Borders list MSP under fire over defence of two-child limit for universal credit

Tory list MSP Michelle Ballantyne during October 24's Holyrood debate on poverty and inequality.
Tory list MSP Michelle Ballantyne during October 24's Holyrood debate on poverty and inequality.

South Scotland Conservative list MSP Michelle Ballantyne has come in for criticism for her defence of universal credit and its two-child limit for benefit handouts.

During a Scottish Parliament debate yesterday, October 24, on ending poverty and inequality, Mrs Ballantyne rejected criticism of the new benefit, insisting that is fairer and more cost-effective than the six previous ones it replaces.

That claim was called into question by MSPs of other parties, but it was the former Selkirkshire councillor’s defence of the credit’s two-child cap for payouts that sparked most anger, both in the Holyrood chamber and on social media afterwards.

Responding to a question by Clydesdale Scottish National Party MSP Aileen Campbell, Mrs Ballantyne said: “The two-child limit is about fairness. It is fair that people on benefits cannot have as many children as they like while people who work and pay their way and do not claim benefits have to make decisions about the number of children they can have.

“Fairness means fairness to everybody, not to one part of the community.

“Universal credit might have its flaws, but the thinking behind the system is sound.

“Governments cannot address poverty and inequality without improving people’s life chances. The reform process is about making it work better to be in work than to not be in work.

“Regardless of what others might say, it is a fact that universal credit is working for the many.”

First to respond was Lothian Green Party list MSP Alison Johnstone, saying: “Highly regressive and aggressive cuts to our social security system are driving increased poverty, including child poverty and rapidly burgeoning food poverty.

“The two-child limit is not fair. It is certainly not fair to the third child in a family.”

Renfrewshire South SNP MSP Tom Arthur went further, saying: “I have to say that the speech from Michelle Ballantyne was one of the most disgraceful speeches that I have ever heard in my two and a half years in this Parliament – six minutes of pompous Victorian moralising that would have been better suited to the pages of a Dickens novel.

“She suggests that poverty should be a barrier to a family and that people who are poor are not entitled to any more than two children. What an absolutely disgraceful position. She should be utterly, utterly ashamed of herself.

Pauline McNeill, Glasgow Kelvin’s Labour MSP, agreed, saying: “The worst element of the universal credit system is the two-child limit, which is the most draconian element of the reforms.

“Michelle Ballantyne says that parents should think about how many children they should have, but why should any policy ask children to pay the price?”

Fellow Conservative list MSP Maurice Golden, of the West Scotland region, defended Mrs Ballantyne, saying: “It is not acceptable that persistent and deep-rooted poverty and inequality persist. All of us across the chamber can agree with that.

“Michelle Ballantyne highlighted that universal credit is a better, modern benefit that replaces an old system that disincentivised work.”

That defence prompted a demand for an apology from Lothian Labour list MSP Neil Findlay, asking: “Mr Golden mentioned Michelle Ballantyne. Will he apologise on behalf of his party for her utterly shameful comment that people who are on benefits cannot have more than two children?”

Clarifying that she’d said she believes that families on benefits should only receive state handouts for two children, not that they should be restricted to having two offspring, the mother of six, of Ashiestiel, near Caddonfoot, refused to apologise, insisting: “I did not say that.”

Mrs Campbell was unconvinced, however, saying: “All parties bar one in this parliament recognise the brutal impact of universal credit, such as universal credit claimants being six times as likely to be sanctioned as claimants of any other legacy payment and the income of 3,800 Scottish families being reduced because of the two-child limit.

“Pauline McNeill was right that universal credit is hurting people and that its morality is questionable.

“Tom Arthur was also correct to get angry and call out the Conservatives’ moralising, which seemed to suggest that, if someone is poor, they are not allowed any more than two children. That view is utterly reprehensible.

“I think that we all heard the suggestion that if someone is poor, they do not deserve any more than two children. That is something that we need to call out because it is not right for Michelle Ballantyne to say that.

“If she did not mean that, that is fair enough. However, I think that it showed us just a glimpse of the Conservatives’ true reasons for pursuing these policies.

“The UK Government must halt the rollout of universal credit and the Conservatives here must face up to the impact of the ideologically-driven welfare reforms of their party.”

Mrs Ballantyne, 55, a list MSP since May last year, was previously Scottish Borders Council’s Conservative group leader and was one of the authority’s three councillors for Selkirkshire from 2012 until December 2017.