The National Assembly for Wales was first established in 1999 as an elected body with limited law-making powers. Successive reforms to the legislative basis of Welsh devolution – in 2006, 2011 and 2017 – have produced the parliament we see today.
Devolution across the UK now takes the form of a ‘reserved powers’ model: all powers are devolved unless explicitly reserved to Westminster. Under the system in Wales, the Senedd (Welsh Parliament) has power, known as legislative competence, to make laws over many key areas of Welsh life. These include health and social care, housing, education, transport, business, economic development, social services, language and culture, the environment, local government, and more. Since 2014, the Senedd has also gained significant tax-raising powers. In 2018, it was estimated that these covered around £5 billion in tax revenues, roughly a third of Welsh Government spending at that time.
Like the Scottish Parliament, the Senedd controls its own institutional arrangements (such as the number of elected members), as well as the voting system and electoral franchise used for devolved Welsh elections. Using these powers, it recently introduced a law (the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Act 2020) which lowered the voting age to 16 and allows foreign nationals resident in Wales to vote in Welsh elections. The same law also changed the official name of the institution from ‘National Assembly for Wales’ to ‘Welsh Parliament / Senedd Cymru’.
Welsh devolution, however, remains the most restricted of the three bespoke systems of legislative devolution in the UK. The model of reserved powers put in place by the Wales Act 2017 includes significantly more reservations than the Scottish devolved system.
One of the most controversial reservations is justice policy. Wales, unlike Scotland and Northern Ireland, is not a separate legal jurisdiction with its own system of law, police and courts; it is part of a single jurisdiction with England, put in place by Henry VIII during the 16th century. With both the Welsh and Westminster parliaments now creating laws within one jurisdiction, Welsh devolution is arguably the most complex of the three systems. An independent commission concluded last year that this arrangement was ‘failing the people of Wales’, and recommended the devolution of justice policy – a recommendation supported by the Welsh Government and the Senedd. In addition to powers over justice, the Welsh Government seeks a new constitutional settlement for the UK which would include significantly greater powers for the Senedd.