Nicola Sturgeon Sets Out Plan For Government

The Scottish Government is to focus on boosting the economy in the wake of the Brexit vote, with Nicola Sturgeon promising £4 billion will be spent on infrastructure next year alongside a £500 million package of support for private businesses.

Nicola Sturgeon

The First Minister outlined 14 Bills which her SNP administration at Holyrood will introduce - including four pieces of legislation making use of new powers that have just been devolved to Edinburgh.

The SNP leader also used her legislative programme to set out "how we will seek to protect Scotland's interests, particularly our economic interests, in the wake of the EU referendum''.

While almost two-thirds of Scots (62%) opted to remain part of the European Union (EU) in June, the UK as a whole voted to leave.

Ms Sturgeon said again she is "determined to pursue all options to protect our place in Europe''.

As a result, she said her programme for government "makes clear that we will consult on a draft Referendum Bill, so that it is ready for immediate introduction if we conclude that independence is the best or only way to protect Scotland's interests''.

The programme lays out the Bills that are to be brought before the Scottish Parliament between now and the end of June next year, with Ms Sturgeon saying it represents the "hard graft'' of turning the SNP's manifesto from the May Holyrood elections into reality.

As well as investing in "vital infrastructure'', she stressed ministers are "stepping up our support for business in the wake of the referendum''.

The three-year Scottish Growth Scheme will see the government work to unlock investment for the private sector following the uncertainty cause by the vote to leave the EU.

Investment guarantees and some loans, of up to £5 million, will be available to small and medium-sized firms who would not otherwise be able to expand because of restricted access to finance.

"The proposal for a Scottish Growth Fund is an exceptional response to an exceptional economic challenge,'' the First Minister said

"This is a half-billion pound vote of confidence in Scottish business, Scottish workers and the Scottish economy.

"We are determined to build an economy where everyone has a fair chance to contribute to growth and where everyone can share in the benefits of growth.''

The Scottish Government has already set up a new business information service to provide advice and support for firms worried about Brexit while a post-referendum business network is being set up with the Scotland Office, Scottish Trades Union Congress and business organisations to help shape future policy and support.

As well as this, £3.5 million is being invested in new "innovation and investment hubs'' in London, Dublin and Brussels in a bid to help attract more businesses to Scotland and help domestic firms expand overseas.

These are "objectives that are all the more important in the new circumstances we face'' post-Brexit, Ms Sturgeon said.

With new tax and welfare powers coming to Holyrood, the Scottish Government will introduce legislation that will see a new charge created to replace air passenger duty from April 2018.

Ms Sturgeon also confirmed the intention to cut the amount paid by travellers in half by 2020.

Meanwhile, a Social Security Bill will "take the first steps towards a distinctive Scottish social security system based on dignity and respect'', the First Minister said, with the SNP having already pledged to increase carer's allowance and create a new grant for low-income parents.

With improving education the "defining mission'' of her government, Ms Sturgeon said an Education Bill would be brought in to make the necessary legislative changes.

In addition, a governance review to be published by Deputy First Minister and Education Secretary John Swinney next week will look at how to "empower schools and decentralise management''.

Ministers will also consult on a "new fair and transparent national funding formula for our schools''.

A Child Poverty Bill is "arguably the most important piece of legislation we will introduce this year'', Ms Sturgeon said, while there will be a new Climate Change Bill and  fresh legislation on land reform after earlier measures from the government were criticised for not going far enough.

The Scottish Government is also proposing to change the law to make emotional and psychological abuse a crime.

Ms Sturgeon said: "The Bill is an important signal of our determination to tackle domestic abuse in all its forms. It will therefore make an important contribution to our aim of gender equality.''

The government will also use new powers to legislate for more women on boards of public bodies, with the First Minister saying this would "help ensure the public sector leads by example in delivering true gender equality.

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson urged the First Minister to ditch the "threat'' of a second referendum and focus on governance, adding that she was disappointed by the SNP's "failure to listen'' on the economy.

Energy is being "diverted into an endless political campaign'', she said, with Ms Sturgeon's list of legislation serving as "a warm-up act to nudge the independence caravan another few inches along the road''.

"I do not subscribe to the view that we are helpless to act in the face of Brexit  - nor do I think that breaking up a union worth four times more to Scotland than the EU is going to help matters very much,'' she said.

"I said two weeks ago I wanted a new type of Scottish Government and what I mean is one which no longer asks - how will this boost independence? But one that asks - how are we growing the country?''

Ms Davidson said her party wanted to see more opportunities for Scottish firms to export abroad, major new investment in home-energy efficiency, a "genuinely ambitious'' housebuilding programme and cuts to business rates.

"All these measures are important,'' she said.

"The single biggest economic lever that the SNP could pull right now to help the country grow would be to remove the threat of a second referendum.

"That is what is holding us back. That is stifling investment in our firms. Taking away that lead weight on our country's prospects is one thing the First Minister could do right now.

"She might have hid it in a throwaway line at the end of her speech, but the bill sits in the programme for government as a direct threat to our nation's economic growth.''

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale said the programme lacked ambition and failed to address the "big questions'' Scotland faces in areas such as public services and jobs.

"Over the past decade, this Parliament has become more and more powerful, but the Government's programme has become less and less ambitious,'' she said.

"The First Minister and the SNP have had nearly a decade. They now have another five years.

"Let this be five years where focusing on jobs, public services and our economy rank as highly as the SNP's fight for independence.''

She added: "Let me be absolutely clear. She will find no support on these benches for a second independence referendum.

"Labour will continue to make the argument that we have since the EU referendum: That we are better maintaining our relationship with the EU and continuing as part of the United Kingdom.

"That's the will of the people of Scotland on both issues and it is a will my party shares.''

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