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Tuesday, 22 May, 2001, 11:52 GMT
Devolution

Devolution has created new power bases in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - but what has it achieved?

This brief covers developments in Scotland and Wales. Government of Northern Ireland is treated separately in BBC Vote 2001.


BACKGROUND

There are no elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly until 2002 and the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly until 2003.

But the Westminster candidates will be campaigning on national issues as well as devolved matters, even though they will have no control over them in London.


We will meet the demand for decentralisation of power to Scotland and Wales, once established in referendums

Labour manifesto, 1997
Indeed many of the core issues on which the election will probably be fought, such as education and health, are devolved matters.

But the general election will also herald more change.

The 13 MPs who hold seats in both the Scottish Parliament and House of Commons will be standing down. There will still be Scottish MPs in Westminster, but politicians will no longer have dual roles as MSPs and MPs as well.

The secretaries of state for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland may also be replaced, whoever wins the general election, with one secretary of state.

Labour has called the devolution plans it implemented the "biggest decentralisation of power in centuries".

The political landscape was transformed as voters in Scotland, Northern Ireland and, by a very narrow majority, in Wales, supported devolution of one form or another.

Scotland got 129 MSPs and the Assembly in Wales received 60 members.

The Scottish Parliament is able to levy taxes and pass laws on core issues such as education and health.

The Welsh Assembly doesn't have the same powers but it is responsible for its own domestic affairs.


WALES

In the first 6 months there were censure motions, a walk out, a resignation and a no-confidence motion in the first secretary.

Welsh devolution: Key events
Sept 97: Yes vote in referendum
Oct 98: Welsh Secretary Ron Davies resigns
May 99: Assembly elections
Feb 2000: Alun Michael resigns as first minister ahead of a no confidence motion
Feb 2000: Rhodri Morgan elected First Secretary
March 2000: Morgan announces greater openness and a coalition with the Liberal Democrats
It wasn't a good start and led Val Feld, a Labour Assembly member to pose the question, "Is the Assembly going horribly wrong? Or is this a manifestation of the birth-pangs in our new democracy?"

It was answered with another question from the former secretary of state for Wales Ron Davies: "Is devolution a process or an event?"

Supporters of devolution, like the constitutional reform pressure group Charter 88 believe that this episode certainly damaged the institution. But they see the Assembly as the start not the end of the process.

While Labour says it delivered true power to Cardiff, its critics say that the Welsh Assembly struggles to influence policy because it doesn't have any real clout.

It governs under a doctrine of ultra vires - that it can only legislate within prescriptive rules laid down by Westminster.

"Nobody knows what we can do," according to Jocelyn Davies, a Plaid Cymru member and constitutional affairs expert.

She told BBC Radio 4's Analysis programme last July, that instead of getting on and governing, they spend time getting legal opinion about what is possible and what would bring them into conflict with Westminster.

Nevertheless there have been tensions between Cardiff and Westminster notably, on fox hunting, performance related pay for teachers and GM crops.

Welsh members attempted to take a different line from that of Westminster on all these issues, but in every case they were over-ruled by London.

A Conservative motion to the Assembly called for the decision on banning fox hunting to be given to Cardiff. But the Welsh secretary said it was a matter for the House of Commons.

The Welsh Conservatives were also ticked off by their party leadership in London for advocating a policy which devolves extra power to the assembly.

The Liberal Democrat-Labour coalition - established after Rhodri Morgan became first secretary - agreed to remove the link between class exam results and performance related pay.

The Education Secretary David Blunkett blocked it. This was despite a High Court ruling that Westminster had improperly by-passed the Welsh Assembly and parliament in introducing new teachers pay and conditions.

A unanimous vote in the Welsh Assembly supported keeping Wales GM-free. But Westminster gave the go-ahead anyway for GM crop trials in Wales.

At the moment, the Assembly is better equipped at forming policy opinions than passing new laws.

But what it appears to be achieving is a more consensual style politics through the Lib-Lab coalition.

