Scotland politics

Referendum and same-sex marriage bills announced in SNP plans

An independence referendum bill and another to legalise same-sex marriage form part of the Scottish government's new legislative programme.

First Minister Alex Salmond announced details of his 2012/13 plans in the Holyrood chamber.

The government will bring forward 15 bills in all.

The SNP administration wants a referendum on independence to be held in autumn 2014. However, much of the detail has still to be worked out.

Negotiations on the process surrounding the vote are continuing between the Scottish and UK governments. The bill is expected to make its way through parliament and gain Royal Assent in November next year.

At this stage it is not known how many questions voters will be asked.

Among the 14 other bills being put forward are the Marriage and Civil Partnership Bill, which could introduce same-sex marriage to Scotland.

Mr Salmond says there will be a "conscience" vote in the parliament, where MSPs will be able to vote freely, and he insisted no part of the religious community would be forced to hold same-sex weddings in churches.

The announcement was made in the wake of a government consultation on the issue, which produced a record 77,508 responses.

Also included in the programme are measures to make more free early learning and childcare available.

The first minister said the Children and Young People Bill would include a promise of 600 hours "free early learning and childcare provision".

This guaranteed pre-school nursery care is for all three and four-year-olds, and looked-after two-year-olds. It represents a 125-hour increase on current provision.

Mr Salmond also announced that £18m will be spent on "high-quality, co-ordinated and accessible" support for families.

The Criminal Justice Bill will reform the system for investigating and prosecuting crime in Scotland, following Lord Carloway's review of Scots Law which recommended the abolition of the requirement for corroboration.

The legislative programme, announced in the week MSPs returned from their summer recess, includes two bills setting out the Scottish government's proposed replacements for stamp duty and landfill tax - the Scotland Act handed powers over these to Holyrood from 2015.

Other legislation is being focused on the integration of health and social care; improving support available for victims and witnesses; reforming post-16 education and to bringing bankruptcy law into the 21st Century.

Mr Salmond said: "The new parliamentary session promises to be a pivotal one in the history of this country.

"Work will get under way in earnest on the Referendum Bill, laying the groundwork for Scotland's most important decision in 300 years.

"With the powers we do have, we have managed to secure free university education, offer the best free early learning and childcare package in the UK and guarantee a training opportunity to every 16-19 year old who is not already in education, employment or training.

"We are also investing in creating jobs and strengthening the economy - bringing forward more than £300m of capital spending between 2008-2010, supporting 5,000 jobs, and announcing just a few weeks ago a further £105m.

"Any plan to support growth should focus on immediate public sector capital investment and over this year and the next two, we will switch over £700m of spending from resource to capital."

Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont said Mr Salmond no longer had anything to offer Scotland, other than "a referendum he continues to dither over".

'Out of ideas'

She said: "The first minister has an overall majority, what an opportunity to change Scotland for a generation - to radically overhaul education, to set our NHS on a new footing.

"If he'd been prepared to be radical, we'd have been prepared to work with him. But when it comes to the big issues, which actually affect peoples' lives, the poverty of his ambition borders on destitution.

"This legislative programme was largely an uninspired mix of re-announcements and technical bills which show a government out of ideas."

Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives, said the legislative programme was from a government that had "run out of steam, run out of ideas and which fails to live up to the ambitions of Scotland's people".

She added: "It is a programme that seeks to create the illusion of activity through a plethora of policies but which somehow contrives to be somewhat less than the some of its parts.

"It is the programme of a government that has been reduced to a single overriding goal - to break Scotland away from the rest of the United Kingdom."

BBC graphic
Holyrood plans to increase pre-school care to 600 hours a year

The leader of the Scottish Lib Dems, Willie Rennie, said: "The big missed opportunity today is that of Scottish Water. By changing Scottish Water into a public benefit corporation, which firmly remains in the public sector, there is the potential to release a £1.5bn windfall.

"This money could be used to finance the shovel-ready projects the SNP never tire of shouting about. This would create jobs the length and breadth of Scotland."

Scottish Green Party leader Patrick Harvie said the two "highest profile bills" - on the independence referendum and same-sex marriage - had received the "strong support" of his party.

He explained: "The introduction of the Referendum Bill will signal the beginning of the most important period of recent Scottish history - the debate about the future of our country. That debate must engage with the competing visions of the kind of country we want to become.

"The bill to allow same-sex marriage is an important part of that agenda. It will continue Scotland's progress toward a modern, inclusive and progressive society that values equality and diversity."

And Scottish Secretary Michael Moore said he welcomed the first minister announcing plans for a Referendum Bill.

He added: "It is high time we sorted out the referendum process and got on to the real debate about Scotland's future."

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