NICOLA Sturgeon is to set out the timetable and question for a second independence referendum before next May's Holyrood election.

The First Minister will publish a draft referendum bill “setting out the terms of a future referendum clearly and unambiguously to the people of Scotland”. 

HeraldScotland: Camley's Cartoon: Indyref2 timetable announcedCamley's Cartoon: Indyref2 timetable announced

The promise was included in the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government 2020/21, which Ms Sturgeon set out at Holyrood today. 

It states: “Before the end of his Parliament, we will publish a draft bill for an independence referendum – setting out the terms of a future referendum clearly and unambiguously to the people of Scotland

“This will include the question to be asked, subject to appropriate testing by the Electoral Commission, and the timescale in which we consider the referendum should be held, taking account of the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic at the time of publication of the draft bill.”

Ms Sturgeon told MSPs her party would go into the Holyrood election urging people to vote for that referendum and choose a different future for Scotland.

Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross tweeted: "The First Minister just doesn’t get it.

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

Ms Sturgeon’s programme for government for 2016/17 also included a draft referendum bill which went out to public consultation but did not lead to meaningful legislation.

The text then said: “We will publish for consultation a draft Referendum Bill, in order that it is ready for introduction should the Scottish Government conclude – and decide to seek Parliament’s agreement – that independence is the best or only way to protect Scotland’s interests in the wake of the EU referendum."

The Scottish Government parked work on independence at the start of the pandemic.

Ms Sturgeon asked Boris Johnson for the power to hold a referendum in the wake of the SNP winning 47 of Scotland's 59 seats at December's general election.

The Prime Minister refused, saying the No result of 2014 was, as Ms Sturgeon and Alex Salmond said at the time, a once-in-a-generation decision.

However with the polls indicating a second SNP majority at Holyrood next year, some UK ministers privately accept that public demand for Indyref2 may be irresistible. 

Announcing her legislative agenda for the remainder of this parliament, Ms Sturgeon said suppressing Covid-19 was "our most immediate priority - and it will remain so for some time", and her Government would use the impact of the pandemic to "rethink how we do things".

Announcing a "significant enhancement to Test & Protect", she said the Government would "launch Protect Scotland, our new proximity tracing app".

"The app will provide an additional means of notifying and giving advice if you've been exposed to someone who has tested positive - even if you don't know them and they don't know you," she said.

The NHS Louisa Jordan hospital at the SECC in Glasgow will open through winter, she said, and eligibility for the flu vaccine would be extended to "everyone over the age of 55, social care workers and those who live with shielded people".

Ms Sturgeon said the programme "also lays foundations for the future".

She said: "It establishes a national mission to create new, high-quality, green jobs.

"I can can confirm that central to this, and central to our programme, is a Youth Guarantee - a new partnership with Scotland's employers, backed by £60 million of Government investment, to guarantee everyone aged 16-24 a job, a place in education or a place in training.

"We are also earmarking £10 million to help employers recruit and retain apprentices. This will include incentives to take on apprentices who have been made redundant."

Ms Sturgeon also announced that a National Transition Training Fund will be launched in the autumn to help "10,000 people of all ages retrain for jobs in growth sectors", and a Green Jobs Fund initially worth £100 million will be established.

"We will increase our investment in infrastructure year on year, so that by the end of the next parliament it will be £1.5 billion higher than last year," she added.

Announcing plans for digital infrastructure, she said that by the end of 2021 an "electronic device, unlimited data, and two years of digital support and training" will be provided to 50,000 people who "would otherwise be without digital access that the rest of us take for granted".

"This is a massive step, and will help us end the digital divide once and for all," she said.

The First Minister said Scots "mustn't forget that the global climate emergency is intensifying, and that it too requires urgent action".

She said: "Our overall investment in decarbonising heat - which will in itself be more than £1.5 billion over the next parliament - will help us improve energy efficiency, reduce fuel poverty, and ensure that in just over 20 years, heating in Scotland will no longer be a source of greenhouse gas emissions."

Saying the Government would help industries become more green, she added that a Grangemouth Future Industry Board would be established "to support a Just Transition at that cluster - promoting economic activity while advancing the move to a low-carbon future".

Responding to the Indyref2 announcment, Ian Murray, Scottish Labour MP for Edinburgh South, said: “This reckless announcement from the First Minister shows that her top priority is to divide the people of Scotland.

“All her focus should be on post-Covid recovery, not returning to the old politics of division that will harm Scotland’s society and economy.

“Recent polling shows this is not a priority for Scots, so the First Minister should start listening.

“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.”

Pamela Nash, chief executive of Scotland in Union, said: “This is the very last thing Scotland needs.

“The entire focus of the Government should be on the coronavirus crisis; it is beyond belief that Nicola Sturgeon is choosing now to divide communities once again when she should be working to bring the country together.

“This is a scandalous waste of civil service resources during one of the biggest challenges we have ever faced, and tells you everything you need to know about the SNP.

“We are stronger together as part of the UK, and it’s time for the First Minister to drop her plans for a divisive second referendum.”