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"There is no such thing as a rape clause" - Brian Whittle on Tory welfare policy

Brian Whittle isn’t holding back. As a Tory, the South Scotland list MSP believes he isn’t able to comment on UK welfare policy without opponents jumping down his throat. But it won’t stop him.

Before entering politics, Whittle was best known as an athlete, representing Great Britain 45 times, including at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, and maybe that’s shaped his approach. He says he does not remember when he first became politically engaged, though he has always been interested in politics. But the transition to parliament seems to have been a shock. He certainly seems frustrated by the nature of party politics.

Speaking to Holyrood, he says: “I’m telling you now, there’s not a single topic which I will avoid. If I think there’s something that needs to be done, or an idea, I will put that on the table. Now the response to that – if I deem to discuss foodbanks, or welfare or Universal Credit – the immediate reaction to that is that I get railed against, because of the political party I happen to follow. That ain’t going to stop me talking about it. If there’s something that needs to be said then I’m going to say it.”

The good news is that this is Whittle’s chance to talk. In fact, it was this seeming refusal to dodge difficult questions that led him to request an interview with Holyrood, in order to respond to a news story which seemed to call into question a remark he had made in the chamber.

The debate had been on poverty and Whittle had answered a question on whether Universal Credit was causing rising foodbank demand by pointing to his local centre, in East Ayrshire, which he claimed had seen a 30 per cent drop in use in the last year. However, when Holyrood got in touch with the foodbank, it said its most recent figures show demand was actually up by 12 per cent, and that the 30 per cent figure quoted by Whittle dated from 2016/17, a year before the local rollout of Universal Credit. The figures show use was declining, until Universal Credit came in, then it rose.

But, sitting in his parliamentary office, Whittle bristles at the idea the statement was misleading. “I go into the foodbank and they are brilliant,” he says. “They tell me what the trends are, what the issues are, some of the things that if you said out loud I would get smashed for. But I am totally aware that Universal Credit has had an impact. My point is this: why has it had such a differing impact across constituencies? In 2016/17, East Ayrshire managed to reduce it [demand] by 30 per cent, and I’ve been waiting about a year to actually say that.”

But, despite Whittle’s protests, the point is that the reduction came before Universal Credit was introduced. When it came in, foodbank demand then rose.

“Uh-huh,” he says. “But I’ve been waiting about a year to say that, do you know why? Because what they’re doing in there is obviously having a positive impact.”

He adds: “Now, I will freely admit, that in the context of that particular debate, I’ve maybe tried to force that in there, but only because it needed to be said.

“We need to be able to bring that to the surface. And the thing that kills me about this place is that you can’t have a cross-party discussion on these issues without it becoming personal or party political. I am not going to hide from anything,” he says.

“I know what the trend is [in foodbank use]. I also know there was a rise then it’s coming back down again. But if you ask me about Universal Credit, I am still going to say it’s the implementation of it, and some of that has been done really poorly. It has been done in a very differentiated way.”

He adds: “If you walk across the threshold for the first time, to a foodbank, now I can’t imagine what that’s like, to get to a point where you go, ‘I can’t do it, I can’t look after my family here’, right? I can’t imagine what that’s like. I have walked across the threshold, reasonably recently, to sign on, and that was horrendous. That was about ten years ago, I don’t think it’s as bad as that now. But I can’t imagine how I would feel if I had to do that to feed my family, so let’s get that out the way.”

Whittle says his local centre has achieved success by providing a holistic service.

“Yes, they’ll put together a food package, but they’ll also do a wraparound service. They look at housing, they look at welfare, at all of those services, because we know there’s hundreds of millions of pounds not getting claimed. I think that’s a fault of the system, where people are not finding out how they can look after themselves. I was walking through Glasgow on Sunday afternoon, doing Christmas shopping with my ten-year-old, and chronically aware of the number of people begging. In a bad state. Yeah, you put a couple of quid in a cup [but] it’s a very short-term [solution]… I don’t care what political party you come from, you can’t look at that and go, in our current society, that’s acceptable. To me, that’s people falling through the system, and that’s a problem with the system.”

He continues: “If you step across the threshold of a foodbank, you’re saying, ‘I’ve lost control of my own life’, and that in itself – well, I can’t imagine what that would be like – but they are working to give you back control of your life.”

Whittle’s concerns over the implementation of Universal Credit are shared by a raft of third sector organisations, so why not do as they ask and freeze the rollout until concerns are addressed?

