RUTH Davidson yesterday came under fire for claiming the Conservatives as a party which would fight to combat poverty in Scotland.

Campaigners and political opponents said the £12billion cuts to welfare being implemented by the Tories at Westminster had resulted in a significant increase in the number of Scots struggling financially.

John McArdle, co-founder of the Black Triangle disability rights campaign, said if the Scottish Conservative leader was serious about addressing poverty she should urge work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith to reverse them.

He said: “The Tories are causing an epidemic of poverty in Scotland. Under the Tories we have seen a huge rise in the number of people who have to rely on food banks to feed themselves and their families. Tory policies have been catastrophic for disabled people, and poor people in general.

“Ruth Davidson should be urging IDS to stop the welfare cuts.”

During her speech to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in London, Davidson pledged more free childcare for one and two-year-olds from the poorest backgrounds would be included in her party’s Holyrood election manifesto.

She said the policy would help address inequality at an earlier stage than the Scottish Government’s plans to double free childcare for all three and four-year-olds during the next parliament.

She said: “Given the gap that opens up among children from poor and wealthy homes before the age of three, we think action is required earlier. So, in our manifesto for the Scottish election we will argue that instead of extending that provision across the board for three and four-year-olds, we should provide more high-quality childcare for more one and two-year-olds, starting with those in disadvantaged homes.”

Her speech also repeated calls to introduce a graduate contribution to replace free university tuition.

She said the cost of the SNP policy had led to funding cuts for further education, with a reduction in college places. "I would bring in a graduate contribution — no upfront fees and not anywhere near as high as here in England. I would use those funds to back bursaries for poorer students and I would reverse the SNP cuts on further education colleges.”

According to the latest official child poverty statistics for 2013/14, 210,000 children in Scotland or 22 per cent were living in poverty — up from 190,000 or 19 per cent on 2011/12. The thinktank the Resolution Foundation recently projected an increase across the UK to 3.3m children by 2020.

SNP MSP Joan McAlpine said: “Ruth Davidson has a cheek talking about poverty. The Tories are hounding disabled welfare claimants and hammering low income families through their austerity policies.”

Ian Murray, shadow secretary of state for Scotland said: “The only Tory contribution to poverty reduction has been to scrap how it is measured. Perhaps she should apologise for the policies of the Tories that have increased poverty".

“For all her photo ops and pleas that she’s different, Ruth Davidson is just another Tory like Cameron and Osborne."

A JRF spokeswoman said: “Poverty will continue until all political parties develop concrete plans on how to reduce living costs, boost wages and increase opportunity for those on low incomes." That’s why JRF works with charities, businesses, researchers and MPs of all parties to provide impartial evidence, encourage debate and keep people on low incomes at the centre of policy maker’s minds. We are an independent organisation and work regularly with speakers from across the political spectrum and invite them address JRF events: it does not mean they represent the views of JRF.”