Furthermore, First Secretary Rhodri Morgan has also pledged greater openness and transparency and says that he is demonstrating that by publishing the minutes of Cabinet meetings.



SCOTLAND

Devolution has had a more significant impact in Scotland than in Wales. Supporters of the Scottish administration say that it is leading to a better health service, cheaper university education and better pay for teachers.

Scottish devolution: Key events
Sept 97: Yes vote in referendum
May 99: Elections, Donald Dewar named First Minister
July 99: Scottish Parliament assumes full powers
Jan 2000: Student tuition fees abolished
June 2000: Repeal of Section 28
Oct 2000: Donald Dewar dies, Henry McLeish becomes first minister
Jan 2001: Free long-term care for elderly agreed
Indeed, the Scottish Parliament is driving through legislation that is significantly different from the rest of Britain, including a plan to provide universal and free personal care to the elderly.

While this runs contrary to Labour policy at Westminster, Scotland's First Minister Henry McLeish says that Holyrood (the home of the Scottish Parliament) is simply trying to implement the findings of the Sutherland Royal Commission into long-term care of the elderly.

The decision poses many interesting questions about not only the future of social care but also the relationship between England and Scotland.

The initial fall-out has been negative. Many Scottish Westminster MPs were furious, saying that they feared that English voters would increasingly object to the extra per capita funding given to Scotland by the Treasury through complicated financial arrangements that take into account its geography.

However, the decision may have falsely raised expectations, as a study group is currently studying whether Scotland can actually fund the commitment.

Opposition parties have accused the Scottish executive of having caved into pressure from London - prompting Scottish Secretary Helen Liddell to say that she would not pressure Henry McLeish to toe a Westminster line.

But one of the biggest policy differences between London and Edinburgh has come over student fees.

The Scottish Parliament abolished tuition fees for Scottish universities, something that was a pre-condition of the Lib-Lab coalition.

Scottish students studying in England will have their tuition fee (approximately 1,000) paid for by Edinburgh.

But English, Welsh of Northern Ireland students in Scotland will have to pay - the so-called "Scottish anomaly".

Supporters of the Scottish Parliament's early days say that it has also shown itself to be more liberal - it successfully repealed Clause 28 which bans local authorities from promoting homosexuality while the House of Lords has repeatedly blocked a similar attempt at Westminster.

So devolution has paved the way for policy variations.

But supporters say the Scottish Parliament is simply exercising its power to pursue a different agenda from Westminster - an inevitable consequence of devolution.



WEST LOTHIAN QUESTION

These policy differences aren't the only anomalies that have been thrown up by devolution.

There is also the question about whether Scottish MPs should be able to vote on English matters, when English MPs can't vote on Scottish affairs: the so called West Lothian Question.

A clear demonstration of this was the vote in Westminster to ban fox hunting in England and Wales alone. Thirty-six Scottish MPs voted in favour and seven Scottish MPs voted against. The decision is not one that will affect Scotland.


BETTER GOVERNMENT?

Devolution has certainly increased the level of political scrutiny over the civil service. Where previously there was only one committee in Westminster, for say Scottish or Welsh Affairs, there are now dozens of committees inside the devolved bodies examining the workings of government.

There is also wider party representation - one of the ironies being that the Conservatives, who opposed devolution, gained 18 MSPs at Holyrood and nine AMs in Cardiff. And yet there were no Conservative MPs returned to Westminster from either Scotland or Wales following the party's defeat in the 1997 general election.

Advocates of devolution say that it has only been good for democratic debate since it has allowed the significantly supported national parties to finally gain a legitimate voice in government.

Public support for devolution has always been greater in Scotland than in Wales. But opinion polls suggest that there is strong support for giving both the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly even more power.

Most commentators think that the Welsh Assembly will get more legislative powers in time - something that would require the consent of MPs at Westminster.

The question is whether or not Scottish and Welsh devolution has also moved the debate over regional devolution in England forward.

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