ALEX Salmond is facing calls to replace Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill after he shelved proposals to end the need for corroboration in criminal trials.
The First Minister was forced to defend his under-fire minister against claims he could no longer lead the controversial legal reforms effectively.
Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont used First Minister's Questions yesterday to attack Mr MacAskill's "disgraceful" handling of the Scottish Government's Criminal Justice Bill, which was put on hold on Wednesday.
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Challenging Mr Salmond to reconsider the minister's role, she asked: "Given Kenny MacAskill's approach and his expressed hostility to those who raised genuine concerns about what he was doing, does the First Minister really believe that it is possible for this Parliament to reach that critical consensus on corroboration with Kenny MacAskill as Cabinet Secretary?"
Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader, also hit out at the Justice Secretary. She called for a review of the Bill, which has been under way since February, to be widened to "restore some of the credibility that was lost through Kenny MacAskill's handling of the issue".
The two leaders spoke out after Mr MacAskill announced the flagship legislation would be delayed for a year to allow the review, headed by former High Court judge Lord Bonomy, to consider additional safeguards against miscarriages of justice.
Prior to the surprise move, he had appeared determined to push the legislation through parliament by the end of June, long before the review was complete.
In a speech in February - described yesterday by Ms Davidson as "the most ill-judged and intemperate in the history of the Parliament" - Mr MacAskill accused opponents of "selling out" victims of crime. He also claimed opposition from Labour, Conservative and LibDem MSPs, who were concerned the Bill was being rushed through too quickly, was politically motivated.
Asked by Ms Lamont if he retained full confidence in his Justice Secretary, Mr Salmond replied simply: "Yes." He went on to mount a staunch defence of the minster. He said: "I'll tell you why I have got confidence in this Justice Secretary, because we have 1000 extra police on the streets and in communities of Scotland thanks to this Justice Secretary.
"Recorded crime in Scotland is down by 35% thanks to this Justice Secretary, violent crime is down by almost a half under the office of this Justice Secretary and crimes of handling offensive weapons are down 60%, and above all, people's fear of crime in Scotland is dropping for the first time."
He added: "It's precisely because we care about this issue so much we have pursued this legislation with such vigour and we shall continue to pursue this legislation with such vigour."
A spokesman for the First Minister later restated the government's determination to press ahead with abolishing the need for corroboration, which he said would improve justice for victims of crimes such as rape, where separate pieces of evidence can be difficult to obtain.
He said the delay, which had been called for by opposition parties, had been agreed in a bid to win wider support.
The proposal has been supported by victims' rights groups, who argue it will improve conviction and rates and allow more cases to be brought to court.
Scottish Labour also backed the move in principle, but opposed the Bill on the grounds it was being rushed through.
Lawyers represented by the Law Society of Scotland and the Faculty of Advocates have voiced staunch opposition to the proposal, warning it would lead to wrongful convictions.