The problems of devolution

The Scottish independence referendum is looming, so after all this waiting, the result will soon be known. Personally I’d prefer the UK not to be split up, but that’s not what I’m here to post about today. I’m here to discuss the devolution of powers to the separate nations within the UK, including the Scottish parliament, which may have further powers devolved to it even with a “no” vote.

Why do we need the separate devolved parliament in Scotland, and assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland? One argument is the cultural differences that these nations have. However, it’s not as if people in different parts of the UK have fundamentally different needs as a result of this. We all need money to be spent on the same basic things – a health service, education, transport etc. We’d all like not to have to pay university tuition fees or prescription charges; it has nothing to do with cultural differences. There are also cultural differences within these nations and also within England, and most of England is far from Westminster, but that doesn’t mean that you need a further proliferation of parliaments or assemblies to take all this into account.

The problem is that the devolved powers create an extra bureaucratic layer, and can create arbitrary and unfair differences and inequalities between nations within the UK, when there is already such a problem with inequality in the UK. And yet we have a system that seems specifically designed to increase the levels of both bureaucracy and inequality with no obvious advantages.

We have the arguably arbitrary Barnett Formula, which is used to determine how funds are split between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, funds should go where they are needed in the UK at a finer level than this, so the borders between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should not have any particular relevance. For these purposes, the UK does not need to be divided into four regions in such a blunt manner.

This crude allocation of money makes it more likely to make a difference where you live – more of a “postcode lottery” if you like. For example, there are no prescription charges in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and no university fees for Scottish students, as well as extra financial support for Welsh students. This makes a mockery of any drive towards equality. But also, because England doesn’t have its own devolved parliament, decisions affecting England are voted for by the whole UK parliament, meaning that Scottish MPs can vote for tuition fee rises in England knowing that Scotland will be unaffected. You might have deduced from my posts that the Daily Mail isn’t my favourite newspaper but this is still quite an interesting article on the subject.

Same sex marriage was legalised in England and Wales in March 2014, but it won’t be introduced in Scotland until the autumn. And there are no plans to introduce it in Northern Ireland at all. The whole UK Parliament voted it through, but only for England and Wales. The Scottish parliament had to then vote separately for Scotland. It’s interesting that despite the existence of the devolved Welsh assembly, the UK parliament voted it through for both England and Wales, whereas Scotland and Northern Ireland are both treated separately for this. So what counts as a devolved issue seems rather arbitrary and inconsistent.

Not much was made in the media (at least as far as I could see) of the fact that it was only in England and Wales that same sex marriage had become legal, considering this and other significant legal differences that we now have within one country.

I don’t think it makes much sense to have a country that has such inequality in law in different places. Every time there is the need for change in an area that’s arbitrarily been deemed to be devolved, it has to go to a vote in all these separate parliaments and assemblies to make it law across the whole of the UK. This clearly just makes the whole process more bureaucratic and cumbersome.

We actually had three different legal systems in the UK before devolution: English law (applicable in England and Wales), Scots law and Northern Ireland law, because these systems existed before the union was created. However, this is something that should have been addressed by the UK parliament, gradually equalising the laws between these nations, taking the best bits from all of them, and should have been completed years ago. It’s not something that should be used to create further legal inequality and complexity across the UK. We shouldn’t be expected to have to learn new laws and remember what is applicable where when travelling from one part of the United Kingdom to another. It’s time that the UK came together with one parliament and one system of law to ensure greater equality, fairness and simplicity. If Scotland votes for independence, then clearly it’s another matter for them, but whatever remains of the UK would be better with one parliament working for everyone.

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