Plans for independence vote to be published in draft bill

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image captionNicola Sturgeon said the case for Scottish independence was "immeasurably strengthened" by Brexit

The Scottish government is to set out its plans for a second independence referendum in a draft bill at Holyrood.

Ministers have accepted that there is "clearly" not time to hold a fresh vote before the Scottish Parliament elections in May 2021.

However, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said a draft bill would be published setting out the timescale and potential question for a new referendum.

The SNP will then "make the case" for this plan in the election campaign.

Opposition parties hit out at the move, with Scottish Conservatives accusing Ms Sturgeon of putting independence "front and centre" while delaying commitments to free childcare.

The Scottish government had previously hoped to hold an independence referendum during the current term of parliament.

However, ministers wanted to secure an agreement with the UK government to make sure any vote would be legally watertight, something Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly stated his opposition to.

The Scottish government "paused work" on preparations for a ballot as the coronavirus pandemic took hold, and now says there is "clearly" no time to "organise and hold an independence referendum that is beyond legal challenge" before the election in May.

Ms Sturgeon said she would instead publish draft legislation setting out the question to be asked - subject to testing by the Electoral Commission, something Scottish ministers had previously opposed - and the timescale for a vote.

She said that based on this, "at next year's election we will make the case for Scotland to become an independent country".

Her programme for government paper said that "if there is majority support for the bill in the Scottish Parliament in the next term, there could then be no moral or democratic justification whatsoever for any UK government to ignore the rights of the people of Scotland to choose our own future".

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Ms Sturgeon said that "Brexit, and the way in which is it being implemented, immeasurably strengthens the case for Scotland becoming an independent country with the ability to shape our own destiny and contribute positively to the world".

However, Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said that the first minister "just doesn't get it".

He said: "We need to take Scotland forward and recover from this crisis together, not go back to the divisions of the past.

"Civil servants that could be drawing up an Education Bill will instead be drawing up a Referendum Bill. Scotland's future is being wasted on the divisions of the past."

And Labour's shadow Scottish Secretary Ian Murray said the "reckless" announcement showed that Ms Sturgeon's "top priority is to divide the people of Scotland".

He said: "Re-opening the constitutional debate will do nothing to help our NHS recover from the pandemic, or help the children who have lost months of education, or help grow our economy. Public services should be the priority, not a divisive second independence referendum."

Meanwhile, Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie said that "independence got the loudest applause of the afternoon" from the SNP benches at Holyrood, saying "that tells you all about their priorities".