Revealing her Programme for Government, Nicola Sturgeon put independence at the top of the list of her priorities – but there will be no referendum bill brought to the Scottish Parliament this year.
Instead, Ms Sturgeon said the Scottish Government “will now restart work on the detailed prospectus" that will be put to Scots if a referendum campaign is launched.
However she was immediately criticised by opposition MSPs and pro-union organisations, who said the First Minister’s priorities in the wake of the Covid pandemic, and in the midst of a climate crisis, were “wrong”.
Ms Sturgeon said that 12 Bills are set to be introduced to the Parliament over the next year, although some have previously been announced such as a Good Food Nation Bill, a Fireworks and Pyrotechnics Bill and a Miners’ Pardon Bill.
A Bill on fox hunting which had been due to be brought forward by the Scottish Greens has now been adopted by the government, given the new deal between the parties.
On Covid, a Bill to help support those self-isolating as well as another to support businesses through will be introduced, as well as a wider Covid Recovery Bill which will “embed reforms in public services and justice systems” which were introduced to deal with the pandemic.
A National Care Service Bill, as promised during the election campaign, will be lodged, as well as new legislation to improve how decisions on bail are made and the support prisoners receive when released from custody.
The controversial Gender Recognition Bill is also being brought back, while there will also be a Moveable Transactions Bill and the annual Budget Bill – which may include a doubling of the Scottish Child Payment as demanded by anti-poverty charities.
However it was the referendum which Ms Sturgeon addressed in her opening remarks.
She said: “As we emerge from the pandemic, choices fall to be made that will shape our economy and society for decades to come. Which Parliament – Westminster or Holyrood – should make these choices? And what principles will they be guided by?
“These are questions which cannot be avoided, nor postponed until the die is already cast. So we intend to offer that choice.
“We will do so only when the Covid crisis has passed but our aim, Covid permitting, is that it will be in the first half of this Parliament – before the end of 2023.
“Crucially, we will ensure that the choice – when it comes – is a fully informed one. To that end, I can confirm that the Scottish Government will now restart work on the detailed prospectus that will guide the decision.”
In the publication on the Programme for Government, produced on Tuesday, the government claimed the reason for a second referendum lay in the “threat” to devolution from Westminster.
It states: "Successive UK Governments, in particular since the EU referendum, have not only undermined the devolution settlement but are now actively re‑writing it without the consent of the people of Scotland.
“Devolution, by its very nature, has always been dependent on the restraint and goodwill of the UK Government of the day, but EU exit has triggered an assault on devolution not previously seen.
“The Scottish Government will do all we can to keep Scotland safe, and protect both devolution and our democratic rights. We were told that this is an equal partnership. But there is no evidence that Westminster wants an equal partnership – it wants to be in control.”
The document goes on: “Faced with a UK Government determined to centralise power in Westminster there is little the Scottish Parliament can do to stop them. This is just one reason why people in Scotland should have the right to decide their own future.”
Alluding to the May election which returned the SNP to government for a fourth time – and the new deal with the Scottish Greens – the government publication says that a “mandate” for a new referendum had been delivered, and as a result Scots should have a “choice” once the Covid crisis has passed.
"The Scottish Government will work to ensure that a legitimate and constitutional referendum can be held within this Parliament, and if the Covid crisis is over, within the first half of this Parliament. It must be up to the people of Scotland – not a Westminster government they didn’t vote for – to decide how Scotland is governed,” it states.
"Before this referendum the people of Scotland will have the information they need to make an informed choice about their future and, therefore, the Scottish Government will start work on a detailed prospectus for an independent Scotland.
"If the people of Scotland choose independence, the full range of powers of an independent country would allow Scotland to put in place a transformational recovery from the pandemic, one which will lead to a fairer and more
sustainable and prosperous nation.”
It is not known how much work has been done on a second independence white paper – or how much it will cost overall. The bill for Scotland’s Future, the prospectus produced for the 2014 referendum topped £1.2m for production and distribution of 80,000 hard copies.
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said Ms Sturgeon’s priorities were “wrong”.
“In a statement that is 27 pages long it takes to just the fourth paragraph for Nicola Sturgeon to mention independence. It’s right up there in front of all the other priorities we should have. Who can think it’s correct that in the time of a pandemic it is right for the First Minister to prioritise a referendum?”
Pamela Nash, chief executive of Scotland in Union, said: “This is an astonishing insult to the people of Scotland who want their government to focus on Covid recovery.
“To use government resources and revenue on a blueprint to divide communities shows just how out of touch the SNP and Greens are.
“The majority of people in Scotland do not want another divisive referendum any time soon, and want ministers to prioritise the NHS, jobs and the climate emergency.
“Rather than pull people apart, the government should be focused on bringing communities together so that we build a recovery which leaves nobody behind.”