Government welfare policy on the “rape clause” is a “not an easy one” for Conservatives to deal with, a leading Scottish Tory said.
Brian Whittle, the sport and wellbeing spokesman for the Conservatives in Holyrood, said “great marketing” by opposition parties had seen them use the policy to attack the Government.
Labour shadow Scottish secretary Lesley Laird insisted it was “absolutely shameful” that Conservatives, including Ruth Davidson, support the “despicable Tory rape clause”.
But speaking at a fringe event at the Scottish Conservative Aberdeen conference, Mr Whittle argued it was “legitimate” to debate the limits that should be put on benefit payments.
He said: “The thing about the rape clause, and I think it is fair to say the opposition have grasped hold of that and are driving that really hard into us, the thing is this, we’re looking at a system where the question is, should there be an upper limit on social benefits, and that’s a debate that has to happen and it’s a very legitimate debate
“We think there should be a limit to what social security payments should be, and if we agree to what social security payments should be, you would accept there have to be exemptions to that.”
He added that if the party had not included an exemption to the policy – which limits to two the number of children for which families can claim tax credits – they would have been “massively criticised”.
But Mr Whittle said Tories were “getting beaten” for doing that, when “the actual debate is around social security benefits, should there be an upper limit, what it should be, and if there isn’t an upper limit how does that encourage people to go back into work”.
He continued: “It’s not an easy one for Conservatives to get round, and I’ve been beaten for that as well.
“But there is a legitimate debate to be had here that is not being had.”
Alison Thewliss MP, SNP, said: “Brian Whittle’s comments are not only offensive, they’re totally heartless.
“He seems to be in total denial about the hardship and misery his own party is causing.
“The ‘rape clause’ is not a political invention – it’s an utterly horrific policy of the Tory government, which has forced families across Scotland and the UK into poverty.”