UK Politics

Queen's Speech: What is it and why is it important?

The Queen's Speech is the centrepiece of the State Opening of Parliament. It is one of the highlights of the Parliamentary year, full of both pageantry and political significance.

What is the Queen's Speech?

Image caption The Queen will deliver the Speech for the 64th time

In a nutshell, it is a list of the laws that the government hopes to get approved by Parliament over the coming year. By convention, it is announced by the Sovereign in the presence of MPs, peers and other dignitaries in the House of Lords.

The occasion marks the start of the Parliamentary year and has added resonance after a change of government, with the contents of the Speech highlighting the priorities of new ministers and setting the scene for Parliamentary battle ahead.

Has there always been a Queen's Speech?

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Image caption The State Opening of Parliament was televised for the first time in 1958

Traditions surrounding the State Opening of Parliament and the delivery of a speech by the monarch can be traced back as far as the 16th Century. The current ceremony dates from 1852, when the Palace of Westminster was re-opened after the fire of 1834.

There is normally one Queen's Speech every year, although the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government decided against having one in 2011, arguing that its legislative programme was so extensive that it would require two years to implement. The coalition government also decided to switch the State Opening from its traditional November date to the Spring.

Does The Queen write the Speech?

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Image caption The Speech, which is written by the government, varies in length every year

No. It is written by ministers but is delivered by the Sovereign from the throne of the House of Lords on behalf of Her Majesty's government.

The Speech varies in length from year to year, depending on the number of actual bills and other items - such as draft legislation and foreign policy objectives - included but normally takes about 10 minutes.

The Queen, to whom the document is sent beforehand for signing, also uses the occasion to give details of upcoming visits to the UK by other heads of state and any state visits she is making overseas.

Does The Queen come every year?

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Image caption In the Queen's absence, Lord Chancellor Viscount Kilmuir delivered the Speech in 1959

Pretty much but not quite. This will be the 63rd time during her reign that she has delivered the Speech. She has been absent on two occasions, in 1959 and 1963, when she was pregnant. On those occasions, the Speech was read by the Lord Chancellor.

Is there a lot of pomp and ceremony involved?

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Image caption Michael Gove will be responsible for handing the document to The Queen

Yes. The State Opening begins with the Queen's procession from Buckingham Palace to Westminster, escorted by the Household Cavalry - an event which always draws large crowds along the route.

The Queen arrives at Sovereign's Entrance and proceeds to the Robing Room. Wearing the Imperial State Crown and the Robe of State, she leads the Royal Procession through the Royal Gallery, packed with guests, to the chamber of the House of Lords.

The House of Lords official known as 'Black Rod' is sent to summon the Commons. The doors to the Commons chamber are shut in his face: a practice dating back to the Civil War, symbolising the Commons' independence from the monarchy.

Black Rod strikes the door three times before it is opened. MPs then follow Black Rod and the Commons Speaker to the Lords chamber, standing at the opposite end to the Throne, known as the Bar of the House, to listen to the speech.

The speech itself is carried into the Chamber by the Lord Chancellor in a satchel. He hands the speech to the Sovereign and takes possession of it again once it has been delivered.

Until a few years ago, the Speech was written on a rare form of calf's skin known as vellum. It is now written on high-quality parchment paper.

What happens after the Speech?

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Image caption David Cameron will be unveiling his sixth Queen's Speech as prime minister

The Queen returns to Buckingham Palace while MPs and peers break for lunch. A couple of hours later MPs reassemble in the Commons to begin debating the Speech.

After introductory speeches by two MPs - traditionally one a relative newcomer and the other a long-serving member - the prime minister gets to his or her feet to "sell" the Speech to the Commons, explaining what is in it and what it says about his vision for the country and the changes he wants to make.

The leader of the opposition then gets their chance to respond before backbenchers chip in. The debate on what is known as the "Humble Address" normally lasts about five days, with a largely symbolic vote taking place at the end.

Members of the House of Lords also debate the Queen's Speech but do not vote on it.

It is in the Queen's Speech. That means it will happen?

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Image caption Some bills fall by the wayside

Not necessarily. The Queen's Speech is the equivalent of the government's "mission statement" for the year ahead but that does not mean everything in it will become law.

There are plenty of examples of proposed legislation that falls by the wayside due to political opposition.

A recent high-profile example was a bill proposing elections to the House of Lords in 2012, which was withdrawn four months after being announced by the coalition government.

In contrast, there are bills which are not mentioned in the Queen's Speech which are subsequently introduced in response to changing circumstances.

Traditionally, the first Queen's Speech of a new Parliament tends to contain more bills than later ones as ministers seek to capitalise on the momentum of their party's election victory, at a time when the opposition is often at its most divided.