UK gov't agenda focuses on immigration, economy

Associated Press
Britain's Queen Elizabeth delivers her speech during the State Opening of Parliament at the House of Lords, alongside Prince Charles in London Wednesday May 8, 2013.  The State Opening of Parliament marks the formal start of the parliamentary year, the Queen delivered a speech which set out the government's agenda for the coming year. (AP Photo/Toby Melville, Pool)
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LONDON (AP) — The message was one of thrift and austerity, but the messenger was opulence incarnate.

Britain's Conservative-led government on Wednesday announced a modest program of legislation to tighten immigration rules, curb welfare expenses, encourage business and invest in infrastructure — in a speech read by a monarch on a gilded throne wearing a crown studded with 3,000 diamonds.

The contrast was part of the state opening of Parliament, an annual pageant of pomp and politics centered on the Queen's Speech, a legislative program written by the government but read out by the monarch before a crowd of lawmakers, ermine-robed peers and ceremonial officials in bright garb evoking centuries past.

The event's mix of extravagant surroundings and prosaic content was starker than usual at a time of spluttering economic growth. Britain's economy has been through two periods of recession since the global financial crisis hit in 2008, and grew by only 0.3 percent in the first quarter of this year.

Prime Minister David Cameron told lawmakers that the measures in the speech would make Britain more competitive and "back aspiration and those who want to get on."

But Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition Labour Party, called it "a no-answers Queen's Speech from a tired and failing government."

The leaders were kicking off a lively six-day debate in the House of Commons on the proposals.

In a ritual she has enacted dozens of times during her 61-year reign, the queen was driven from Buckingham Palace to Parliament in a horse-drawn carriage, escorted by mounted members of the Household Cavalry in scarlet tunics and gleaming breastplates.

Dressed in an ivory gown and wearing the diamond-encrusted Imperial State Crown, she delivered the speech from a gilded throne in the House of Lords.

The speech is written on parchment whose ink takes three days to dry, but it took the queen only seven minutes to read it.

It promised "an economy where people who work hard are properly rewarded," with laws to "reduce the burden of excessive regulation on businesses" and enshrine consumer rights.

There was no hint of deviation from the government's commitment to deficit-reducing spending cuts, but the speech announced infrastructure investment in energy and the water system, and a bill to start building a high-speed rail link from London to England's second city, Birmingham, and northern England.

The government also threw a few nuggets to taxpayers wearied by rising prices and stagnating salaries. It promised better and cheaper childcare, a simpler state pension system and a cap on long-term care bills so the elderly don't have to sell their homes to meet care bills.

On immigration, the speech said the government would make Britain a country that "accepts people who will contribute and deters those who will not."

Proposed immigration measures would limit newcomers' access to health care, fine businesses that employ people without the legal right to work in Britain, and make it easier to deport foreign citizens convicted of crimes.

The measures are intended to counter impressions that some migrants get a free ride on the welfare state — a perception that has fueled support for the anti-Europe U.K. Independence Party, a threat to Cameron's Conservatives.

The speech also said the government would press ahead with plans for a new school curriculum, intended to raise standards but criticized by opponents as back-to-basics rote learning.

The legislative schedule was also notable for its absences.

There was no mention of contentious plans to allow police and spy agencies to snoop on email traffic, Web browsing and social media sites. The measures were announced last year in the draft Communications Data Bill, but sparked an outcry from civil liberties campaigners.

Instead, the queen announced unspecified new measures to fight crime in cyberspace.

The government also disappointed public health advocates by shelving plans for a minimum alcohol price and logo-free cigarette packaging.

The annual pageant draws heavily on the history of the power struggle between the monarchy and Parliament. Lawmakers were summoned from the House of Commons to listen to the queen by Black Rod, a security official — but only complied after first slamming the door in his face to symbolize their independence.

Since King Charles I tried to arrest members of the House of Commons in 1642 — and ended up deposed, tried and beheaded — the monarch has been barred from entering the Commons.

In another symbol of the traditional hostility between Commons and crown, a lawmaker was held at Buckingham Palace as a "hostage" during the ceremony to ensure the monarch's safe return.

This year, Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall attended the state opening alongside the queen.

It is being seen as another sign of the heir to the throne's increasingly prominent role as he takes over more duties from the 87-year-old monarch. Buckingham Palace announced Tuesday that Charles would attend a Commonwealth heads of government conference in Sri Lanka in November in place of the queen, who is cutting back on long-distance travel.

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Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless

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