Nicola Sturgeon indicated EU nationals were "bargaining chips" during the Scottish independence referendum, the UK Government has claimed.

Home Office Minister Robert Goodwill attempted to counter SNP condemnation of the Government's approach to post-Brexit rights for EU nationals living in the UK by citing newspaper comments from the First Minister.

He suggested in 2014 Ms Sturgeon, then deputy first minister, cast doubt on the future of 160,000 EU citizens living in Scotland by saying they would "lose their right to stay here" if the country was outside Europe.

Mr Goodwill's accusation was rubbished by the SNP's justice and home affairs spokeswoman Joanna Cherry, who insisted her party's long-standing policy has been to ensure equal rights for all living in Scotland.

The row surfaced as the SNP led a Commons debate calling on ministers to ensure all EU nationals living in the UK retain their existing rights after Brexit.

Around three million EU citizens are waiting to find out if they can remain in the UK, with the Government seeking to guarantee the futures of Britons living overseas as part of Brexit negotiations.

This has led to claims that ministers are using EU nationals as "bargaining chips".

Ms Cherry told the opposition day debate: "I use the words 'bargaining chips' advisedly because it's a source of shame to this House and the United Kingdom that the Prime Minister and several of her ministers, including (Brexit Secretary David Davis) and, I'm particularly ashamed to say (Scottish Secretary David Mundell) have hinted as using EU nationals living in this country as bargaining chips.

"Indeed, at the Conservative Party conference... (International Trade Secretary Liam Fox) went so far as to compare the European Union nationals to cards in a game."

Mr Goodwill, intervening, said: "You talk about European citizens being used as bargaining chips.

"Do you recall that in 2014, Nicola Sturgeon herself threatened to strip EU nationals of their right to remain in an independent Scotland?"

SNP MPs shouted against Mr Goodwill's remark, with the Tory frontbencher adding: "As reported in the Scotsman newspaper, she said 'There are 160,000 EU nationals from other states living in Scotland including some in the Commonwealth Games city of Glasgow. If Scotland was outside Europe they would lose their right to stay here'.

"Who is being used as bargaining chips?"

Ms Cherry replied: "Can I in the gentlest and friendliest way counsel you against taking advice firstly from the Conservative Party in Scotland, and secondly from the Scotsman newspaper which is, frankly, not what it was when I was a girl.

"There is absolutely no question that the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon or her predecessor (Alex Salmond) ever threatened EU nationals with not being part of Scottish society.

"Our policy has been clear for many, many years - that we want an independent Scotland inside the European Union with equal rights for all living in Scotland.

"We're quite clear on that. What this debate is about today is making the UK Government clear on having equal rights for all across the United Kingdom."

Conservative former cabinet minister Ken Clarke said Prime Minister Theresa May should secure the futures of Britons living overseas and EU nationals in the UK at the Brussels summit starting on Thursday.

He told Ms Cherry: "We all want to reassure people who are here so we must be careful not to actually arouse a sense of insecurity amongst them.

"Do you agree with me, I don't know of any member of this House in any party who wishes to remove EU nationals who are now lawfully here in the United Kingdom?

"I've never met a European politician from any country... who wishes to remove British nationals who settled down there.

"So we are having a rather artificial debate here.

"Would it not be best if this was all sorted out at the summit tomorrow and the leaders just quickly agreed amongst themselves that neither side was actually going to seek in any negotiations to remove nationals lawfully living in their respected territories?"

Ms Cherry stressed MPs were not having an artificial debate, adding: "I hate to disillusion you but one of your Conservative and Unionist Party colleagues in Scotland - a member of the Scottish Parliament - recently suggested in a Conservative and Unionist Party-sanctioned press release that EU citizens living in Scotland should not have the same right to participate in civil society as others.

"So it is a very, very real concern.

"For the record, he was referring to a French national who lives in Scotland and was previously a member of the Scottish Parliament."

