The Scottish Parliament as we know it today was set up in 1999, following the 1997 referendum on devolution. The Scottish Parliament is also known as Holyrood, after the site of the Parliament building. 129 MSPs represent 73 constituencies and eight regions of Scotland. The leader of the largest party in parliament is elected as First Minister, the head of the Scottish Government.
The powers of the Scottish Parliament were first set out in the Scotland Act 1998. Devolution has long been understood as a ‘process rather than an event’, and the ‘devolution settlement’ has since been amended, mostly to increase powers and responsibilities. Holyrood has the power to pass laws in any policy area that is not reserved, in other words, that is not specifically defined in the Scotland Act as a power of the Westminster Parliament in London.
The main devolved powers include agriculture, forestry, and fisheries, education and training, environment, health and social services, housing, law and order, local government, sport and the arts, tourism and economic development, and aspects of transport policy. Reserved powers include defence, foreign policy, immigration, international trade and international development, and the constitution.
The powers of the Scottish Parliament have been amended periodically. The two biggest changes to date were in 2012 and 2016. The Scotland Act 2012 devolved some small taxes, including stamp duty, and introduced a ‘Scottish rate of income tax’. The Scotland Act 2016 increased tax powers, including the power to decide how much income tax is contributed by people living in Scotland. It also devolved air passenger duty and increased the amount the Scottish Government can borrow. In addition, the Act devolved some social security benefits, including benefits for carers and people with disabilities, with a power to create new benefits or ‘top up’ other benefits provided by the UK Government. Other powers devolved by the Scotland Act 2016 include transport, onshore oil licensing (fracking), abortion, and elections to the Scottish Parliament.
How does the Scottish Parliament make laws?
Laws begin their lives as bills. You can see a full list of current Scottish Parliament bills and their status here. Most bills are introduced by the Scottish Government, but a bill can also be introduced by an MSP who is not part of the government (members’ bills) or a Parliamentary committee (committee bills). In the first stage, a parliamentary committee considers the general principles of the bill and asks the public for input. The bill is then debated by the full parliament (the chamber) and a decision on the general principles is taken. The bill then returns to the parliamentary committee which considers the bill in detail and offers any amendments, or proposed changes. The full parliament then considers further amendments and decides whether to pass or reject the bill. A bill which has passed the parliament will go for Royal Assent and once this has been received, it will become an Act of the Scottish Parliament.