“If you freeze it,” he asks, “what are you doing with welfare payments currently? Revert back to the old one?”

These organisations want to halt the rollout, not revert back. Are we stuck with it? We have to continue with Universal Credit because the rollout started?

“No, we’re not stuck, [but] as politicians, we could stop throwing buns across the chamber at each other, roll up our sleeves and get on with it. Many people across the chamber are writing to and speaking with the DWP. We managed to bring it down from six weeks to five weeks [the waiting time before payments are made]. That’s still too long in my view. But the principle of what they’re trying to do I understand.”

What about the two-child cap, then, also known as ‘the rape clause’? The policy, based on restricting the child element of child tax credit and Universal Credit awards to two children, has come under fire from organisations ranging from the Child Poverty Action Group to Scottish Women’s Aid. In fact, apart from the Conservative Party, it’s hard to find a single group that backs it.

“Well, number one, again, this is where politics is appalling, there is no such thing as a rape clause. That’s an invention. There’s an exemption clause.”

It is effectively a rape clause.

“No, it’s not.”

It’s an exemption for someone who has been raped.

“Why don’t we call it a children in care clause? Because it’s part of the same thing. I’ll tell you what I think about that, there’s a legitimate debate to be had around the child cap that will never happen because, politically, you wouldn’t be allowed to say what you’ve got to say. The term ‘rape clause’ is an invention to beat the Tories with. It’s the invention of another political party.”

But a lot of people have a problem, in principle, with the idea you are restricting support based on the number of children someone has.

“Don’t forget, child benefit goes to every single child, and housing allowance, and all that sort of stuff. The reason I didn’t rail against it quite so hard – I railed against the Bedroom Tax – was that it was not retrospective, it was going forward. That’s important. If I plan a family, I will take financial considerations into [account], and I did. I have three daughters, by the way.”

But no one can predict their future circumstances. Anyone could lose their job or get sick. You are in circumstances where, if you lose your job, you will likely get another.

“You think?” Whittle laughs. “Not anymore, probably. I think that’s me done.”

But even if you assume that it’s acceptable to say to someone who has suddenly fallen on hard times that they shouldn’t have had more than two children ten years ago, even if you accept that’s OK, how would you explain that to the third child? What did they do to deserve that?

“I’ve got three children.”

But you have a good job.

“There is no way on earth you are going to devalue my third child. No way you can do that.”

So why don’t they deserve support?

“It’s the parents that will have the support.”

But removing the support from the parents will mean the child will suffer.

“The child will not.”

How would removing financial support not have an effect?

“There’s a whole load of other things that are there to support you when you fall into those circumstances. What I am saying to you, though, is that I think there’s a legitimate debate to be had here. Absolutely. I would be prepared to speak in that debate, and be honest when I speak in that debate. But that debate will never happen. That debate cannot happen in here.”

At this point, Whittle returns to a familiar theme – his belief that Scottish Conservative politicians can’t enter a debate on welfare without being shouted down. But while it’s true that the party tends to face hostility from across the chamber, it also should not come as a surprise for a Conservative MSP to find themselves being criticised for UK Conservative policy. Does Whittle accept that he can be held accountable for his party’s policies? He may take issue with some aspects but he is an elected member of the Conservative Party, of course rivals will hold him responsible.

“Of course, if you’re in government, you have to be held responsible. But I’m not in government.”

But you were elected as a Conservative MSP.

“But I am in opposition.”

So you don’t think you should answer for Conservative policy?

“I don’t have to answer for Westminster policy. I have to answer for devolved policy in here. However, I would be perfectly prepared to step into that debate if we could have that debate, right? Where it really riles me is that I get railed against for ‘Tory policy’ – and let’s call it that, because it is Tory policy – and you know what, that might be legitimate. I will get tarred by the general brush of a political party.”

That happens to all politicians.

“Yeah, yeah, I get that. But, by the way, I think it’s wrong. Hopefully in the way I conduct myself in the chamber, I don’t necessarily go after everybody all the time. I try to put things out there.”

He adds: “What riles me, specifically around welfare, is that the Scottish Government haven’t come out with anything. If I’m going to push back against them having a go at me, I’m going to say that, at least since 2012, they’ve had questions over how they’re going to pay for welfare on the agenda.”

But quite an extensive list of anti-poverty organisations have drawn a direct line from UK welfare policy and rising poverty, homelessness and foodbank use. The UN Special Rapporteur’s report on extreme poverty and human rights found that a fifth of the UK population was living in poverty, after eight years of Conservative government. A recent study from the Institute for Fiscal Studies projected an additional 900,000 children would be living in poverty by 2022 as a direct result of UK Government policy.

