Nicola Sturgeon will today fire the starting gun on the next Holyrood election with a £250 million pledge to scrap a raft of care fees for the elderly.

The First Minister will promise to end council charges for home services such as day care, lunch clubs, meals on wheels, monitoring alarms, laundry services and aids and adaptations for the disabled.

Besides appealing to voters in 2021, the policy is intended to sway pro-Union elderly voters ahead of a possible referendum on independence.

Councils currently levy around £40m in “non-residential social care charges” each year.

However the Government expects the cost to rise to around £250m a year by 2025 when charges are removed and more people take up services they could not otherwise afford. 

The policy has the potential to cause tension with councils, who will demand to be reimbursed in full, and are likely to baulk at ministers interfering in their ability to raise their own revenue, especially after Ms Sturgeon has promised them more powers.

Council insiders also see the charges as marginal to the deeper funding problems in the care system such as a lack of staff and training.

Ms Sturgeon also faces growing criticism over the prospect of independence and Brexit combining to create a hard border between England and Scotland, hampering trade.

On Sunday, the First Minister said she did not want a border, but failed to rule one out if an independent Scotland was in the EU, while a post-Brexit England was out of it.

She suggested yesterday that future arrangements would be for the countries to sort out. 

She said she would “make sure that Scotland continues to trade with the rest of the UK in the same way that the rest of the UK will have big interests in continuing to trade with Scotland”.

However her Brexit Secretary Michael Russell later acknowledged that the EU would have the final say, meaning Brussels could insist on checks and infrastructure to safeguard the integrity of the EU single market and customs union.

He told a conference fringe: There will be issues that will confront us as an independent country which we will have to recognise and respond to. The issue of the relationship between countries and borders between countries, of course, will be an issue.

"But it will be governed by our membership of the EU, that is the important issue, just as Ireland's relationship with the UK will be governed."

Ms Sturgeon will try to make a virtue of the problem in her closing conference address this afternoon, saying an independent Scotland could be “a bridge” between the UK and EU in the “best of both worlds”. Her opponents said she was “delusional”.

In her first major electoral giveaway for 2021, the SNP leader will tell delegates in Aberdeen: “The principle behind free personal care and free health care is the same - if you need help you should get it. Despite that principle many people – of all ages – still have to pay for non-residential social care services.

“I know from my own constituency experience that charges can be a barrier to people accessing the support they need. And if people can’t get that support in their own homes, they are more likely to end up in hospital.

“So  I am making this promise – if I am re-elected as First Minister at the next Holyrood elections, then over the next parliament, the SNP will scrap all non-residential social care charges.”

On independence and Brexit, she will argue Scotland would be uniquely placed to straddle the UK and EU and become a  “magnet for global investment”.

She will say: “Scotland is rich enough, strong enough and big enough to take our place among the proud, independent nations of the world.

“We must reject a post-Brexit race to the bottom and embrace instead a race to join the top tier of independent nations. As an independent European country, Scotland will have a unique advantage.

“We will be in the EU single market and also the closest neighbour to our friends in the rest of the UK - a bridge between the EU and the UK, making our country a magnet for global investment. That’s what I call the best of both worlds.” 

Scottish LibDem leader Willie Rennie said Ms Sturgeon had “given up” trying to stop Brexit.

He said: “The SNP are planning on making use of a border between Scotland and England for pretended benefits. It is reckless and selfish and against the best interests of the country."

Pamela Nash, chief executive of Scotland in Union, said: “These are delusional comments from the SNP leader. “It is a gross insult to suggest that leaving the UK internal market, erecting a hard border with England, and scrapping the pound for a new currency would attract investment to Scotland. Whatever your views on Brexit, Scexit is not the answer.” 

Tory MSP Maurice Golden added: “People are sick of hearing Nicola Sturgeon’s empty promises and grand delusions - all of which are predicated on her selfish desire for a legacy.” 

Also at conference yesterday, deputy FM John Swinney said history would record Brexit as the moment “Scotland took control of its own path”.

He said: “Faced with the choice between independence and the UK of Brexit and Boris Johnson, people are choosing independence. They are rejecting the lies of the populists and holding fast to the shared values of truth, integrity, honesty. 

"Johnson and Trump choose lies and division. We choose to live as though in the first days of a new nation. They choose fear, we choose hope and we will win."