MSPs have called on the UK Government to scrap the two-child benefit cap following a heated debate in the Scottish Parliament.

Social Justice Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville moved a motion calling on Tory ministers to remove the “punitive” two-child limit for Universal Credit and Child Tax Credit claimants on Wednesday afternoon.

Meanwhile, both Scottish Labour and Scottish Tory MSPs claimed that the debate was politically motivated ahead of the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election due to take place on Thursday October 5, a hotly contested Westminster seat.

MSPs backed the Scottish Government's call with 78 votes for, 29 against, and no abstentions.

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Scottish Labour MSPs backed the motion, but during the debate repeatedly said there would need to be a full review of the Universal Credit system at Westminster before the UK party would commit to scrapping the policy. 

Speaking in the chamber, Somerville said she was “absolutely astonished” by comments made by UK Labour leader Keir Starmer over the summer that a Labour government would maintain the policy and that he would operate the widely condemned rape clause “more fairly”.

The debate was held during Child Poverty Week, and Somerville added that the policy, according to the House of Commons Library, had affected 80,000 children in Scotland over the past 12 months alone.

She added that the two-child cap was “punishing children” simply because their parents are on low incomes.

“There are calls from other parties for the Scottish Government to mitigate the two-child cap,” Somerville (below) said.

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“However we do not have the powers to remove this policy at source.

“So while Universal Credit and child tax credits remain reserved to Westminster, this is the situation we are in.

“Even if financial mitigation was possible the two-child limit and the associated rape clause would still be applied by the UK Government, but the Scottish Government should not have to spend its fixed budget rectifying the UK Government’s failures.

"We’re already spending £130 million per year to directly mitigate some of the UK Government's benefit cuts such as bedroom tax and benefit cut.”

The Social Justice Secretary added that it was “galling” that the investment made by the Scottish Government was “lessened” by policies of the Tories in Westminster.

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She ended her contribution by stating that the only route to a fairer Scotland was through independence rather than "shackled to a Westminster system dragging more children into poverty". 

Paul O’Kane, Scottish Labour MSP for West Scotland region, said that tackling poverty should be the focus of “far more” of the time in Holyrood, “particularly in terms of how we use the powers of this parliament to take action”.

O'Kane (below) claimed that the Scottish Government should have held a “much wider debate about all the roots and facets of poverty”.

“The Government has chosen not to do that, so perhaps it is more interested in the political context in which we meet today rather than in the wide-ranging constructive debate we could be having about challenging poverty in communities across Scotland and indeed their own record in that regard,” he said, in a nod to the by-election.

O’Kane’s amendment called on MSPs to support Labour’s New Deal for Working People and noted the number of working families in poverty in Scotland.

It passed with 75 votes for, 28 against, and three abstentions, and was added on to the end of Somerville's motion. 

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Earlier, Somerville said that she was “dumbfounded” by the Labour amendment. She said while she would support aspects of the policy programme, the Cabinet Secretary added that the “problem is Keir Starmer doesn’t” and pointed to a number of U-turns.

“Promises to raise statutory sick pay and extend it to the self-employed, they’re gone,” she told the chamber.

“A complete ban on zero-hour contracts, that’s gone too.

“Quite frankly the promise to raise the minimum wage looks a bit dubious when the Labour leader has diluted it from £15 an hour to … well we’ll see what happens next week, next month.”

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Miles Briggs, whose motion on behalf of the Tories stated that the UK Government has a “duty to manage public finances carefully for future generations”, also made a jibe about the upcoming by-election.

The Tory motion did not pass with 28 votes for, 78 against, and no abstentions. 

“What we’ve seen [has] more to do with tomorrow’s by-election than ScotGov wanting to have a proper debate on this,” he said following Somerville’s speech.

When SNP MSP Kate Forbes (below) intervened to ask Briggs why the Tories think a third child is of “less value and less entitled to support” than a firstborn child, he said: “That’s not the case, as the member knows this policy is about fairness for families as well.”

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He then said that helping parents into work should be a “government priority”.

Later in the debate, Forbes described the two-child cap as “inexplicable” and “abhorrent” during her contribution.

She said: “We continue to spend so much of our time fighting and funding policy decisions imposed on us by a Conservative government – the Tories two-child benefit cap and wilder welfare policy has driven up to 30,000 children into poverty in Scotland.”