“The other thing I find quite interesting is how we define poverty,” he says.

That’s true – the 900,000 figure is for children in relative poverty, defined as those in a family earning less than 60 per cent of median incomes after housing costs. But the same study also projected an additional 600,000 children would be living in absolute poverty. Those are households which will struggle to find enough cash for food, rent or heating.

“Do you know what? If someone comes to me with that issue then I am all over that. I would pull out whatever I need to do.”

It’s happening now.

“I’ve never seen it. No one has ever come into any of my surgeries and said that. And I want to know why. I am taking my surgeries to all sorts of different places now, but I can’t solve it if no one asks me to help them. I’m not getting that.”

Is that a frustration?

“Yeah, it is a frustration, because it’s getting talked about all the time. But I am personally not seeing it. By the way, I’m not denying that there are people in that [circumstance]. I was walking by them in the street and I think, like anyone else, any decent person would say, that’s not acceptable in any modern-day society.”

Whittle seems to have a fairly unusual approach to politics, not least because it’s rare to find a Conservative politician so happy to spend an hour discussing welfare policy with the media, but then his journey has been a remarkable one.

He competed at the 1990 Commonwealth Games in New Zealand and won gold at the 1986 and 1994 European Athletics Championships, though his greatest claim to fame remains finishing the race after losing his shoe during the 1986 Championships – he claims it came off because Kriss Akabusi stood on it – leading him to adopt the questionable nickname of ‘One Shoe Whittle’ around parliament.

He says he was approached to run at the 1997 election but turned the offer down. In fact, he only joined the Scottish Tories in 2015 after getting involved in the Better Together campaign during the independence referendum.

And maybe it was this alternative route into politics that has shaped his approach to debate.

He first visited Number Ten Downing Street when he was 22-years-old, fresh from winning gold in the 400m relay at the 1986 European Championships.

The Prime Minister had held a reception, he explains, and so Whittle and his three teammates, plus Sebastian Coe, arrived thinking it would just be them, before realising they were going to a crowded party which included the likes of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

“We were so far out of our depth,” he laughs, looking back. “I have no idea how we survived those couple of hours. We were athletes. Just young kids. I was 22 and I was the second oldest. All these canapes were coming round, and we weren’t involved in that scene at all, you know? I was a kid from Symington. These canapes were coming round and we were just thinking, ‘cannae eat that’.

“We found crab meat and we could eat that. Then these quails’ eggs turned up, and an egg’s an egg, isn’t it? I thought, ‘of course it is’, so I just put it in my mouth, and oh my… I don’t know what it was dipped in. But what do you do? Well, quails’ eggs are quite small, so I swallowed it whole. Derek Redman [part of Whittle’s team] managed to get it out and put it in his pocket. So we spent the whole time smashing his pocket – as you would.

“But I spent most of the night with Denis Thatcher, who was great, a really interesting character, and the chief executive of ICI, [the chemical company] where I worked at the time. We spent the whole night in a corner, speaking with them, because we had no idea how to mix with these people. It was so far removed from our background. I wasn’t like Seb [Coe], who was a bit older, and already had that ability to mix and talk. We didn’t have that, so it was straight to the restaurant to get something to eat when we got out because we were absolutely starving.

“But I didn’t go there for political reasons. I’ve always had an arm’s length interest – watching Question Time kind of thing – but it wasn’t till the independence referendum that I got [involved].”

One of his first appearances was debating with Shona Robison on the future of sport in an independent Scotland, with his involvement seeming to grow from there. In the end, he says his election in 2016 came as a shock.

“I remember I got a text from Fin Carson [the MSP for Galloway & West Dumfries] asking, ‘are you paying attention?’ This must have been about eight in the morning, and I’d got to bed at six. I texted him back, and I will paraphrase, saying, ‘go away, I’m having a sleep’. He said, ‘no, you really have to pay attention’. So I switched on the telly and I looked at the votes for the South of Scotland and thought, ‘huh, we’ve done well, we might get someone else in’. Well, that was me. Then I got a text from Ruth saying, ‘see you at work on Monday’ and I’m thinking, ‘what, this Monday? I’ve got a job’. Nobody had told me what actually happened if you got voted in. My phone just melted with people trying to get hold of me, so I went to my default position, put my running kit on, put my earphones in and went for a run.”

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