Scotland will introduce the “boldest and most ambitious anti-poverty measure anywhere in the UK” when it doubles payments for low-income families with children from April next year, Nicola Sturgeon has pledged.

The First Minister announced the doubling of the Scottish Child Payment at the same time as she attacked Boris Johnson and his Conservative Government, accusing them of “actively eroding” Holyrood’s powers and “trying to force Scottish democracy into reverse”.

In these circumstances she argued Scotland was faced with a choice between independence – or the Tories continuing to attack the Scottish Parliament to “drag it backwards and make it weaker”.

With Ms Sturgeon having already pledged to hold a second independence referendum before the end of 2023, she said that in the spring of next year – Covid permitting – the campaign for this would “resume in earnest”.

The Prime Minister has so far refused to countenance Scotland having another vote on its future.

Here the SNP leader was clear: “My message to the Prime Minister is this – if you have any respect at all for democracy – and if you have any confidence whatsoever in your argument against independence – you too will let the people decide.”

Ms Sturgeon spoke out as she delivered the closing speech at the SNP annual conference – an event which was held virtually amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

But she told her party’s supporters: “Next year, Covid permitting, as we emerge from winter into spring, the campaign to persuade a majority of people in Scotland that our future will be more secure as an independent nation will resume in earnest.”

Ms Sturgeon pledged: “In the course of next year, I will initiate the process necessary to enable a referendum before the end of 2023.”

She added that “just as importantly” the SNP would also seek to “set out afresh the positive case for independence”.

Here she argued that leaving the UK would give Scotland the “opportunity to repair the damage of Covid … in a way that aligns with our values and priorities as a nation”.

Throughout her speech the SNP leader stressed the importance of fairness and of “building for the future”.

But she claimed that the Tory Government at Westminster “too often hinders rather than helps our progress”.

She stated: “I defy anyone to look at the broken, corrupt, self-serving Westminster system that we are currently part of and conclude that it provides a secure basis for the future of Scotland.”

As part of this drive to establish a “more secure basis from which to move a country forward”, she announced that from April next year the Scottish Child Payment would be increased from £10 to £20 a week.

The benefit, unique in the UK to Scotland, currently pays out to the families of more than 105,000 children under the age of six.

When it is rolled out to children up to the age of 16 in low-income families from the end of 2022, some 400,000 children will benefit from the payments.

Increasing the payments – as the SNP had committed to doing in its election manifesto earlier this year – will “involve hard choices” elsewhere in the Scottish Budget, Ms Sturgeon conceded.

But she said this was a choice the SNP, together with their junior partners in government in the Scottish Greens, had decided to make.

The First Minister said: “This is without doubt the boldest and most ambitious anti-poverty measure anywhere in the UK.”

She stated: “The doubled payments will reach over 100,000 children under the age of six in just four months’ time.

“And when we extend the Scottish Child Payment to all under-16s at the end of next year, over 400,000 children and their families will be eligible.”

The move was immediately welcomed by anti-poverty campaigners, with John Dickie, director of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) in Scotland, hailing it as a “hugely welcome development on the path to meeting Scotland’s child poverty targets”.

He added: “This is a real lifeline for the families across Scotland who are facing a perfect storm of financial insecurity as the UK cut to universal credit bites, energy prices soar and the wider costs of living rise”.

Peter Kelly, director of the Poverty Alliance, said doubling the payment would help “loosen the grip of poverty on the lives of thousands of children in Scotland”.

Mr Kelly said: “We, and so many others across Scotland, have been making clear the need to take this action and we are delighted that the Scottish Government have listened and acted.

“Doubling the payment from April is the right and just thing to do, and will help to keep people afloat amid the rising tide of poverty that’s sweeping across the country.

“It’s a commitment that can help meet our national mission of ending child poverty, provided we build on this toward a Scotland where no child has to suffer the injustice of poverty.”

Scottish Labour deputy leader Jackie Baillie said the increase to the payment needed to go further, calling for it to be upped to £40 a week.

Ms Baillie said: “As it stands, this welcome development will not be enough to ensure we meet the statutory child poverty targets that the Scottish Parliament has passed.

“That’s why the Scottish Child Payment must be doubled again next year to meet these targets.”

She also claimed in the speech the “SNP’s obsession with separation dominated”, saying: “It is deeply disappointing and irresponsible, in the face of a deepening public health crisis, that the focus of the First Minister is once more on sowing division between Scotland and the rest of the UK.”