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What are the Queen's Speech and the State Opening of Parliament?

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The Queen's Speech during the State Opening of Parliament, October 2019. UK Parliament / CC BY-NC 2.0

The Queen's Speech is the vehicle through which the Government sets out its legislative programme for a new Session of Parliament. The Speech is the central element of the State Opening of Parliament, the key constitutional and ceremonial occasion at the start of a new Session.

The Queen's Speech is the vehicle through which the Government sets out its legislative programme for a new Session of Parliament, at the start of that new Session.

The Queen's Speech may also be referred to as the 'Gracious Speech'.

The Speech is written by the Government; the Queen simply reads it out. However, the references which the Queen makes in the Speech to 'my Government' reaffirm the constitutional fact that, formally, the Government is the Queen's Government and is appointed by her.

The Queen's Speech usually lists the major Bills that the Government plans to introduce to Parliament or publish in draft during the new Session. The Speech also often provides a general presentation of the Government's main policy objectives and priorities, in foreign as well as domestic affairs. It may include an announcement of any forthcoming State Visits.

The Bills listed in the Queen's Speech are often the most high-profile and long-planned ones. However, at any time the Government may introduce Bills that were not listed in the Queen's Speech. There is no difference between the parliamentary procedure that applies to Government Bills that were included in the Queen's Speech and those that were not.

After the Queen's Speech, the Leader of the House of Commons normally makes a Written Statement to Parliament confirming the list of Bills announced in the Speech.

The Queen's Speech takes place as the central element in the State Opening of Parliament.

State Opening is the ceremony that takes place at the start of a new Session of Parliament, and is the means by which the new Session is formally opened. Neither House can conduct any normal public business in a parliamentary Session before the Queen's Speech has been delivered.

State Opening is a historic ceremony rich in constitutional symbolism. Most importantly, it is the only regular occasion on which all three of Parliament's constituent elements – the Sovereign, the House of Lords and the House of Commons – normally physically meet together.

A new Session of Parliament starts in one or other of two possible sets of circumstances:

  1. At the beginning of a new Parliament, after a General Election. If State Opening takes place at the beginning of a new Parliament, after a General Election, it takes place a few days after the first day of the new Session (that is, a few days after the new Parliament first meets). This is because, in a new Parliament, time is needed before State Opening for the House of Commons to elect its Speaker (which must take place before the Queen's Speech), and for the swearing-in of Members of both Houses. MPs and Peers can still swear-in after the Queen's Speech if necessary, but the vast majority do so before it.

  2. During a Parliament, after a Prorogation. If State Opening takes place during a Parliament, after a Prorogation, it takes place on the first day of the new Session.

A parliamentary Session usually lasts for around a year, but it has no minimum or maximum length. If Sessions are lasting roughly a year, State Opening normally takes place in the period between April and June each year. However, depending on the length of the preceding Session, State Opening may take place at any time.

The date of State Opening is announced by the Government. The date is not governed by law or any other formal process, so if necessary it could be changed until quite late, although this would be unusual. The main practical constraints affecting the date are the Queen's availability, and the time needed to prepare and put in place all the ceremonial, logistical and security arrangements normally involved in the occasion. A lack of time, owing to an unexpected State Opening after an early General Election, is one of the circumstances that can lead to a 'dressed-down' State Opening.