Government and Politics


The governance of Wales

Owain Roberts, Senior Research Officer, Assembly and Constitution Team, National Assembly for Wales Research Service


Decisions affecting people living in Wales are made at four different tiers of governance, all with different functions, responsibilities and powers across a variety of distinct and overlapping policy areas. In order to make sense of who does what and who is accountable for decisions made in relation to Wales, an outline of the distribution of these powers and responsibilities is provided below.



The European Union

Since joining the then European Community in 1973, the UK Parliament has gradually empowered the institutions of the EU (The European Council / Council of Ministers, the European Commission and the European Parliament) to make and adopt laws in specific areas. This division of powers is outlined in the EU's two core treaties (the Treaty on the European Union and the Treaty on the functioning of the European Union that were last updated by the Lisbon Treaty) which lay down the formal rules and set out specific powers that the EU may exercise in a number of areas. In broad terms, the EU's powers can be split into three categories:


  • Exclusive areas of EU competence: These are the areas where the UK Parliament has transferred all law-making authority to the EU. This includes legislative competence over the EU's customs union; competition rules to allow for the functioning of the internal market; monetary policy for countries who are members of the euro; the conservation of marine biological resources under the common fisheries policy; and the common commercial policy.


  • Shared areas of competence: Responsibility for law-making is shared between the EU and the UK Parliament in some areas. These include powers over the internal market; social policy; economic, social and territorial cohesion; agriculture and fisheries, excluding the conservation of marine biological resources; environment; consumer protection; transport; trans-European networks; energy; area of freedom, security and justice; common safety concerns in public health matters.


  • Areas of supporting, coordinating or complementary action: The EU's core treaties also enable the EU and member states to work together on a number of areas to develop co-ordinated policy approaches. This can be achieved through both legislative and non-legislative means. Such areas include the protection and improvement of human health; industry; culture; tourism; education, youth, sport and vocational training; economic and employment policies; and the development of common foreign and security policies across the EU.


UK Government and Parliament

Apart from those areas which are the sole responsibility of the EU, the UK Parliament (both the House of Commons and the House of Lords) remains sovereign in relation to all UK law and can still legislate in relation to all areas (both devolved and non-devolved) in Wales. By convention however it does not legislate for matters which have been devolved to the National Assembly or Welsh Ministers without first obtaining the consent of the National Assembly (through a mechanism known as a Legislative Consent Motion).

The UK Government (also known as HM Government) is responsible for running the UK and has responsibility for developing and implementing policies and for drafting laws in relation to all matters affecting Wales that have not been devolved to the Welsh Government. The UK Government is headed by the Prime Minister and its functions are exercised by numerous governmental departments such as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Department for Energy and Climate Change, the Ministry of Defence and HM Treasury.

National Assembly for Wales and Welsh Government

The National Assembly has the right to pass laws (known as Assembly Acts), but only in certain specified areas. These powers are outlined in the following 20 Subjects of Schedule 7 to the Government of Wales Act 2006:

  • Agriculture, Forestry, Animals, Plants and Rural Development

  • Ancient Monuments and Historic Buildings

  • Culture

  • Economic Development

  • Education and Training

  • Environment

  • Fire and Rescue Services and Fire Safety

  • Food

  • Health and Health Services

  • Highways and Transport

  • Housing

  • Local Government

  • National Assembly for Wales

  • Public Administration

  • Social Welfare

  • Sport and Recreation

  • Tourism

  • Town and Country Planning

  • Water and Flood Defence

  • Welsh Language

If a policy area is not specified within one or more of the Subjects listed (or if it is clearly specified as an exception or a restriction to the National Assembly's powers within the 2006 Act), the National Assembly does not have the power to legislate in relation to it. Interestingly, this is slightly different to the situation in Scotland where the Scottish Parliament has general powers to legislate in all areas unless they are expressly reserved by the Scotland Act 1998.

Examples of areas which have not been devolved to the National Assembly include:

  • policing and criminal justice;

  • foreign affairs, defence and security issues; and

  • welfare, benefits and social security.

Taxation, apart from powers to set council tax and business rates, also remains the responsibility of the UK Government and Parliament. Responsibility for this and for fiscal and macroeconomic policies and public expenditure allocations across the UK lies with HM Treasury.

The Welsh Government is responsible for running those areas which have been devolved to Wales (such as education, local government and health) and is also responsible for developing and implementing policies and for drafting laws in relation to all devolved matters. All Welsh Ministers and the Counsel General, as members of the Welsh Government, are accountable to the National Assembly for their decisions and actions.

The Welsh Government currently consists of the First Minister, seven Welsh Ministers, three Deputy Ministers and the Counsel General. Its offices are located in Cathays Park, close to the centre of Cardiff.

Welsh Local Authorities

All 22 Welsh local authorities are required by law to provide certain services in their respective areas. They provide some of these services directly, work in partnership with other organisations, and commission others to provide services on their behalf. They receive around 80 per cent of their funding directly from the Welsh Government.

Local authorities cannot pass primary or subordinate legislation but they may make byelaws in certain specified areas - such as dog fouling, regulation of taxis and parking - which only have a local effect.

Local authorities are mainly however required by law to provide certain services. Although such services are subject to laws, strategies, frameworks and targets set and monitored mainly by the Welsh Government, they do have a certain amount of discretion in providing and delivering those services in their areas. The responsibilities of local authorities are extensive and are found in numerous pieces of primary and secondary legislation passed over the years by the UK Parliament and the National Assembly. The list below provides a non-exhaustive overview of the areas which are the responsibility of each local authority:

  • civil registration services (of births, deaths and marriages);

  • coroners;

  • cremation and burials;

  • economic development and regeneration (including powers to provide grants and support businesses);

  • education (including the provision of nursery, primary, secondary, full-time 16-19 education [excluding further education colleges] and post 19 education apart from Higher Education);

  • environment (including public health, animal welfare, noise and light pollution, dog fouling, abandoned vehicles, maintenance of grounds and parks and litter etc.);

  • emergency planning;

  • fire and rescue services;

  • food safety;

  • certain highways (under provisions outlined in the Highways Act 1980);

  • housing;

  • leisure and recreation;

  • libraries;

  • licensing (including responsibility for alcohol licensing, taxis, public entertainment and gambling);

  • national parks;

  • planning;

  • social services;

  • strategic planning;

  • transport;

  • trading standards; and

  • waste.