By Bob Duncan
Scotland’s First Minister has unveiled a “historic package” of legislation for the forthcoming term, including a Bill to allow a referendum on independence.
Alex Salmond addressed MSPs in Holyrood today as he outlined the Scottish Government’s plans for 2012/13 which will include 15 new bills in the current parliamentary session.
In addition to the flagship Referendum Bill, his legislative programme will include a controversial Bill to legalise same-sex marriage and one which the First Minister said would give families in Scotland the best level of free childcare in the UK.
Two Bills set out the Scottish Government’s proposed replacements for stamp duty and landfill tax as a consequence of new powers being passed to Holyrood from 2015 under the Scotland Act.
Other bills aim to provide better support for victims of crime and witnesses, reform post-16 education and modernise bankruptcy law.
Merging adult health and social care is also planned, with a Bill requiring NHS health boards and councils to integrate budgets though health and social care partnerships.
Mr Salmond also announced £18m will be spent on “high-quality, co-ordinated and accessible” support for families.
The First Minister told MSPs: “It is an historic package of measures. The record of this Parliament is the clearest possible message that the best people to make decisions about the future of Scotland are the people who choose to live and work in this country.”
He said Scotland was faring better than the wider UK on major economic indicators such as unemployment, job creation and output, while investment in sectors such as renewable energy was kick-starting the “re-industrialisation of Scotland”.
However, the First Minister warned the country was hampered by its constitutional constraints. Its capital budget was down by 30% in real terms since 2009, and he had repeatedly asked the Prime Minister David cameron to release funds for ‘shovel-ready’ Scottish infrastructure projects.
He also defended distinctive Scottish policies such as free university tuition. He said this was vindicated by the record numbers of Scottish students at Scottish universities, and growing numbers of English and foreign students choosing to study in Scotland. Meanwhile, student numbers in England, where fees of up to £9,000 can now be charged, had fallen by 25,000, he said.
Labour’s Scottish leader Johann Lamont described the programme as “an uninspired mix of re-announcements and technical Bills which show a government out of ideas”, while accusing the SNP of being interested only in breaking up the UK, the called the legislative programme “a tired, jaded set of priorities”.
For the Conservatives’ Ruth Davidson said the proposal was dominated by an “obsession with tearing apart the United Kingdom” and was less than the sum of its parts.
Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie accused the SNP of repeatedly redefining independence to embrace ever more of the British state they had demonised, while applauding the Deputy First Minister for her courage in bringing in the bill on equal marriage.
Scottish Greens MSP Patrick Harvie pledged support on the referendum and on same-sex marriage, but said the government must re-locate its clarity of purpose on climate change.
However, Mr Salmond insisted that “it is a historic package of measures. 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.”