ESTHER McVey was heckled by angry members of the public as she defended controversial benefit reforms in Holyrood – insisting the so-called rape clause offers women “double support”.

The UK Work and Pensions Secretary said Universal Credit, which rolls several benefits into one direct payment, was a “supportive system” aimed at helping people into work.

And she insisted the rape clause, where women have to prove conception through non-consensual sex to qualify for tax credits for a third child, potentially offers women a chance to open up.

She said: “People will be supported and shown to the various other organisations – and again this could give them an opportunity to talk about maybe something that’s happened that they never had before.

“So, it’s potentially double support there – they’re getting the money they need and maybe an outlet they might possibly need.”

Her comments were met with fury from opposition parties, with Nicola Sturgeon branding Ms McVey “out of touch”.

The First Minister added: "I think most people think the rape clause is just abhorrent - the very notion of asking a woman or expecting a woman to prove she has been raped in order to access benefits for her children, no woman should even have to contemplate that, so to try to justify that by saying that it offers some benefits, I think, adds insult to injury."

Ms McVey was heckled as she gave evidence to a Holyrood committee after SNP MSP Ben MacPherson asked her to apologise for the “suffering and distress” caused by the introduction of Universal Credit.

Mr MacPherson said: “There are people in the back of the audience behind you, either campaigners or individuals, who’ve suffered greatly at the hands of the welfare reform agenda. There are constituents who have cried in front of me in surgeries, and I know colleagues have been the same.”

As Ms McVey answered, a member of the public shouted "you can't get into work if you're dead", before claiming a mother has taken her own life following sanctions. MSPs were forced to suspend proceedings.

When the meeting reconvened, Ms McVey said: "I am not oblivious to people who are incredibly vulnerable or who are in need, and obviously the gentleman felt he needed to have his points said about something that was very important to him and about somebody who was very vulnerable."

She said the department reaches out to vulnerable people, but was heckled again as she spoke about the rape clause.

Ms McVey said this offers women potentially "double support" through money and an opportunity to talk they may have "never had before".

The meeting was suspended for a second time as a second audience member began shouting and then walked out.

Questioned several times on evidence Universal Credit has pushed people into debt and led to rising food bank use in Scotland, Ms McVey argued in many cases the debt is historical.

She said she did not agree that people could be worse off, claiming the entire package had to be considered including minimum wage rises and increasing income tax personal allowance.

SNP MSP George Adam said Universal Credit is causing "financial mayhem", and raised the case of a constituent sanctioned while in hospital after suffering a heart attack.

Scottish Labour MSP Pauline McNeill branded Ms McVey's performance in front of the committee "disgraceful".

She said: “To badge up the vile rape clause as some sort of virtuous policy to provide support is simply skin-crawling.

“The rape clause is a policy created by the Tory government’s ideological obsession to deliver tax cuts for the richest and big business paid for by cutting support for the poorest."