Opening the debate, Ms Cherry said it is "simply not good enough" for the Westminster Government to guarantee the long-term rights of EU nationals who have "made their home" in the UK.

She said: "In the meantime, in England and Wales hate crime has soared and xenophobic rhetoric is common in the mainstream media and sadly also sometimes in the mouths of Government ministers."

Tory MP James Cleverly accused the SNP of using the status of EU nationals as a "Trojan horse" to attack the Government with.

"Over and over again, I saw examples of this very important issue being used as a trojan horse to simply cast some very, very unpalatable accusations at my party," he said.

"The honourable lady says from a sedentary position 'look in the mirror' - I do look in the mirror, every morning when I shave.

"What I see is a black face looking back at me. When you start accusing my benches of being xenophobic I look at a number of my colleagues and I would ask that you reflect upon those comments."

Philippa Whitford, the SNP MP for Central Ayrshire, said it was "childish" to suggest that the current situation was having no effect on EU nationals living in the UK.

She said: "The idea that they are not having problems, I have constituents struggling to get loans or mortgages for businesses, for houses.

"It's ridiculous to say they are not concerned.

"They are absolutely concerned and the idea they should spend two years in limbo is frankly appalling."

She suggested EU nationals "fed up with the insecurity" could opt to leave the UK.

But Tory Craig Williams (Cardiff North) rejected claims from SNP MPs that the rhetoric used at the Conservative Party conference earlier in October had made some EU nationals feel unwelcome in the UK.

He said: "This is just absolute nonsense. This is scaremongering and it's terrible because the scaremongering is coming from the opposite benches and it is deplorable in my opinion."

Mr Clarke said ministers should "stop splitting hairs" when both sides are agreed on the objective of protecting the status of EU nationals.

Intervening on Mr Goodwill, he said: "The motion exactly coincides with the committed aim of the Government which is to seek to ensure that all those EU nationals living and working here now can be reassured about their status.

"If we let this motion go through the chances of some proposal coming form the continent that British nationals should be expelled is nearly nil.

"Of course, we might have to revisit the thing, but even then we wouldn't want to take reprisals against only innocent people contributing to our economy here.

"Shouldn't we get on to the next motion and stop splitting hairs in this way when we're all agreed on the objective?"

Mr Goodwill said EU nationals should be reassured that the Government is working to protect their status in UK law following Brexit.

"The only problem the Government has with this motion is it does not go far enough in including the rights of British citizens in other EU states - which we would demand to be protected in return," he said.

"It is impossible for us to support this motion because that reassurance is not in there at all."

Labour's shadow Brexit minister Paul Blomfield said his party would be supporting the motion, urging the Government to provide immediate clarity on the status of EU nationals.

"It is absolutely wrong for the Government to suggest that we can't guarantee the status of EU nationals here, many of whom have been here for decades, without a reciprocal arrangement for UK nationals abroad," he said.

"The Government is effectively asking people, doctors in our NHS, business owners and entrepreneurs, teachers in our schools, to put their lives on hold and wait until March 2019 to find out what their future is."

Tory Huw Merriman (Bexhill and Battle) said the SNP should stop calling ministers to the despatch box for "futile debates" that stop from them "getting on with the job".

Tory David Davies, a prominent Leave campaigner, said EU citizens had made "an enormous contribution" to Britain.

He added: "They're very, very welcome in this country. They were welcome before the referendum took place, they are welcome now, and they are going to be very welcome after we exit the EU."

The MP for Monmouth, who has a Hungarian wife, went on to say: "It's really rather ridiculous to suggest that people from EU states should somehow be scared or worried about what's going to happen when we Brexit, when we already welcome and appreciate the contribution of so many people who come from outside the European Union.

"It is absolutely ludicrous in the extreme to suggest that anyone on any part of these benches would ever want to go round rounding up people from other EU nations and throwing them out.

"It is a fantasy and it will never, ever happen. Nobody wants it to happen, nobody has ever called for it to happen, and I suppose I'm just grateful for the opportunity to say that very, very clearly once again."