Hey Jimmy: heard about the minister who thinks most beggars are Scots?

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Scotland was on the warpath last night after David Maclean, the outspoken Home Office minister, said that most beggars in London are Scots who sleep on the streets because they find it more pleasant.

No English politician would have been so outspoken or, perhaps, so silly. But the Scottish-born Mr Maclean, who sits for an English border constituency, said that, unlike Tony Blair, he always gave them something: "I always give them something - I give them a piece of my mind. Most of them are Scottish and I've never met one yet who politely and gently asked for money.

"There are no genuine beggars. Those who are in need have got all the social benefits they require. Every time we go and check, we find they won't go in hostels. Beggars are doing so out of choice because they find it more pleasant."

Mr Maclean is a salt-tongued populist rightwinger. His remarks to the News & Star newspaper in Carlisle, are unlikely to have pleased three Scottish Cabinet ministers - Michael Forsyth, Malcolm Rifkind, and Ian Lang - who are fighting to keep their seats at the election.

Labour and the Scottish National Party accused Mr Maclean of insulting fellow Scots. The shadow Scottish Secretary George Robertson said he was trying to appeal to low prejudice. "What we've got ... is an outrageous and insulting offence to the Scots and to people in Glasgow," he said.

But Mr Maclean stood by his remarks last night. He said he was often accosted by aggressive Scottish beggars and drunks, who frightened visitors in London. He said: "I meant no insult to the Scottish people. How could I? I am a Scot myself and proud of it. But if anyone has taken offence at Labour's distortions, I am truly sorry." Alex Salmond, leader of the SNP, said: "It's insulting to Scots and irresponsible for a Home Office minister."

Mr Maclean has a reputation for verbally swinging the claymore at Westminster. One of his law-and-order speeches, calling for "vermin" to be driven the streets and praising vigilantes, was censured as too right wing even for the Home Office.

Earlier this week, Tony Blair faced criticism for advocating "zero tolerance" and saying he did not give to beggars. This time, the Labour leader will not be trying to match the Tory rhetoric.

King of Scotland, page 15