The Queen’s Speech

The UK House of Commons will prorogue on 1 May 2012, and open a new session of Parliament on 9 May 2012 with a State Opening.

A State Opening takes place on the first day of a new parliamentary session or shortly after a general election. The last State Opening took place on Tuesday 25 May 2010, shortly after the last general election. It is the main ceremonial event of the parliamentary calendar, attracting large crowds, both in person and watching on television and the internet. The Queen’s procession from Buckingham Palace to Westminster is escorted by the Household Cavalry.

However, before she travels to Parliament from Buckingham Palace, certain historical precautions are observed. First, the Yeomen of the Guard, the oldest of the royal bodyguards, armed with lanterns, search the cellars of the Palace of Westminster, a practice which dates back to the Gunpowder Plot of November 5, 1605.This is followed by a more scientific police search.

Another tradition sees a Government whip held ”hostage” at the Palace to ensure the Queen’s safe return. This practice dates back to a time when relations between the Monarch and Parliament were less than amicable.

The Queen arrives at the Sovereign’s Entrance at about 11.15am, and proceeds to the Robing Room, where she puts on the Imperial State Crown and parliamentary robe. A procession then leads through the Royal Gallery to the Chamber of the House of Lords. This procession is led by senior parliamentary and government officers, including the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Speaker of the House of Lords and the Lord Privy Seal. The Great Sword of State and the Cap of Maintenance, symbols of the Sovereign’s power and authority, are carried in front of the Monarch. Once arrived at the Chamber of the House of Lords, the Queen takes the Throne.

When the Queen sits down the Lord Great Chamberlain signals to an official, known as The Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod in his capacity as the Sovereign’s Messenger, to summon the House of Commons and demand their presence. In a symbol of the Commons’ independence, the door to their chamber is slammed in his face and not opened until he has knocked three times on the door with his staff of office.

Black Rod then says: “Mr Speaker. The Queen commands this Honourable House” – bowing to the left and to the right as he does so – “to attend Her Majesty immediately in the House of Peers.” This tradition is a reminder of the right of the Commons to exclude everyone but the Sovereign’s messengers.

The Serjeant-at-Arms of the House of Commons, carrying the Mace, leads the procession to the Lords followed by the Commons Speaker and Black Rod. He is followed by the Prime Minister, the leader of the opposition, members of Cabinet and the Shadow Cabinet and other MPs, and when they reach the Lords chamber they stand at the opposite end to the throne, known as the Bar of the House of Lords to hear the Queen’s Speech.

The Queen’s Speech is delivered by the Queen from the Throne in the House of Lords, in the presence of Members of both Houses. No monarch has set foot in the House of Commons since Charles I entered the Commons and tried to arrest five Members of Parliament in 1642.

Although the Queen reads the Speech, the content is entirely drawn up by the Government and approved by the Cabinet. It contains an outline of the Government’s policies and proposed new legislation for the new parliamentary session. The final words, ”other measures will be laid before you”, give the Government flexibility to introduce other legislation as necessary.

A similar proceeding occurs in Canada and other Commonwealth jurisdictions. In Canada, it is the Governor General who opens a session of Parliament by reading the Speech from the Throne. Provincially, it is the Lieutenant Governor who carries out this function, except in Quebec, where the opening speech is read by the Premier.

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