Scottish election: Party leaders clash in BBC TV debate
Scotland's main party leaders have refused to say how many public sector jobs may be cut in the coming years, as they faced each other in a TV debate.
The SNP's Alex Salmond, Labour's Iain Gray, Annabel Goldie of the Tories and Lib Dem Tavish Scott clashed just days before the 5 May Holyrood election.
The BBC Scotland debate came on the day economists warned there could be thousands of job losses ahead.
Each leader also spoke about a possible referendum on independence.
The debate, at Perth Concert Hall, also saw the foursome square up on issues including the cost of university education, sectarianism and green energy.
The programme came on the day of a report by the Centre for Public Policy for Regions (CPPR), attached to Glasgow University, which claimed planned 2%-a-year savings put forward in the SNP and Labour manifestos were likely to produce job cuts of 7%.
That represented between 20,000 to 25,000 - outside health - over the next few years.
Amid the tough spending squeeze, the report also said those remaining in government work would see the value of their earnings fall by at least 6% in real terms, as pay is frozen and inflation rises.
Disputing its conclusions, Mr Salmond said: "We've managed to achieve a 2% efficiency target over the last three years in the Scottish government.
"There haven't been a significant number of job losses across the public service in Scotland."
When asked how many jobs may go in the future, the current first minister, who backed a two-year pay freeze, responded: "There's going to be a whole range of factors. It depends on pay settlements, crucially."
Pointing out the willingness of public sector unions to accept a pay freeze for those earning more than £21,000, Mr Salmond added: "If people are able and prepared to make sacrifices - and they are sacrifices - in terms of their pay, then we can maintain employment in the public sector."
Mr Gray said he did not think a pay freeze running to five years would be acceptable, telling the audience: "For a year or two we do need pay restraint, a pay freeze in the public sector.
"We don't know what the position will be three years down the road - I hope it would not be longer than that."
Outlining his position, the Labour leader said: "A pay freeze for one year or two years, protection for those at the bottom, reductions in the very highest salaries in the public sector - I've said I would lead the way in that by cutting my salary by 5% as first minister."
On the CPPR report, Mr Scott, whose Lib Dem Party wants pay cuts for the highest public sector-earners, said: "I've seen those figures and I hope we can avoid that, because the objective we've surely got is to minimise the difficulties we've got in terms of balancing the budget."
In the face of denials from Mr Salmond, Mr Scott claimed the SNP actually wanted to freeze public sector pay for the next, five-year parliament, to help fund a council tax freeze during the same period and "all the other goodies he has filled his manifesto with".
Mr Scott said: "The implications for a nurse on £21,000 is that, over those five years, that nurse would be £2,100 worse off under the SNP's policy proposals.
Miss Goldie said: "I'm not going to stand here and say to an audience and say I can protect every public sector job - I cannot.
"We agreed to a public sector pay freeze for two years, because we thought that would protect jobs.
"I can promise, on the basis of my costed manifesto, I'm protecting the NHS budget - that's a huge area of public sector employment, but we've got to see more delivered for less."
The debate also turned to an independence referendum, which the SNP dropped in the last parliament after failing to win enough support from other parties.
Pressed on when a Referendum Bill on independence would be put to Holyrood if the SNP won the election, Mr Salmond said it would come, "within the five-year term".
Mr Salmond said the Scotland Bill, currently going through Westminster, which will beef up the Scottish Parliament's powers, needed the "economic teeth" to support economic recovery, meaning that would push legislation on a referendum "into the second half of the parliament".
The SNP leader went on to say Scotland was "big enough, rich enough and good enough to be independent".
"Even more important than whether you believe in independence or not, is to believe in the right of the Scottish people to decide on independence in a referendum," he said.
Mr Scott would not be drawn on whether the independence question would form a possible deal breaker between his party and the SNP.
He said: "If you want independence, vote SNP because that is what Alex [Salmond] wants.
"He wants independence, I don't, I don't believe in independence. I believe in Scotland as part of the UK."
Miss Goldie said independence was not on her agenda, explaining: "I believe in the UK, I believe in Scotland being a strong and confident country within the UK.
"So, why would I be pursuing an agenda of independence? If you search the Tory manifesto, you won't find an independence bill."
Bringing up Prime Minister David Cameron, Miss Goldie said: "He has made it clear he thinks the country has more pressing priority.
"We are all trying to deal with jobs, dealing with opportunity, dealing with building a future for Scotland, for him, for me, that does not include independence."
Mr Gray responded: "Politics is about priorities and there is a common priority, right across working families right now, and that is to get our economy growing again, to create jobs and above all to create opportunity for our young people.
"I just believe that to spend the next five years distracted by a plan for independence and by a referendum, so that by the time we would have spent nine years talking about the referendum, we will simply put the recovery at risk."
Answering questions from the debate audience, the leaders were also grilled about university student tuition fees - being increased by up to £9,000 a year in England after being backed by the UK government.
Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems ruled out introducing any fees for Scottish students studying at home, with only the Tories backing a graduate charge, capped at £4,000 annually.
Miss Goldie, said: "I would love to fund free education in Scotland, I would love to do that. Do the finances let us have that option? No."
And pointing a finger to the three other party leaders, she went on: "And don't believe one word you hear from those three parties. You are going to see humble pie eaten big time in the not too distant future from that trio of masqueraders who tell you, you can get everything for free."
On her party's fee policy, Miss Goldie said: "You wouldn't pay it until you've got your degree and you are earning £21,000 when you start paying a percentage over the excess of £21,000. It would be affordable."
Mr Scott, who said his daughter was in the second year of a university degree and does not pay fees, stated: "I voted against fees in Scotland, we abolished Labour's fees when they were introduced back in 1999.
"We got rid of the graduate endowment, I voted with Alex Salmond on that in the last parliament and we invested more money in universities when I was in the government than ever had been done in the past. So, that is the commitment I made.
"I do genuinely believe it is possible to make sensible, constructive solutions for Scotland that allow universities to be properly funded and students to be adequately supported in the tricky times."
Mr Salmond said categorically he would not introduce tuition fees while hitting out at the coalition: "The problem with what they are doing south of the border is that its disastrous, it's socially divisive, it's inevitably going to put people off from less well-off background going to university.
"I think free education is the very heart of the Scottish tradition in education - that is what made us the country that we are."
Mr Gray said he had put his three daughters through university without fees and it "still costs a lot of money".
"The promise we have made and the promise we will keep is not to introduce tuition fees," he said.
"I think we do have to do some serious talking with the higher education sector about how long students spend at university, about the relationship between school and university, and college and university, and about the courses that we offer.
"I think that is work which should have been done two years ago, but it must be done."
Watch the Scottish leaders' debate again on the BBC iPlayer.