Most of us probably know that certain powers - health and education for example - are devolved to the Welsh Government.

Devolution in the UK, however, is complicated - and lopsided. Each country in the Union has its own separate settlement, and Wales holds fewer powers over the way it runs than either Scotland or Northern Ireland.

To help readers understand Wales’s powers, their limits, and how they compare with those held by the Scottish and NI governments, we've put together a simple explainer.

 

What’s devolved? 

For most of the Welsh Government’s existence, its powers have been defined by terms laid out in The Government of Wales Act, passed in 2006.

This Act specified 20 areas of law-making and policy over which the National Assembly for Wales - now called the Senedd, or “Welsh Parliament” in English - would have control.

These areas were as follows:

  • Education and training, including schools and the curriculum.
  • Fire and rescue services
  • Health and social care
  • Highways and transport
  • Housing
  • Local government (councils, and how they run)
  • Social welfare 
  • Planning
  • Water supplies
  • Environment, agriculture, fisheries and forestry
  • Culture, including the Welsh language and ancient monuments
  • Economic development

The powers of the Welsh Government today largely still reflect this list in practice, with some tweaks (more on this in a moment), and each policy area has its own nuances.

For example, though the Welsh Government has power over planning and development within Wales, these powers do not apply to the building of major energy infrastructure (defined now as any powerstation or offshore wind farm that generates more than 350MW of energy).

What powers do the governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have?The Wylfa nuclear power station is one such major infrastructure project the UK is undertaking in Wales. (Picture: Talsarnau Times)

Similarly, Wales has control over some aspects of social welfare policy - council tax reduction, for one, along with the Discretionary Assistance Fund, a grant paid to help people experiencing extreme financial hardship with essential living costs - but the Welsh Government cannot make changes to the overall benefits system, which sits with Westminster.

Health and the NHS are devolved to Wales, but changes to health and safety law, the regulation of medicines, the legality of abortion, and matters relating to surrogacy and genetics, are all reserved to the UK Government.

READ MORE: 

Wylfa nuclear pledge at heart of UK Government energy strategy

Climate crisis: Welsh Government 'don't want to own' Aberpergwm mine decision

Our “highways and transport” powers are also something of a patchwork, with the Welsh Government holding responsibility for the operation of our rail services but not its infrastructure - the train tracks, for example, as well as signals, tunnels, and bridges - which is managed by the UK Government through Network Rail.

A 2021 study by the Wales Governance Centre found that full devolution of railways could have brought in an extra £514 million of investment for our rail network between 2011-12 and 2019-20.

 

How does devolution in Wales compare with Scotland and Northern Ireland?

Because the Senedd was only allowed to legislate within those aforementioned, UK Government-specified areas of responsibility, this state of affairs was known as the “conferred powers model” - ie. Westminster granted, or conferred, permission for the Welsh Government to make laws in those 20 areas only.

Our settlement operated in reverse to the “reserved powers” models used for both Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the devolved governments are allowed to make laws in any area they choose, except for a select list “reserved” to Westminster.

We caught up with our Celtic cousins somewhat with the Wales Act in 2017, which - along with giving the Welsh Government some extra responsibilities* - moved us to the reserved powers model.

What powers do the governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have?

Westminster withholds some powers across the board - the ability to choose whether we have a monarchy, for example, as well as defence and foreign policy - but differences in the powers held by Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland otherwise remain significant.

Sometimes these discrepancies reflect the history and political culture within a country and its relationship to Westminster, but sometimes their origins are unclear.

As a 2015 paper by the Wales Governance Centre noted: “Devolution has brought a degree of confusion, leading to a ‘jagged edge’ or ‘jigsaw’ pattern of interaction between devolved and non-devolved functions in which it can be hard to discern any clear rationale.”

One glaring example is justice.

Scotland and Northern Ireland each have near-full control over their policing and criminal justice systems. Both states can decide for themselves what is or isn’t illegal - with exceptions in areas like counter-terrorism, firearms, drug misuse and human rights - and control how they enforce those laws.

What powers do the governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have?

Northern Ireland’s justice powers are more limited than Scotland’s. The country’s history of military occupation and civil unrest means that Westminster has retained its control over the regulation of explosives (excluding fireworks) in NI, as well as the segregation of prisoners thought to be a safety risk.

Outside of its general push for independence, the Scottish Government is seeking control over drug misuse policy.

In the wake of spiralling drug deaths, Scotland - which has by far the most legislative control of all the Celtic nations - wants to pursue a “more compassionate approach” than the UK, including the decriminalisation of drugs and the introduction of safe consumption rooms.

READ MORE:

Welsh police forces vow to ‘rebuild trust’ on Stephen Lawrence

'We need a rethink on drugs, but we shouldn't hold our breath'

Wales, meanwhile, has almost no independence on justice. We exist within a single England and Wales legal jurisdiction -  England’s criminal law is our law, and the top-level running of our police forces, courts, prisons and probation systems sits with Westminster.

The only judicial bodies controlled by the Welsh Government are the Welsh Tribunals, six small court systems charged with reviewing cases in areas such as agriculture, mental health detention, and Welsh language obligations.

What powers do the governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have?The British monarchy owns a lucrative portfolio of property and land in Wales. (Picture: Jimmy Harris)

Management of the Crown Estate - a centuries old portfolio of profitable UK land and property owned by the Royal Family - is devolved to Scotland, which means that profits made by the Estate’s assets in the country are paid to the Scottish Government.

Neither Wales nor NI have these rights, so Crown Estate profits are split between the monarchy and the UK Government.

According to the Estate's own records, its property in Wales is currently valued at a total of £603million - a 600 percent increase from just under £97m in 2019, largely down to the leasing of Welsh seabeds to companies such as British Petroleum for offshore wind projects.

READ MORE: 'No public appetite at all' to devolve powers over the Crown Estate, says Simon Hart

Late last year, Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville Roberts introduced a Bill in Parliament that would devolve the Estate to Welsh Government control.

The Crown Estate (Devolution to Wales) Bill returns to the House of Commons for its Second Reading on Friday 6th May. There, the legislation will be debated and then voted on by MPs.

Meanwhile, the Welsh Government's newly established Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales - aiming to "lead a national conversation about how Wales should be governed" - is now under way.

It's considering "the merits and challenges" of greater autonomy from Westminster, including the prospect of independence.

If you value The National's journalism, help grow our team of reporters by becoming a subscriber.