THE question and timing for a new independence referendum has been published in a draft bill by the Scottish Government.

The legislation was promised in the Scottish Government's latest Programme for Government.

Today's it's been published in full on its website.

It aims to "give people in Scotland the right to decide their future, once the current health crisis is over", ministers say.

The proposed question, "should Scotland be an independent country?", is the same as that posed in 2014.

It's also proposed that voter eligibility be extended to match the franchise at the Holyrood and council elections and that the next Scottish Parliament should decide the timing.

And it could be held as early as the first half of the next parliamentary term.

Constitution Secretary Michael Russell said: "Our top priority will continue to be dealing with the pandemic and keeping the country safe, but we are optimistic that because of the incredible efforts of people across Scotland better times lie ahead.

"The Scottish Government believes it should be the people living in Scotland who have the right to decide how we recover from the pandemic and what sort of country we wish to build after the crisis.

"If Westminster maintains its control, recent history shows what Scotland can expect — an economic recovery hindered by a hard Brexit that is already taking a significant toll and the continued, systematic undermining of devolution, which is weakening our parliament’s powers to maintain food and environmental standards and protect the NHS from post-Brexit trade deals.

"Scotland’s recovery should be made by the people who live here and who care most about Scotland.

"That is why Scotland’s future should be Scotland’s choice.

"It should be for the next Scottish Parliament to decide the timing of the referendum. So that the recovery from the pandemic can be made in Scotland, the Scottish Government believes it should be held in the first half of the new Parliamentary term.

"If there is a majority in the Scottish Parliament after the forthcoming election for an independence referendum there can be no democratic justification whatsoever for any Westminster government to seek to block a post-pandemic referendum."

The publication comes on the day that a fresh opinion poll found more Scots still back Yes.

The BMG Research study, commissioned by the Herald, found 52% of respondents would vote for independence, while 48% would back No, once undecided voters were removed.

There had been a dip in pro-independence feeling, according to recent research, after a run of more than 20 Yes-majority results.

The Herald's is the second survey in a matter of days to record a narrow lead for Yes, after an Opinium study was published by Sky News on Thursday.

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Last year, the Scottish Parliament passed the Referendums (Scotland) Act 2020, which set out detailed conduct and campaign rules that can be used for any referendum.

Scottish Labour constitution spokesperson Colin Smyth slated the bill move, saying: "The focus for all of Scotland’s politicians should be on bringing the country together, and an independence referendum is not a priority at this time.

"Scottish Labour will focus on what unites us, not what divides us.

"In contrast to the SNP and Boris Johnson’s Tories, Scottish Labour will put our national recovery first.

"At this election, Scottish Labour is putting forward a national recovery plan that will put the national interest before the nationalist interest."

And Scottish Liberal Democrats Willie Rennie said: "Holy moly, they've had people working on the referendum instead of dealing with the pandemic.

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"Dozens of civil servants could have been planning to get cancer services running full speed but they've been ordered to do this instead.

"Or they could have been working on getting funds to business, better mental health services or support for schools.

“We are still in a pandemic. Thousands have lost their lives, thousands more have lost their job. Reasonable people will think that this is the wrong moment to be pushing a referendum.

"We should put recovery first and bin this bill."

However, Russell's ministerial foreword to the bill states: "The Scottish Government has been laser-focused over the past year on tackling the pandemic. That will remain the case as we work to keep Scotland safe.

"We know, however, that because of the incredible efforts of the people of Scotland and the vaccination programme, better times lie ahead.

"The question we face as we come out of the health crisis is this — who has the right to decide the kind of country Scotland should be after the pandemic?

"Should it be the people who live here or Westminster governments?"

Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said: "It is beyond the comprehension of most Scots that Nicola Sturgeon considers this to be a priority.

"Scotland continues to be gripped by the gobal pandemic and even once normality slowly returns, the shockwaves will be felt for years to come.

"The SNP Government is mired in sleaze with nothing left to offer except yet more division and grievance. The motivation for this is as much to do with distracting people from the Sturgeon-Salmond scandal.

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"A responsible government would be entirely focused on Scotland's post-pandemic recovery, but Sturgeon and her ministers have become detached from reality and the priorities of ordinary families.

"Only a vote for the Scottish Conservative can block this madness. Labour simply can’t be trusted. They are more likely to side with the SNP than to defend the UK."

And Scottish Secretary Alister Jack said: "Publishing a draft referendum bill is simply irresponsible. It is a distraction - we need to focus on continuing to tackle the pandemic and rebuilding our economy.

"The UK Government is supporting people across the UK throughout the pandemic, including supporting jobs with our furlough scheme and rolling out vaccines for people in all parts of the United Kingdom."

But Lorna Slater of the Scottish Greens said: "Scotland’s future must be in the hands of those who live and work in Scotland, and the Scottish Greens are asking people to vote like our future depends on it this May.

"Our manifesto will support a referendum on our shared future, and polls show we may be crucial in ensuring this bill passes."