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Friday, 1 December, 2000, 13:22 GMT
What is the Queen's speech?
Every session of Parliament begins with a royal address from the reigning monarch, setting out the government's legislative programme for the year ahead and the main principles guiding its plans.

This is commonly known as the Queen's speech. The royal address, outlining the government's intentions for the coming session, usually takes place in November.

This year, though, the large number of bills from the previous session have pushed it back until December, the latest for 100 years.

The Queen normally attends in person at the state opening and reads out the speech, which is written by the government, from the throne in the House of Lords.

However, not all of the government's programme is contained in the Queen's speech.

The budget, and its recent addition the pre-budget report, have also been increasingly used by this government to set out its strategy.

Wrangling for space

The decision over what to include in the Queen's speech is a politically crucial one, and the subject of months of political debate and wrangling inside the government.

The Queen makes her speech
Queen Elizabeth II delivering last year's speech
A cabinet committee - which includes the leaders of the Commons and Lords, the chief whip and chief law officiers - then decides on its content.

The limited parliamentary timetable - and the time it takes for large bills to pass through examination by committees in the Commons and Lords - usually means that not all desired measures can be included.

But delaying keynote measures can also create difficulties - as the government found out to its cost on transport policy, with legislation delayed for several years after a railways bill failed to reach the statute books in the l998-99.

This past year, the government attempted to make up for lost time by putting forward an unusually large number of bills - and found itself in difficulty in getting all of them through.

Hence the lengthier "spillover" session to deal with unfinished business after the summer recess, pushing the speech back to December.

In the coming year, the prospect of a spring general election in the spring may also force the government to curtail its ambitions.

On the other hand, a small legislative programme can be taken as a sign that a government has run out of steam.

What can go wrong?

Although the government controls the Parliamentary timetable through its majority in the House of Commons, several factors can derail or change its plans.

First of all, the House of Lords - whether or not it has a government majority - can reject government bills, sending them back for review to the House of Commons.

Although the government can reverse the Lords decisions, the time it takes to do this can slow down progress on other parts of its programme.

In addition, the opposition can seek to delay measures, a tactic which can be particularly effective when the government has a small and unstable majority and is unable to use its "guillotine" to cut off further debate.

Thirdly, the government might agree to add extra bills - including those proposed by private members who come high on an annual ballot each year - to its own programme.

Legislation to ban or regulate fox hunting is one such recent example, while in the past other important measures, such as the Homeless Persons Act, have originated as private members' bills.

And the government itself decided to add a bill aimed at tackling football hooliganism this year which was not foreshadowed in the last Queen's speech.

Eight private members' bills became law in the last session of Parliament.

Such moves can put further strain on the parliamentary timetable - or in the case of football hooliganism, result in the House sitting longer than originally planned.

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The Queen's speech, May 14, 1997 (13'07")

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15 Oct 98 | R-S

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