IT is “utter nonsense” to suggest that the Scottish Government is “scared” of talking about independence, senior minister Neil Gray has said.

The Wellbeing Economy, Fair Work and Energy Secretary hit back at suggestions from Alba that independence wasn’t “central” to the SNP’s policies after criticism that the Programme for Government (PfG) was light on policies pushing the Yes cause.

However, Gray pointed to the Building a New Scotland prospectus series, where an upcoming paper will look at Scotland’s place in Europe, and that in his role he will be “engaging on the economic case” for independence.

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He told The National’s Holyrood Weekly podcast that there was “absolutely no fear whatsoever” from the SNP Government in talking about independence.

Following the First Minister’s speech on Tuesday when the PfG was published, Alba accused Humza Yousaf of being “scared of the i word” and urged SNP members to demand the focus is shifted back to independence.

The PfG put forward a number of policy commitments including expanding free childcare hours to two-year-olds and lifting the income threshold on the Best Start Grant, as well as lifting rent controls and a commitment for 12 bills to be moved through Holyrood this term.

Speaking to Holyrood Weekly, Gray (below) said: “Independence is absolutely central to this Government's program.

The National: Neil Gray is both the Wellbeing Economy and Energy Secretary in the Scottish Government

“The work that Jamie Hepburn is doing, that Angus Robertson is doing, that's been led by the First Minister, in building our new prospectus series, our Building a New Scotland series, I can see that there is a hugely ambitious program of work there to ensure that we are taking the case for why we need to be independent to the people.

“And, there's a huge amount of work for me to do in that space on engaging on the economic case for independence which I will be doing.

“So no, there is absolutely no fear whatsoever from this SNP government in talking about independence and why we need it.”

The Cabinet Secretary added that the “current struggles” being faced by households and businesses were a key example of why independence is so important.

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He said: “We have all of the energy, but none of the power, and the stark reality that while we're producing huge amounts of energy and resource off the back of it that were seen in the GERS figures, up now to I think a cumulative total of £440 billion coming from the North Sea in oil and gas to the Treasury.

“And the renewable capability that we have and current production that we have, and yet, because of the skewed energy market being delivered by the UK Government, we have high levels of fuel poverty, and the highest energy bills anywhere in the UK in those areas where we have the highest energy production.

“That, if it doesn't make the case for independence, I think that must be the strongest case that we have for independence and the most relevant right now.

The National: Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh.

“We're talking about that regularly. It's right at the heart of the First Minister's program.

“So no, the idea that we're scared of it is utter nonsense.”

We told how Alba chair Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh (above) said the PfG was “kicking the independence can down the road” and called for SNP members to back a pro-independence pact to prevent a “set back” at the General Election.

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“Unfortunately, when it comes to independence it seems today’s Programme for Government was running scared from using the ‘i’ word,” she said.

“It’s vital now that SNP members take back control of their party at their conference next month to ensure that Scotland is united for independence.”

You can listen to the Holyrood Weekly podcast’s first episode of Season 2 here.