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New Tory welfare spokesperson accuses SNP of politicising 'rape clause'

Photo: ITV Border

Watch Peter MacMahon's interview with Michelle Ballantyne MSP here, in Tuesday's Representing Border.

Being in charge of social security is one of the most difficult jobs in government. The reason for this is simple: it's the complexity, stupid.

Over the years since the creation of the welfare state, the benefits system has become increasingly byzantine. Many a UK minister has become mired in the minutiae, defeated by the detail.

Well-intentioned reform has quickly run into the quicksand, thwarted by a mixture of lack of adequate funding and systemic inertia.

It's with this in mind that Nicola Sturgeon put one of her most able MSPs, Jeane Freeman, in charge of setting up a new Scottish benefits system.

A further recognition of the need to dedicate more time to this issue came from Tory leader Ruth Davidson who split in two the social security and constitution brief which had been held by Adam Tomkins.

He's keeping the constitution - which makes sense as he's a constitutional academic - and late last week Ms Davidson handed the social security brief to south of Scotland MSP colleague Michelle Ballantyne.

To use the polite euphemism, this is a 'challenging' task for Ms Ballantyne, relatively new to Holyrood, though she has experience as a Scottish Borders councillor and in the voluntary sector.

Peter MacMahon speaks to Michelle Ballantyne MSP Credit: ITV Border

Just days since her appointment it would be unfair to expect she would produce a fully-formed set of policies but in an interview with Representing Border - her first since she got the job - Ms Ballantyne has given a clear idea of her approach.

Ms Ballantyne would probably see herself as a traditional Conservative in her approach to welfare - benefits should be there for those who need it, but with a warning there are limits to funding and a pledge to look at the fundamental causes of poverty.

Ms Ballantyne's political opponents would probably characterise her approach as a typically hard-hearted Tory one, particularly in relation to issues like the 'rape clause'.

Briefly, the 'rape clause' is what opponents call the requirement for women who want to claim tax credits beyond the limit of two children to prove a third or subsequent child was born as a result of a "non-consensual conception".

That includes a child who was conceived as a result of rape.

Opponents, led by SNP politicians from the First Minster down, say this is scandalously inhumane.

The UK government says that the measure was introduced to allow mothers to claim more benefits, and the information is not given to the social security system directly by the women concerned but through 'third parties'.

Credit: PA

The question for Ms Ballantyne then was this: is her party, as the SNP say, the defender of the 'rape clause'?

She told me:

I think we have to put that in context. They've (the SNP) used the rape clause in just about every debate I've sat in. The reality was it was a cap to the number of children you could have under benefits and they are shouting 'rape clause' because it was asked for and given that those people who ended up with more than two children, through no fault of their own, should be accorded some dispensation. That dispensation was given and then it's been used politically."

– Michelle Ballantyne MSP

After pointing out the conditions required to claim the extra benefits - which I outlined above - I asked Ms Ballantyne if she thought this was the right way to do benefits?

She replied:

I think that's an extremely difficult thing to deal with and an extremely difficult thing to prove. If you are looking at whether or not you have an open field in terms of the number of children, and claim benefit for and whether you should limit that in some way, you're going to run into these sort of problems. That's a debate we're going to have to have in Scotland in terms of whether we feel there should be no restriction on the number of children you can have..."

– Michelle Ballantyne MSP

Critics would say the fundamental problems lies with the system: that it does limit benefits to a certain number of children. When it comes to a Scottish system, was Ms Ballantyne open-minded on limiting benefits?

The south of Scotland MSP told me:

I think the problem we have...if you are looking for it in terms of what is nice, and what feels good then it's easy to say we shouldn't impose limits. But the reality is when you are looking at a system that you have to pay for, actually somebody has to pay for it.

"So you are actually saying to people who are paying for the system, 'I'm sorry you have to limit the number of children you have because we have to take x amount of tax off you', but the people who aren't paying in to the system, actually 'you can have as many children as you like'."

– Michelle Ballantyne MSP

I then asked Ms Ballantyne about the Trussell Trust charity which says the use of food banks has gone up, including in Scotland, because of changes to benefits.

She told me:

I think anecdotally the use of food banks has definitely increased. No body's actually denying that. What we haven't got is hard evidence about what the real causes are."

– Michelle Ballantyne MSP

The Trussell Trust say it's not entirely as a result of welfare change, but that is substantially the cause?

Her reply:

That's the point. I haven't yet seen the concrete evidence of where that's coming from. That's what we've got to look at. If we're going to get benefits right, we've got to understand the cause of the issues because if we don't then we're not helping the people that need our help."

– Michelle Ballantyne MSP

So overall what is her view of welfare and her new brief?

She told me:

So what I'm really interested in is getting right down to what are the causes of poverty, what is driving the difficulties with people, and actually how do we resolve those. If we just blindly just put money into everything without understanding that, we're not going to get it right. "We've been putting more and more benefits in for many, many years and yet poverty is increasing, child poverty's increasing, more people are on benefits. So actually we're not actually solving the problems. That's what I'm interested and that's what we've got to look at. Because if we've going to get life better for people but do it the right way."

– Michelle Ballantyne MSP

Which proves the point about welfare. Many people would disagree with this analysis. Other would agree. But all would agree it's very, very difficult.