The gap between Scotland and Westminster has "never been wider" Nicola Sturgeon declared as she pledged the SNP will "always" make the case for independence.

The Scottish First Minister had been forced to delay plans for a second Scottish independence referendum, after suffering heavy losses in June's snap general election.

While she insisted her party still has a mandate to hold such a vote, she said she would "respect" the desire for greater clarity over Brexit before Scots go to the polls again.

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But she was clear: "There is a better future to be had for all of us, if we chose to build it, together."

The case for leaving the UK "does not depend on Brexit", the SNP leader said, but she said the decision to leave the European Union - which was not supported in Scotland - showed "what can happen when we don't control our own future".

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Photo credit: Colin Mearns 

Ms Sturgeon told the conference: "The gap between Scotland's interests and Westminster's priorities has never been wider."

She accepted many independence supporters "are impatient for change" - but said that "we may not yet know exactly when the choice will be made."

However she stressed: "We can, we must, and we will always make the case for independence.

"With the UK government so engulfed in chaos and taking the country down a path of self imposed decline, the need to do so has never been greater."

She hit out at the Tories over their "heartless, shameful, self defeating" policies of austerity, and also condemned them for pursuing the "hardest possible Brexit".

With the SNP having been in power for 10 years at Holyrood she highlighted the importance of "acting and governing today" as well as campaigning for independence.

As part of that she announced that by the end of this Scottish Parliamentary term, her government will have set up a "publicly owned, not-for-profit energy company".

More details on this will be revealed in the Government's energy strategy, the First Minister said.

But she added: "The idea, at its heart, is simple.

"Energy would be bought wholesale or generated here in Scotland - renewable, of course - and sold to customers as close to cost price as possible.

"No shareholders to worry about. No corporate bonuses to consider.

"It would give people - particularly those on low incomes - more choice and the option of a supplier whose only job is to secure the lowest price for consumers."

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Photo credit: Colin Mearns 

After Theresa May's speech last week was marred by coughing, Ms Sturgeon announced to delegates at the SNP conference in Glasgow that she had "come prepared" - holding up a packet of cough sweets.

She went on to make a series of announcements on domestic policy, pledging "record investment" of £3 billion over this Parliament for affordable homes - saying "every last penny" of this would go towards "delivering the new houses that people across this country need".

To help young people leaving care, she promised to change the law to make them exempt from paying council tax, to "make life a little bit easier".

And on the Scottish Government's "transformational" plans to expand free childcare, she said funding for this would double, reaching £840 million a year by August 2020 - with Ms Sturgeon hailing this as "commitment unmatched anywhere else in the UK"

The First Minister said: "Some parents still face a struggle to find and fund the childcare they need to allow them to work. We are going to change that.

"By 2020, we will deliver 30 hours a week for every three and four-year-old and eligible two-year-old."

She said this would "give children the best start in life" but would also see families save some £350 a month in childcare costs.

On the environment she announced Glasgow, Scotland's largest city, will have the first "low emission zone" in Scotland by the end of 2018.

The SNP leader made clear tackling climate change is a "moral obligation", hitting out at US President Donald Trump on this.

"Every industrialised country, large or small, must play its part to meet our collective duty to safeguard the environment," Ms Sturgeon said.

"And let me be blunt about this. That applies just as much to the White House as it does to Bute House."

The First Minister went on to announce £6 million of funding for a Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund, saying this would "allow even more people to enjoy the most beautiful country in the world".

Meanwhile action to tackle period poverty, which will see sanitary protection provided for free in all schools, colleges and universities, will be delivered from the start of the academic year in August 2018.

This she said showed "Scotland and the SNP - once again - leading the way in building a better, fairer country for all".

Amid the "chaos unfolding at Westminster" over Brexit, Ms Sturgeon confirmed the Scottish Government will pay any fees that European nationals working in the public sector north of the border are charged for remaining in the UK post Brexit.

"The Tories want to make EU citizens apply for the right to stay and pay for the privilege," she said. "They should think again.

"But if a fee is imposed, I can confirm today that - as a minimum - the Scottish Government will meet the cost for EU nationals working in our public services."

She added: "It is a move that will give practical assistance to individuals.

"It will help us keep the doctors, nurses and other public sector workers that we rely on.

"And it will send a clear message to our fellow EU citizens, in actions not just words, that we welcome you, we value you and we want you to stay."

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Photo credit: Colin Mearns 

But the Tories hit out at the First Minister, saying she had continued "to bang on and on" about independence.

Scottish Conservative chief whip Maurice Golden said: "The one word missing from this speech was 'sorry'.

"For the last year, Nicola Sturgeon put her reckless plan for a second referendum before her day job.

"But instead of apologising, the First Minister once again showed that the SNP simply doesn't do humility.

"Despite all the broken promises over the last ten years in power, she made it clear in this speech that she thinks she can book in for another decade based on promises of yet more jam tomorrow."

He added: "Despite people making it clear they want a break, the First Minister also made clear that her Scottish Government will continue to bang on and on about the only thing it really cares about - which is splitting our country in two.

"This was a speech that demonstrated the SNP simply doesn't get it. Lacking in humility and failing to listen to people - it's the same old SNP."

Scottish Labour's interim leader Alex Rowley meanwhile accused the nationalists of "watering down" his party's policies and attempting to "pass them off as their own".

He said: "From a not-for-profit energy company to teacher training bursaries, action on period poverty and promises on public sector pay, this conference shows that it is Labour which is setting the policy agenda in Scotland.

"Nicola Sturgeon is clearly worried about a Labour party offering radical change within the UK. The problem she has is that after a decade of broken SNP promises voters know that it's only Labour which offers transformational change."

He added: "Having attempted to photocopy Labour policies Nicola Sturgeon now faces the real test - outlining how she will pay for them. Only Labour is offering a progressive plan on tax that stops the cuts and allows us to invest instead."

Meanwhile Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton said: "Despite the hierarchy trying to stage manage their conference to tiptoe around independence, members reminded them that independence is all the SNP care about.

"People across Scotland made it clear in June that this is not what is needed but the First Minister and SNP are refusing to listen."