‘Bold and ambitious’ legislative programme unveiled by Nicola Sturgeon

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Nicola Sturgeon has unveiled “bold and ambitious” plans for the coming year aimed at making Scotland fairer, greener and more prosperous.

The First Minister announced the Scottish Government – which has been accused of focusing too much on independence and failing to get on with the day job – would introduce 16 new Bills to Holyrood in the next parliamentary year.

She confirmed plans to scrap the 1% pay cap for public-sector workers and with the Scottish Parliament now having power over income-tax rates and bands, the SNP leader said the time was right for a discussion on how these could be used in a “responsible and progressive” way.

Ms Sturgeon restated that education and cutting the attainment gap between rich and poor was her government’s top priority.

She promised an Education Bill that “will deliver the most radical change to how our schools are run” since devolution.

Headteachers will get “significant” new powers, she said, and the Scottish Government will also introduce new ways for people to go into a career in teaching.

The legislative programme included measures aimed at boosting Scotland’s environmental credentials, with Ms Sturgeon announcing she wants new petrol and diesel cars to be phased out in Scotland from 2032 – eight years sooner than the 2040 target that has been set by the UK Government.

She told MSPs that, over the coming months, ministers would set out “detailed plans to massively expand the number of electric charging points in rural, urban and domestic settings”.

A deposit return scheme for drinks cans and bottles will be brought in while a new Climate Change Bill will set “even more ambitious targets” for cutting greenhouse gases.

In addition, the Scottish Government will also provide direct funding for the feasibility stage of a proposed carbon capture and storage project in Aberdeenshire

On health, she announced plans to expand free personal care to those under 65 who are suffering from conditions such as dementia or motor neurone disease (MND).

The legislation, dubbed Frank’s Law, after former Dundee United footballer Frank Kopel, who died after battling dementia, will be fully implemented, Ms Sturgeon confirmed.

Scotland will get new laws to make driving under the influence of drugs a criminal offence while “bolder” efforts to prevent reoffending will mean there will be a presumption against the courts handing out prison sentences of less than 12 months.

The First Minister also confirmed legislation will be brought to ensure that men convicted of offences linked to same-sex activities which are now lawful will be given an automatic pardon, and will have such convictions removed from their criminal records.

“Above all, this Bill will right a historic wrong and give justice to those who found themselves unjustly criminalised for simply because of who they loved,” Ms Sturgeon said.

Meanwhile, ministers will act to raise the age of criminal responsibility in Scotland from eight to 12, bringing the country in line with others around the world, and Ms Sturgeon also pledged her government would not oppose a member’s bill being brought forward by Green MSP John Finnie to ban smacking.

To help tackle inequality, she announced proposals for a new £50 million fund for addressing child poverty, with the money to be available over five years.

Holyrood will provide “global leadership” in tackling “period poverty” – where some low-income women can struggle to afford sanitary protection – Ms Sturgeon said, revealing the Scottish Government would provide free access to such products for students in schools, colleges and universities.

She also stressed “more fundamental reform” was needed in the longer term as she announced the Government would fund research into the feasibility of a citizen’s basic income scheme.

Meanwhile, an expert group will be set up to bring forward “urgent recommendations” on how to end the problem of homeless people sleeping on the streets – with changes to be brought about with the help of a new £10 million a year ending homelessness together fund.

She described the plans she outlined as “ambitious” – and said she was determined Brexit would not stand in the way of implementing them.

The SNP leader restated her opposition to the UK Government’s EU (Withdrawal) Bill, branding it as “power grab” and “simply unacceptable”.

The Scottish Government will not give its consent to the Bill as it stands, Ms Sturgeon said – adding that ministers are considering the option of bringing in their own legislation to ensure “the necessary continuity” of European Union legislation in Scotland post-Brexit.

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson warned the First Minister was “opening the door on greater tax rises today”.

She said: “”We say stop taking ever more money from the pockets of Scotland’s workers – we must instead go for growth.”

She also raised concerns about plans to virtually end prison sentences of less than a year.

Ms Davidson said: ” Right now, 17% of all offenders done for attempted murder or serious assault received a sentence of less than 12 months. More than a quarter of all sex offenders are given jail terms of less than 12 months.

“We see the need in many areas for criminals to be taken off the streets and we see that nowhere greater than in domestic abuse cases.

“Judges use short sentences to show repeat offenders causing misery in their community with low-level crimes time and time again that their actions have consequences.

“That option should not be removed.”

She said she was ” genuinely pleased” to see the inclusion of Frank’s Law in the programme for government, extending free personal care to those under 65 who need it.

Ms Davidson said: “It is absolutely a policy whose time has come – Scots who need care should not be divided by an arbitrary line of age.”

Scottish Labour’s interim leader Alex Rowley welcomed some of the measures outlined in the programme, including the end of the public-sector pay cap and the establishment of a national investment bank.

However, he said that in other areas the government’s ears ”are closed to advice, ideas and experience”.

”Carrying on with the poor education governance reforms which have been criticised by all in the sector is pure dogmatic politics,” Mr Rowley said.

He highlighted Labour’s support for increases in income tax north of the border, saying: ”It is time to use the powers of this parliament to pay for a fairer, more equal society and to support our public services.”

He also made clear that ending the public-sector pay cap “c annot be done on the back of cutting even more from public services”, stressing wage increases must be properly funded.

Mr Rowley said: ” We will work with the government on the measures they have announced today but it must be more than warm words. Actions speak louder than words and it is actions we need.”

Scottish Green co-convener Patrick Harvie said the plans showed the influence of his party in the minority Scottish Parliament – but he also told the SNP to go further.

Mr Harvie stated: ” The exploration of a basic or citizen’s income, a long-standing Green policy, is a positive step and confirmation of support for John Finnie’s child protection bill is very welcome.

“On a host of issues, this is a government that remains overly cautious and it must be prepared to go further.

“On clean energy, we see a commitment to carbon capture, which remains a speculative technology and which won’t help us in the immediate years ahead, and we still don’t have a ban on fracking.

“The deposit return scheme is welcome but could have been created using the Climate Change Act passed almost ten years ago.

“The phase out of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2032 is a good aim but we need a clear commitment to end their use.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie welcomed the presumption against prison sentences of 12 months or less, pardons for persecuted gay men, raising the age of criminal responsibility and Frank’s Law.

He said: “Yet those are few bright spots in an otherwise rather dull statement. The First Minister has today confirmed what the former ministers were saying in the papers this morning.

“The SNP has a lack of ideas, the fire has gone out and they are stuck in an ivory tower and the flat reaction of their backbenchers today shows that the fire has gone out there too.”

He renewed his party’s calls for a fresh agreement on teacher pay and conditions, a penny on income tax to invest in education and for MSPs to be given control of appointing the chair of the Scottish Police Authority.

Mr Rennie said: “This parliamentary term is a new opportunity to deliver change now and that there is a possibility of putting the divisions of independence behind us.”

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