NICOLA Sturgeon's poverty tsar has warned the First Minister that flagship SNP policies risk diverting public resources to the well off at the expense of people enduring severe deprivation.

Naomi Eisenstadt, a child poverty expert who was appointed as an advisor to the SNP leader in June, told Ms Sturgeon of "policy tensions" around the Scottish Government's approaches to free tuition fees and childcare.

She questioned the cost of spending cash "on those who could fund themselves".

Herald View: There are no easy answers on poverty 

Ms Eisenstadt also expressed surprise and concern after learning that nearly one in five Scots are poor after housing costs, with nearly 625,000 living in severe relative poverty, more than a third of whom are in work.

The 'initial impressions' of the poverty advisor were expressed in a briefing note to Ms Sturgeon ahead of a meeting in late August. SNP ministers initially tried to keep the document secret, refusing to release it under Freedom of Information laws, but relented after the decision was appealed.

Labour said that its contents showed that the SNP was putting "spin in front of substance" on social justice, while the Conservatives said it was further evidence that universal free tuition did not help the disadvantaged get to university.

Ms Eisenstadt told the First Minister that, as in England, pensioners were least at risk of poverty. However, just two months later, the SNP government ruled out removing winter fuel payments from well off pensioners once the benefit comes under Holyrood's control.

Read more: Ian Bell on the battle against poverty and inequality 

The advisor informed Ms Sturgeon that a series of "contentious issues" that had been raised with her in meetings with civil servants, senior voluntary sector staff, council representatives and academics, including: "targeting versus universal approaches, and the possible cost of expending public resources on those who could fund themselves."

She added: "Is there a fair distribution of resources across different age groups: pensioner benefits at the cost of young families; is there fair distribution with age groups: free tuition fees at the cost of investment in further education and training for those not on an academic route.

"The commitment of 30 hours free childcare could be at the expense of the workforce investment needed to improve the quality of early education and childcare. Do the better off get a disproportionate share of public services, and better quality public services."

She appears to dispute Ms Sturgeon's claim that progress is being made in tackling inequality, telling the First Minister rising costs meant: "living standards remain flat, and child material deprivation is increasing" despite rising incomes.

Ms Eisenstadt, who after being appointed promised to provide "hard challenge" to ministers when necessary, suggested a "rigorous benefits uptake campaign" ahead of the transfer of new welfare powers. The senior research fellow at the University of Oxford and former senior UK civil servant under Tony Blair's Government is set to publish her first report next month.

She has recently spoken out strongly against universal benefit entitlements, saying in October that it was "absolutely disgraceful" that she was entitled to a winter fuel payment. She has called for "a whopping great inheritance tax", an area of policy that is not being devolved, and for higher rates of income tax on the rich, which the Scottish Government will be able to implement once the Scotland Bill becomes law.

Scottish Labour's Public Services spokesperson Jackie Baillie said her party would take a more progressive stance on tax than the SNP. She added: "What [Ms Eisenstadt] has found is the record of a government who will always put spin in front of substance when it comes to social justice. We are seeing this with the Scottish budget, which includes brutal cuts to the councils who deliver services like schools and social care for the elderly and disabled that families in Scotland rely on. This will have the effect of increasing poverty in our communities."

Liz Smith, the Scottish Conservative young people spokeswoman, speculated that Ms Eisenstadt's scrutiny of totemic SNP policies may be a reason that she had kept a low public profile after being appointed with substantial publicity.

She added: "Experts and opposition politicians have been telling the Scottish Government for years that universal free tuition at universities has a range of negative consequences.

"Among those is the fact it has absolutely no impact when it comes to helping those from disadvantaged backgrounds get their foot in the door, and dilutes precious resources away from them.

"That is exactly why we need to see a system where people pay some form of contribution once they are earning a decent wage after graduating. Now that Nicola Sturgeon’s specially appointed advisor is telling her this too, it really is time she ought to listen."

A government spokeswoman said a poverty advisor had been appointed as part of its commitment to tackling inequalities and building a fairer country.

She added: "Ms Eisenstadt was asked to be frank and honest in her assessment and analysis and to scrutinise the work of the Scottish Government. We look forward to the publication of the Poverty Advisor’s first report in the new year."