NICOLA Sturgeon has vowed to pay to keep EU citizens in Scotland after

Brexit. The First Minister says that if they are forced to pay a fee to remain her government will cover the cost. Writing in the Sunday Herald, Sturgeon announced the dramatic move ahead of the start of SNP conference today.

She said the measure was needed to protect EU citizens from the “looming threat” of the Tories’ “extreme Brexit” plans. “Above all, it will send a clear message that EU citizens are welcome here,” Sturgeon said.

Sturgeon attacked the Tories’ “continued failure to offer complete, unequivocal guarantees on the rights of EU citizens living here”. This was “morally indefensible” and “economically short-sighted”, she said.

Theresa May has said that EU citizens living in the UK after Brexit will be offered a new “settled status”. However, they will all be required to apply for a special ID card granting them the right to live in Britain. A British embassy source told the Sunday Herald that the charge was expected to be similar to that for a UK passport, which is currently £72.50.

Sturgeon promised that if the UK Government decides to charge for that status, Scotland’s devolved public bodies will meet the costs.

She said: “Those EU nationals who are already living and working here under freedom of movement should not be made to jump through hoops to remain. The UK Government must guarantee their rights and make the process for staying here as simple and easy as possible – for example, people who are contributing to our country should not have to pay a fee to stay here. It is their right as EU citizens.

“But though we do not yet control immigration rules, the Scottish Government will act where we can. As a concrete example of that, I will confirm this week that if the UK Government imposes charges on EU citizens forced to apply for settled status, the Scottish Government will ensure that devolved public bodies meet these costs for those working in our public sector.

“This will give practical help to the individuals concerned and it will

also help us to retain the doctors,

nurses and other valued public servants that we need.”

In response, Labour also pledged support for EU nationals living in the UK. Scottish Labour Brexit spokesman Lewis Macdonald said: “We will guarantee the right of EU citizens to stay in this country from day one of the next Labour Government – not just in Scotland, but right across the UK. The only party that can kick the Tories out of Number 10 and deliver a jobs-first Brexit is Labour.”

A UK Government source said: “EU nationals living in the UK make a huge contribution to our economy and our society. We have acted quickly to give them certainty and will set out as soon as possible the detail of how that process will work.”

Sturgeon has also insisted that Scots must have the right to vote on independence once the terms of Brexit are known, leaving open the possibility of a second referendum before the next Scottish parliamentary elections in 2021. She said: “The SNP’s position is clear – Scotland voted to stay in Europe, and we oppose the Tories’ extreme Brexit plans to drag us out of the single market and customs union, which threatens untold damage to jobs, investment and living standards.

“Brexit against our will is a clear illustration of what can happen to a country that does not control its own affairs. And that looming threat is why I believe that Scotland should have a choice on its future once the terms of the Brexit deal are clear.”

Sturgeon also said the SNP was in an “unparalleled position of strength” after a decade in office. She dismissed suggestions the party was on a downward spiral after its electoral setback in June’s General Election.

Sturgeon is to deliver the closing speech on Tuesday at the SNP’s first major gathering since the General Election, when it lost 21 of the 56 Westminster seats it had won two years earlier.

Her speech comes as a new opinion poll showed the SNP has a commanding lead over both the Tories and Labour. If an election was held now the SNP would take 42 per cent of the constituency vote and 35 per cent of the regional list vote for Holyrood in a YouGov survey of over 1,000 Scots. This would give the party 57 seats at Holyrood, down from 63. Labour polled 25 per cent in constituencies and 24 per cent for regions, while the Tories were backed by 25 per cent and 23 per cent in the respective sections of the vote – returning them to third place.

Sturgeon said that the SNP was the only credible option for progressives in Scotland as an alternative to a right-wing UK Tory Government and a divided Scottish Labour party.

Sturgeon added: “Contrary to the claims of our opponents and some commentators, the SNP remains in an almost unparalleled position of strength for a party which has been in office for a decade – indeed, polls show that we are in a stronger position now than we were at the same stage of the electoral cycle in previous years.”

Deputy First Minister John Swinney will also claim today in his speech to the conference that the SNP is the “only progressive government” in any part of the UK. Swinney will say that the SNP’s is pursuing a radical agenda in government by banning fracking and lifting the public-sector pay cap. “In recent weeks, our bold and ambitious policy plans have set the agenda in Scotland and been heard around the world.”

In a separate move, SNP MEP Alyn Smith has launched a robust defence of the party’s “independence in Europe” policy, amid claims from some senior colleagues it should be ditched. Smith will publish and deliver a book, Scotland In Europe, at the conference. He said it reasserts the SNP’s policy that an independent Scotland must be a full EU member state.

The “independence in Europe” stance was adopted in the late 1980s by the SNP, which had previously been Eurosceptic. Smith said: “We need to remember that we are a pro-European party. We have a policy and we need to defend party policy.”

Leading SNP figures such as Alex Salmond have suggested Scotland would try to join the European Free Trade Association rather than the EU immediately after independence. However, former Cabinet minister Alex Neil has gone further and said the SNP must scrap its pro-EU policy if it is to win an independence referendum.