Yesterday, the Queen formally addressed the House of both Lords and members of the Commons in what is known as the Queen’s Speech (or State Opening of Parliament).
This year’s Speech saw the announcement of eleven new Bills that the government will seek to put in place in the last eleven months of the coalition’s term of office before the General Election next May (one Bill for each month sounds quite nice).
The Bills announced included: a Recall Bill giving powers to constituents to unseat their MP and hold a by-election in the event of expenses misuse; powers to frack under private property without permission; reforms to pensions meaning that pensioners will have more control over their finances and not have to buy into annuities; potential jail sentences for parents who subject their child to emotional cruelty; free school meals for infants; fines for employers who do not pay the minimum wage, and a 5p charge on plastic carrier bags in supermarkets, most importantly.
For a full round-up of all the Bills announces in all their detail, you can read it up on the government’s website.
As far as Speeches go, it was pretty brief. In comparison to Tony Blair’s governments of ’04, ’05, and ’06, which had 32, 45 and 31 Bills announced respectively, it was quite short. However, this was to be expected. In 2011, fixed-term parliaments were establish, and made General Elections set at five years apart.
But where did all of this come from? What does it mean? What actually happens?
Essentially, yesterday’s State Opening of Parliament is centred around tradition and symbolism; indicating who has power, authority and sovereignty. It is said that the traditions of the Speech being delivered by the monarch and the State Opening date back to around the 16th century.
There are a great number of events that take place before the actual Speech is given.
The Cellar Search
First, the cellars of the Parliament of Westminster are searched. Initially, this was done following the Gunpowder Plot by Guy Fawkes, now it is purely ceremonial.
Then the monarch leaves Buckingham Palace, and is taken to Westminster. In the days of the Tudors, they established the whole open procession that we see today, gathering thousands of their “subjects”. You can imagine that this is intended to create an atmosphere of awe and patriotism around the monarch.
Once the Queen arrives, she goes to the House of Lords and is given her robe and ceremonial crown. The official of the House of Lords, known as “Black Rod” for his (guess what?) ebony rod, heads down the corridor to the Commons, where the parliament are seated.
However, when he reaches the Commons’ door, it is shut in his face. This is due to Charles I, who was accompanied by soldiers to arrest the so-called Five Members in 1642. These Five Members were five MPs who Charles I believed had encouraged Scotland to invade England in the Bishops’ Wars, and were attempting to turn the public against him. He then marched to the HoC to arrest them, which resulted in the Civil War (although, this was not the only reason for the Civil War).
Since then, Commons has maintained the right to question the authority of the monarch, but cannot continue to do so if he or she has legitimate authority.
So, Black Rod knocks three times, enters, and summons the Commons.
MPs then go to the House of Lords, and listen to what the government has set out for the next term by hearing the Queen read it out. Watching it yesterday, I would have been amused to hear the Queen say: “My government…what? Are you serious? 5p for carrier bags? Hang them all!”
There you have it. Basically, the Queen reads out what the government says it is going to do, then Commons leaves and has a debate on it.
Reaction to the Speech has been widely covered in the media, with Labour arguing it was just more of the same, and the Recall Bill is not actually giving anymore power to voters. The government hit back on this one saying that an incomplete Bill was better than no Bill.
Nevertheless, it is perhaps a sign that the Speech did not hold an awful lot given that the biggest headline most people will read after this Queen’s Speech will be that we will be charged on carrier bags. Which, by the way, comes into force in Scotland in October this year, so you better get your Bags for Life!