between unionist and nationalist parties: the largest parties from each community are legally required to form a coalition. If they fail to reach agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive collapses. To ensure that the interests of both communities are protected, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement established a requirement that cross-community support is needed for key votes in the Assembly, including for the election of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.[45] Cross-community support is defined as either support of 60% of the Assembly’s 108 (until 2017) members, including 40% of unionists and 40% of nationalists, or the support of an overall majority and majorities of both nationalists and unionists.[46] Any 30 members can also create a requirement for a vote to be taken on a cross-community basis by tabling a ‘petition of concern’.[47] Thirty members is more than 40% of either the unionist or nationalist groups in the Assembly, so the 30 signatories to a petition of concern are effectively able to exercise a veto.

Number of petitions of concern tabled in the Northern Ireland Assembly by party, 1999 to 2017

Northern Ireland Assembly members have tabled 159 petitions of concern in total since 1999, on motions, clauses of and amendments to bills, and whole bills.[48] In almost every case where a petition has been tabled, the 30 required members have been found to support it. Fourteen bills have been affected by a petition of concern, and four bills have fallen outright because of one.*

The petition of concern process has been used on a range of different issues, including votes on issues of symbolic importance to one community or the other. For example, in 2001, members used a petition of concern to block a Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) motion that Easter lilies, a nationalist symbol, should not be displayed at Stormont.[49] In other cases, members have used a petition of concern on contested policy questions. In November 2015, a majority of Northern Ireland Assembly members voted in favour of same-sex marriage, but the DUP used a petition of concern to stop the proposal from being approved.[50]

The use of the petition of concern has changed over time, increasing sharply in the 2011–16 mandate. At the 2007 election, the DUP won 30 seats – enough to table a petition of concern successfully without the support of other parties. In 2011, the DUP’s representation rose to 36 seats, and between 2011 and 2016 the DUP alone tabled 82 of 115 petitions of concern (71%). Other parties had to work together to table successful petitions of concern.

In 2012, the Northern Ireland Executive introduced a Welfare Reform Bill replicating new UK welfare policy. In 2014, Sinn Féin raised objections to the bill and tabled a number of amendments. The DUP used a petition of concern 47 times to block these amendments. When the bill reached the final vote, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) decided to join Sinn Féin in a petition of concern. Together, they brought down the whole bill on a cross-community vote. The UK Treasury fined the Executive for failing to comply with budgetary rules and the Executive and Assembly eventually agreed that the legislation should be taken through Westminster instead.[51]

The major parties represented in the Northern Ireland Assembly have all expressed dissatisfaction with how the petition of concern process works. In November 2015, the two main parties signed the Fresh Start Agreement.[52]This included a proposed protocol on the use of the petition of concern. Under this protocol, members would agree only to table petitions of concern in exceptional circumstances and would provide a written explanation of why they believed it would be detrimental to hold a simple majority vote. However, the Fresh Start Agreement has not been fully implemented. At the 2017 election, the size of the Assembly was reduced from 108 to 90 members. The reduction in Assembly numbers makes it harder for any single party to get the 30 signatures needed for a petition of concern on its own. This reduces the risk of the petition of concern being used for party-political ends. But the parties are still divided on what should be done about the process.

Sinn Féin and the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland have each put forward proposals on restricting the use of the petition of concern to issues of community relations and constitutional arrangements, while the DUP has argued for the system of cross- community voting to be scrapped altogether.[53] To restore a sustainable power-sharing Executive, the parties will need to reach consensus on whether the petition of concern is fit for purpose and on whether and how it should be reformed.

*The Local Government (Disqualification) Bill and the Victims and Survivors (Disqualification) Bill in 2010, and the Welfare Reform Bill and the Rates (Relief for Community Amateur Sports Clubs) Bill in 2015.

 

The devolved legislatures cost more per person than the UK Parliament

The legislatures created in 1999 have enabled elected representatives in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to pass distinct legislation for each nation, and offered citizens greater opportunities for democratic expression. This comes at an additional financial cost to the public, on top of the cost of the UK Parliament. The creation and operation of the devolved legislatures are an entirely new cost from devolution, unlike the devolved administrations, which primarily inherited functions and spending programmes that had previously been part of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Offices.

Costs of the UK Parliament and devolved legislatures per head of population of each nation

In 2017/18, the total operating expenditure of the Scottish Parliament was £99 million (m), while the Welsh Assembly cost £55m to run and the Northern Ireland Assembly £37m (although the Northern Ireland Assembly did not sit in this period).*

The costs of the devolved legislatures are considerably less than the £533m spent on running the UK Parliament. However, the cost per citizen represented is higher for the devolved legislatures. The cost of the UK Parliament per citizen represented is £8.10 a year, compared with £18.25 for the Scottish Parliament, £17.50 for the Welsh Assembly and £19.70 for the Northern Ireland Assembly.

However, the costs of the devolved legislatures represent a very small proportion of the total devolved budgets. Spending on each of the devolved legislatures makes up between 0.3% and 0.4% of the devolved budgets.[54]

Members of the devolved legislatures are paid less than MPs. The basic salary for an MP is £79,468 a year.[55] Members of the Scottish Parliament are paid £63,579 a year and members of the Welsh Assembly are paid slightly more, at £67,649 a year.[56] However, the total bill for members’ salaries is lower in Wales because the Welsh Assembly has fewer members. Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly are still paid a salary even though the Assembly is not currently sitting.[57] This is because members still carry out constituency and other duties. When power-sharing collapsed in January 2017, the basic members’ salary was £49,000,[58] but in September 2018 the UK Government passed legislation to reduce this to £35,888 from January 2019.[59]

As the roles of the devolved legislatures have changed, debate has arisen over whether they have the right capacity to fulfil all their functions effectively and efficiently. The 2017 reduction in the size of the Northern Ireland Assembly was part of an effort to reduce administrative costs under the 2014 Stormont House Agreement.[60] Meanwhile, the Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform has called for the Welsh Assembly to be increased in size from 60 to around 90 members to reflect its increased legislative powers.[61] If this happens, the panel estimates that it would cost £3.3m in one-off costs and a further £9.6m annually.[62]

It is important both for efficiency and for public trust in the political process that the legislatures face robust scrutiny on whether they are using public money as effectively as they can. However, the running costs of legislatures are a relatively small public expenditure, especially given the potential benefits of better scrutiny and democratic accountability: the expert panel that recommended that the size of the Welsh Assembly should be increased concluded that “even marginal improvements in the scrutiny of Welsh Government spending and policy decisions will reap significant dividends to the taxpayer.”[63] Most of the devolved budgets are spent on public services by the devolved governments. In the next chapter, we consider how the governments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast are organised and how they have changed since 1999.

*The total operating expenditure of the Northern Ireland Assembly was 10% lower in 2017/18 than in 2016/17, in part because of the collapse of power-sharing and in part because of the reduction in Assembly numbers after the 2017 election.