NICOLA Sturgeon has said the Tories’ “shameful” treatment of EU citizens living in the UK is “poisoning the well” of Brexit negotiations before they have even begun.

Speaking on a visit to St Andrews University with SNP North East Fife candidate Stephen Gethins, the First Minister said the potentially devastating effect of a hard Brexit on Scotland’s higher education institutions was just one example of the “active damage” the Tories are doing to Scotland’s economy.

University leaders and research bodies have said that the UK could become “intellectually and culturally impoverished” as a result of Brexit, and warned of a possible “exodus of talent” if the status of EU nationals could not be guaranteed.

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“Now more than ever, it is vital to have strong SNP voices standing up for Scotland – only then can we protect Scotland from the dangers of an unopposed Tory government at Westminster,” she said.

“EU citizens enrich Scotland’s cultural fabric and boost our economy – and frankly our public services could not function without the vital contribution they make.

“It is utterly contemptible that the Tories continue to use human beings as a bargaining chip in Brexit negotiations, and in doing so they are poisoning the well before talks have even begun.”

Gethins, who is himself a former Erasmus student who studied law at the University of Antwerp, commented: “The same doors that were open to me to be able to study, live and work in neighbouring EU countries at world-leading institutes are the very same doors that the UK Government is intent on slamming shut to talented students and graduates – who bring great benefits to the UK by paying, working and contributing here.

“The Tories have left the millions of EU citizens who live and work in the UK in complete limbo – and I know from my own discussions with people in other EU countries how badly this is tarnishing the UK’s reputation abroad.”

The UK Government has insisted it cannot give guarantees over the status of EU nationals living in the UK as such a commitment would weaken its negotiating position.

Elsewhere on the election trail former chancellor Alistair Darling urged Tory supporters to vote Labour in East Renfrewshire as he ramped up the anti-independence message, telling them only a Labour vote could prevent an “unwanted” and “divisive” independence referendum.

Darling, who led the successful Better Together campaign to keep Scotland in the UK in 2014, urged unionists living in East Renfrewshire to back his former campaign chief.

Blair McDougall, who was Better Together’s campaign director, has been selected as Labour’s candidate to fight the seat in the June 8 General Election.

In the 2015 election, the SNP’s Kirsten Oswald won the seat from the then Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy, who had represented the area since 1997. Prior to that, it had been the safest Conservative constituency in Scotland.

In a letter to voters in East Renfrewshire, Darling said the SNP won the seat two years ago because “the votes of the No-voting majority were split”.

He told residents: “Too many people who voted No in the independence referendum voted for the Conservatives, who finished in a distant third place, and Labour was narrowly defeated. Please don’t risk that this time.”

Meanwhile, the LibDems said they would introduce an additional month of paid parental leave especially for fathers to encourage greater sharing of parental responsibilities.

East Dunbartonshire candidate Jo Swinson, who introduced shared parental leave when she was a minister in the coalition government, said more needs to be done to encourage men to take leave when they become a father.

“Research shows that fathers being more involved in their children’s lives is good for children’s development and good for the health and happiness of the whole family,” she said.

Among the events planned on the election trail today, Patrick Harvie of the Greens will speak to parents and children at a playgroup in the west end of Glasgow, and LibDem Willie Rennie will visit a scrapyard in Fife.