A SOUTH of Scotland MSP has been criticised after saying benefit curbs and a related 'rape clause' are fair because they stop people on benefits having as many children as they like.

Michelle Ballantyne, the welfare spokeswoman for the Scottish Tories and a mother-of-six, was defending the two-child limit on tax credits in a Holyrood debate on poverty and inequality.

She later refused to apologise, and accused critics of having an “emotional reaction”.

The two-child limit denies some benefit to mothers with more than two children unless they declare one was the result of rape.

Ms Ballantyne, who is regularly in East Lothian as part of her South of Scotland MSP role, told MSPs that she was “proud” to be associated with Universal Credit, a Tory welfare reform blamed for forcing people into debt and a rise in foodbank use.

Communities Secretary Aileen Campbell MSP asked Ms Ballantyne if she was also proud of the two-child limit and rape clause.

Ms Ballantyne replied: “The two-child limit is about fairness.

"It is fair that people on benefit cannot have as many children as they like, while people who work and pay their way and don’t claim benefits have to make decisions about the number of children they can have.

"Fairness is fairness to everybody, not to one part of the community."

A visibly stunned Ms Campbell appeared to mouth the word ‘wow’ in response.

Later, SNP MSP Tom Arthur said Ms Ballantyne’s was the one of the most disgraceful speeches he had heard in Parliament since being elected in 2016.

He said it was “six minutes of pompous, Victorian moralising that would have been better suited to the pages of a Dickens novel".

He added: "And to suggest that poverty should be a barrier to a family, that people who are poor are not entitled to more than two children - what an absolutely disgraceful position, and she should be utterly, utterly ashamed of herself.”

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard said: “This is the mask of Ruth Davidson's Scottish Tory party slipping.

"These comments by Michelle Ballantyne are abhorrent and show the true views held by senior Tory MSPs: nasty and archaic.

“The Scottish Tories stand behind every blow of austerity and every cruel welfare cut that has been implemented by the UK Tory Government - from the bedroom tax to the rape clause.

"These comments should be retracted and Michelle Ballantyne should apologise."

But Ms Ballantyne later refused to apologise when she spoke to the media at Holyrood.

“It probably didn’t come out as well as it should have,” she said, “But I think it is quite right that we all have to make decisions about the income we have and the number of children we can have accordingly.”

She admitted she had claimed child benefit for each of her six children but said she had been on an income of less than £25,000 and made sacrifices to have a large family.

She said: “Most people would tell you they can’t afford to have more than a couple of children. That’s why the benefit cap isn’t the evil it’s made out to be and we have to be rational and reasonable about it.”

Asked the right number of children for the poor, she said: “I don’t think there is a right number.”

She went on: “I think what’s important is that benefits do enable you to have a family and I do think that’s really important, but I don’t think that benefits should just be unlimited, because how are you going to improve your situation?

"Benefits should be a springboard to get you out of poverty. That won’t happen if your benefits just rise and rise and rise.

“At the end of the day, I’m not just sounding off. Government has to make tough choices, otherwise the whole thing runs amok.”