Scottish election: Holyrood dissolved ahead of May vote

Scottish Parliament
Image caption Voters will go to the polls on 5 May to determine the make-up of the next Scottish Parliament

The starting gun for the Scottish Parliament elections has been fired, with the dissolution of Holyrood.

Scotland's main party leaders went head-to-head during a final session of questions to the first minister, before voters go to the polls on 5 May.

MSPs also passed two pieces of legislation on the last day, to tackle forced marriages and reform laws on the retrial of suspects.

Parliament also paid tribute to its presiding officer Alex Fergusson.

The MSP has served in the post for four years since the 2007 Scottish election.

A total of 20 MSPs, including former first minister Lord McConnell, have decided not to seek re-election - the highest number to have stepped down at the end of a Holyrood term.

The coming election will see the SNP seeking a second historic term in office, after the party's win in 2007.

Labour, the Tories the Lib Dems and the Greens are also seeking to make gains at the polls.

During question time, Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray accused the SNP of dropping a key manifesto pledge to scrap student debt, and said unemployment in Scotland "raced ahead" of the rest of the country in the last few years.

He said: "We've had four weeks of frantic announcements, held back and timed for partisan party advantage - well it doesn't make up for four years of promises broken, schools unbuilt, projects cancelled, criminals released and thousands extra on the dole.

"Time's up - hasn't the first minister failed on all the issues that really matter to the people of Scotland?"

But the first minister said the SNP had restored free education with the abolition of the student graduate charge, adding that the government had just opened its 330th new or refurbished school.

And Mr Salmond went on to say that Scottish employment figures were substantially better than when Mr Gray served as enterprise minister in the first parliament.

"As enterprise minister in Scotland, he managed to take Scotland into recession when the rest of the world didn't have one," said the first minister.

"These employment figures are only one of the reasons that this government will be re-elected."

Scottish Tory leader Annabel Goldie said her party had been responsible for pushing the SNP into meeting its pledge to increase police officer numbers by 1,000.

"Without the Scottish Conservatives we'd have never got the 1,000 extra police," she said, adding: "We'd have been stuck with the broken promise of the first minister."

Mr Salmond acknowledged the Conservatives' support but added: "I don't want to say in any sense that Annabel Goldie's support is redundant or superfluous, but, in the next government, we in the SNP can confidently look forward to the support of the Labour Party in implementing our policies."

Turning to events in Libya, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott asked the first minister to back Scottish military bases under threat of closure in the UK government defence review, including submarine-building at the Faslane naval base, despite the SNP's anti-nuclear stance.

He said: "This parliament ends its session as it did eight years ago with men and women from our armed forces in conflict."

Mr Salmond replied: "As Tavish Scott should well know, we have never argued against conventional weaponry in the Faslane base.

"I think at a time when our armed forces are being called into conflict, we should be very careful not to trespass into party political arguments on this, particularly because the bases that are under threat in Scotland are not under threat from this Parliament or this administration."

During question time, Lord McConnell reflected on devolution, telling parliament: "I hope that, at the end of these 12 years, more Scots walk a little taller, cringe a little less and do occasionally have ideas above their station."

The Scottish election is being fought this year after the decision to redraw the majority of constituency boundaries, taking account of population changes, while the next parliamentary term is set to move from four to five years, to avoid a clash with the next UK election.

There have also been changes to the voting process, after the problems which besieged election night in 2007 saw some 140,000 ballot papers rejected.

But it is currently unclear when the final result of the 2011 Scottish Parliament will be known.

Voting in the AV referendum on Westminster voting reform also takes place on 5 May, and a number of local returning officers have raised the prospect of counting votes the next morning, rather than overnight.

Before parliament was dissolved, MSPs passed the Double Jeopardy Bill, which scraps the rule preventing a person standing trial twice for the same crime.

Double jeopardy has already been dispensed with in England and Wales.

And members also gave their approval to the Forced Marriages Bill which, for the first time in the UK, makes it a criminal offence to breach laws protecting people from being forced into getting wed against their will.

Breaking the proposed laws could lead to a prison sentence of up to two years, a fine, or both, while the legislation enables courts to issue forced marriage protection orders.

Mr Fergusson, who made an emotional farewell speech as presiding officer following tributes from all the party leaders and independent Margo MacDonald, is hoping to return as a Tory MSP.

But he told parliament: "Should I be successful, I will not seek a second term in this truly privileged office.

"That I've done so at all is more than I ever sought or dreamed and I thank you all for the opportunity you gave me."

Mr Fergusson concluded: "Thank you very much. I now close this third session of parliament."

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