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Queen opens British Parliament amid pomp and ceremony

By Melissa Gray CNN
  • State Opening of Parliament usually takes place in November or December
  • It is happening in May this year because of Britain's recent elections
  • Speech set out new Conservative-Liberal Democrat government's legislative agenda
  • Queen announced plans for government to reduce the country's deficit

London, England (CNN) -- Queen Elizabeth II officially opened the new session of Britain's parliament Tuesday, using her annual speech to set out the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat government's legislative agenda.

The State Opening of Parliament, as it is called, usually takes place in November or December. It is happening in May this year because of Britain's recent elections, which ushered in the country's first coalition government for 70 years and give the event added significance.

Even though the queen delivers the speech, it is actually written by the government and approved by the Cabinet, symbolizing the right of lawmakers to debate without interference from the monarch. As a result, the queen "confirms" key bills and measures, rather than announcing them.

On Tuesday the queen announced plans for the government to reduce the country's burgeoning deficit, restore economic growth, and create a new Office for Budget Responsibility to provide "confidence in the management of the public finances."

Video: Government pledges to fight deficit
Video: New government outlines goals
Video: State opening explained
Video: About Black Rod

There are also plans to modernize the Royal Mail, the queen said, which hints at the partial privatization of the UK's main postal service. There will also be limits on the number of workers coming to the United Kingdom from countries outside the European Union, she said.

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"My government will propose parliamentary and political reform to restore trust in democratic institutions and rebalance the relationship between the citizen and the state," the queen announced.

Some of those reforms include a referendum on a new voting system for members of the House of Commons; fewer and more "equal-sized constituencies;" and the right of voters to recall elected lawmakers who are found guilty of serious wrongdoing.

There will also be proposals to make the House of Lords "wholly or mainly elected," the queen said.

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Efforts to protect civil liberties include abolishing plans for a national identity card, the queen said. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg pledged last week to do away with the ID cards in addition to second-generation biometric passports and have more regulation over surveillance cameras and the DNA database.

"My government will propose parliamentary and political reform to restore trust in democratic institutions.
--Queen Elizabeth II

Parliament and the British people will also be able to have a say in the proposed transfer of any more powers to the European Union, the queen said.

Traditional symbols of parliamentary privilege at the state opening include Black Rod, the name given to a senior officer in the House of Lords, the unelected chamber of Parliament. Before the queen makes her speech, Black Rod is always sent from the Lords' chamber to the Commons to summon those members to hear the speech.

By tradition, the door of the Commons is slammed in Black Rod's face to symbolize the Commons' independence. Black Rod then uses his staff to knock on the door three times, at which point the door to the Commons Chamber is opened, and members follow him back to the House of Lords.

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The queen delivers the speech from the throne in the House of Lords. When it's over, both houses of Parliament debate the contents of the speech for four or five days.

Traditions surrounding the state opening and delivery of a speech by the monarch can be traced to at least the 16th century, according to the parliament's web site. The current ceremony dates from 1852, when the Palace of Westminster reopened after the fire of 1834.

From Buckingham Palace to the Palace of Westminster -- the seat of government -- the queen traveled in a black and gold horse-drawn carriage, escorted by members of the Household Cavalry wearing their distinctive gold-colored helmets with tall red plumes.

On the queen's arrival at Westminster, the Union Jack is lowered and the royal standard raised on the flagpole outside. The queen puts on the white parliamentary robe and purple Imperial State Crown, set with more than 3,000 precious stones, including the 317-carat Cullinan II diamond, and weighing two pounds (0.91 kilograms).

The houses of Parliament are still searched by the Yeomen of the Guard, the Queen's ceremonial bodyguards, just before the state opening. The tradition dates back to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, when plotter Guy Fawkes was arrested in the cellar while preparing to blow up the parliament.

The checks are considered "picturesque," according to Parliament, with more serious searches done by police.

Another tradition is that of the "hostage" lawmaker. When the queen leaves Buckingham Palace to travel to Parliament, a member of the government is held at the palace to guarantee the monarch's safe return, according to the palace.

The "hostage" is released once the queen returns.