SNP ministers have been criticised over “an obscene waste of public money” after it was revealed 11 civil servants have been tasked with drawing up new plans for Scottish independence – costing up to £700,000 a year.

The president of the SNP has described civil servants being tasked with updating the case for Scottish independence as "democracy in action" after his party secured victory in last year's Holyrood election with a manifesto promise to bring forward another vote on the constitution.

In announcing her Programme for Government in September, Nicola Sturgeon said she was instructing civil servants to bring forward an updated case for independence ahead of her ambition to hold a second referendum by the end of next year, Covid permitting.

But in an freedom of information response, the Scottish Government confirmed that a team of 11 civil servants are being tasked with updating the case for independence.

In its response, the SNP Government said “the work to prepare an independence prospectus will be co-ordinated by a team in the Constitution and Cabinet Directorate, but will draw on other officials across a range of portfolios” who will “contribute to varying extents as part of their wider responsibilities in supporting the Scottish Government”.

It confirms the “co-ordinating team currently comprises one senior civil servant and ten other officials (5 graded C2, 4 graded C1 and 1 graded B3)”.

When the pay grades of the 11 publicly-funded civil servants are analysed, it appears the oversight team alone is costing around £700,000 a year.

The government response adds: “As set out in the 2021/22 Programme for Government (PfG), the Scottish Government will work to ensure that a legitimate and constitutional referendum can be held within this Parliament, and if the Covid crisis is over, within the first half of this Parliament.

“The prospectus will be published in advance of a referendum, in time to ensure the people of Scotland have the information they need to make an informed choice about their future.”

Scottish Conservative constitution spokesperson, Donald Cameron, said: “It’s outrageous that the SNP Government are devoting huge resources to their push for another divisive independence referendum, when all their focus should be on Scotland’s pandemic recovery.

“It’s scandalous – yet very telling - that they won’t come clean on how much this self-serving project is costing, but even the admission that 11 civil servants are working on this full-time will appall ordinary Scots.”

He added: “Nothing better illustrates that the SNP govern in the nationalist interest, not the national interest, than this needless squandering of resources on their obsession with constitutional upheaval.”

Scottish LibDem leader Alex Cole-Hamilton added: “To spend more than £500,000 on a fool's errand of another prospectus for independence makes it less of a white paper and more of a white elephant.

“It is scandalous that when patients are waiting in pain, when kids have missed out on life qualifying education and when NHS staff are on their knees, the SNP and Greens are prattling about on their ridiculous fantasy.

“They are absolutely off their rockers."

Pamela Nash, chief executive of Scotland in Union, said: “This is an obscene waste of public money.

“While our NHS struggles with massive waiting lists and children sit in crowded classrooms, only the SNP could think it sensible to devote civil service time and taxpayers’ money to this.

“Rather than focusing on how to divide Scotland once again, the government’s priority should be bringing communities together, giving our NHS and public services the resources they need.”

SNP president Michael Russell said: “The people of Scotland have already decided they should have a choice over their future by electing a Scottish Parliament in May with a record majority of pro-independence MSPs.

"Now the preparatory work is underway to develop a blueprint for Scotland as an independent country. This is democracy in action – the Scottish Government delivering the manifesto promises on which they were so overwhelmingly elected."

He added: “This detailed work will ensure that the people of Scotland can make an informed choice when voting in the referendum and are presented with the choice of a better and fairer future in an independent Scotland.

“The chaos and corruption we see at Westminster on a daily basis demonstrates in stark terms why decisions about Scotland should be taken by the people who live here and not by the likes of Boris Johnson.

“Independence can present the people of Scotland with a different path away from the scandalous and sleaze-ridden Tory UK government at Westminster and the SNP is wholly committed to delivering that in an independence referendum once the pandemic has passed and it is safe to do so.”

Speaking in Holyrood on Tuesday, Mr Cole-Hamilton told Ms Sturgeon that Scotland “faces a litany of social problems, action on which ministers have sought to defer with reference to the pandemic”.

He added: “However, miraculously, we were told this weekend that the threat of the virus has abated such that, in 2023, we can hold another referendum on independence.

“Those problems have not gone away. There are patients who are waiting in pain for operations, children who have missed out on life-qualifying education, and front-line staff who are on their knees and are in want of a break.

“Does the First Minister understand the anger and frustration at her Government as it turns its eyes away from them and back to the tired old divisions of the past?"

The First Minister insisted “we focus on those issues each and every day”. 

She added: “However, in the interests of democracy, we will also seek to take forward the mandate that we won less than a year ago at the Scottish Parliament election to allow the people of Scotland to choose whether to complete the powers of this Parliament to better equip us to deal with the issues that Alex Cole-Hamilton has set out, because those things are, of course, very closely related.

“Our ability to ensure that Scotland addresses those issues and fulfils its potential will be enhanced by Scotland becoming independent, and I think that everybody, including Alex Cole-Hamilton, should perhaps lift their eyes and their ambition.”