The State Opening of Parliament, with the Queen's Speech at its centre, is the largest and most elaborate ceremonial occasion in the regular parliamentary calendar. The occasion is rich in history and constitutional symbolism, and is also of immediate political interest and importance.
Last updated: 10 May 2022
The date for the Queen's Speech and State Opening of Parliament is announced by the Government, usually several weeks in advance.
On the appointed day, the Queen arrives at Sovereign’s Entrance, at the House of Lords end of the Palace of Westminster, under Victoria Tower. She is accompanied by Prince Charles (taking the former place of Prince Philip), with other members of the Royal Family and ceremonial office-holders also in attendance.
The Queen first goes to the Robing Room, where she would normally put on the Robe of State. She then takes up her position as the central figure in the Royal Procession, which moves through the Royal Gallery into the Chamber of the House of Lords, where she takes her place on the Throne in front of the assembled Members of the Upper House.
The House of Lords Chamber is normally full: as well as Members of the Upper House, judges are invited to attend, and some diplomats and spouses of Members may also be present. Such figures and other guests also normally fill the Royal Gallery on either side to watch the Royal Procession. State Opening is the only regular occasion on which Peers wear their red-and-ermine robes.
Once the Queen has taken her place on the Throne in the Lords Chamber, a sign is given to Black Rod – who is waiting in Central Lobby, between the Lords and Commons parts of the Palace – that he or she should summon the House of Commons to come to the House of Lords to attend Her Majesty.
When Black Rod arrives at the House of Commons Chamber, the door is shut in front of her, obliging her to strike it three times with her staff to gain entry. By tradition, this is a reminder of the Commons’ independence from the Crown, dating back to the Civil War.
Once admitted to the Commons Chamber, Black Rod passes on the Queen’s request that the Commons attend her in the House of Lords. MPs – led by the Speaker and then the Prime Minister – proceed to walk from the House of Commons across Central Lobby and into the House of Lords. The Clerk of the House of Commons accompanies them.
When MPs have arrived in the House of Lords Chamber (where they stand at the Bar of the House), the Lord Chancellor presents the Queen with the text of the Speech. In front of the Members of both Houses, the Queen then delivers the Speech. When the Speech is finished, the Queen withdraws from the Lords Chamber, MPs return to the House of Commons, and both Houses can get down to the first real business of the new parliamentary Session.
Normally, State Opening is one of the grandest and most colourful ceremonies in the national calendar, with the Queen wearing the Robe of State and arriving in a horse-drawn carriage. She would also traditionally wear the Imperial State Crown.
However, there are a number of ways in which State Opening has involved, and might again involve, a lesser level of ceremony than normal:
The Queen might wear ordinary clothes rather than the Robe of State. She was ‘dressed-down’ in this way for the State Openings of:
November 1939, which took place during World War II;
March 1974, June 2017 and December 2019, when the State Opening followed early General Elections which had left insufficient time to prepare a full-scale ceremony; and
May 2021, when the entire occasion had to be scaled-down owing to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Queen might not wear the Imperial State Crown. She would not wear the Crown if she were 'dressing-down'; but, even if she is wearing the Robe of State, it might be that she does not wear the Crown, owing to its physical weight. The Queen wore the Robe of State without the Imperial State Crown for the State Opening of October 2019, for example. She last wore the Crown for the State Opening of May 2016. The Crown is also not worn if the monarch has not yet been crowned, as occurred at the State Openings of 1936 and 1952. When the Queen does not wear the Imperial State Crown, it is carried ahead of her.
The Queen might travel to Parliament by car, rather than in a horse-drawn carriage. This was the arrangement for the State Openings of March 1974, June 2017, December 2019 and May 2021.
If the Queen does not attend State Opening in person, the occasion is referred to as the 'Opening' of Parliament, not the 'State Opening'.
The Queen has missed State Opening three times during her reign:
in 1959 and 1963, when she was pregnant; and
in 2022, when she was suffering mobility problems.
If the Queen does not attend State Opening in person, she appoints other people to carry out for her the tasks that she normally carries out on the occasion.
There are two different ways in which the Queen has done this, involving two different sets of people whom she has appointed to act for her:
1. Lords Commissioners. In 1959 and 1963, the Queen appointed Lords Commissioners to act for her at State Opening. The appointment of Lords Commissioners is the mechanism which is normally used to handle occasions in Parliament when the Queen needs to act but is not present in person (such as Prorogation).
If Lords Commissioners are appointed to act for the Queen at State Opening, the Speech is read by the presiding Commissioner. In 1959 and 1963, this was the Lord Chancellor.
However, the Queen appoints Lords Commissioners anew each time she needs them to act on her behalf in Parliament. There is now a regular line-up of Lords Commissioners, but the line-up has changed over time, and it would appear that the Queen could appoint any Privy Counsellor to a Commission (including Privy Counsellors who are not Members of either House).
As of May 2022, the recent regular line-up of Lords Commissioners has comprised the Leader of the House of Lords (the Lord Privy Seal), the Lord Speaker, and the leaders in the Lords of the Opposition, the third-largest party and the Crossbenchers. The Leader of the House of Lords is normally the presiding Commissioner. The Companion to the Standing Orders of the House of Lords, the most extensive official guide to occasions involving Lords Commissioners, notes that the presiding Commissioner is normally a Minister of Cabinet rank.
2. Counsellors of State. For the Opening of Parliament in May 2022, the Queen for the first time delegated the opening of Parliament to two Counsellors of State, Prince Charles and Prince William, under Section 6 of the Regency Act 1937.
After the Queen's Speech, the main business in both Houses is the start of the debate on the Speech. In both Houses, the debate on the Queen's Speech normally starts on same day as the Speech takes place.
However, before the House of Commons gets down to any business, the Speaker first makes a statement about the "duties and responsibilities of honourable Members" of the House. He may well refer to the Code of Conduct for MPs.
In both Houses, before the start of the debate on the Queen's Speech, the House gives a symbolic First Reading to a Bill that was not included in the Queen's Speech. This is a formality: the Bill is not published or debated; and although it is ordered to be read a second time, no date is appointed for Second Reading. The process is typically over in a second or two. However, this symbolic First Reading is undertaken in order to make the constitutional point that the House is able to consider business of its own choice, not just business that was outlined in the Queen’s Speech. (The first known occasion when the House of Commons gave a Bill a First Reading before considering any other business in a Session was in 1558.)
In each House, the Bill which is given a symbolic First Reading is always the same:
In the House of Commons, the Bill given a symbolic First Reading is the Outlawries Bill. A Bill with this title was first presented in 1727. Since then, it has been generally accepted that it should not progress as a normal Bill. The Outlawries Bill historically provided for the more ‘effectual preventing’ of ‘clandestine outlawries’ – that is, the declaration of someone as an outlaw without due process.
In the House of Lords, the Bill given a symbolic First Reading is the Select Vestries Bill. This is a remnant of the regular debates that took place in the 18th and 19th centuries on the reform of select vestries. Vestries were a form of local government based on church parish boundaries which had the church vestry as their meeting place. The ‘select’ element refers to the fact that property restrictions limited those entitled to vote in these vestries to only a few ‘select’ people. Reform of select vestries was thus an important aspect of the debate about extending the franchise and reducing the power of the Crown and executive. As the House of Lords historically comprised powerful landowners and Bishops, the Select Vestries Bill came to symbolise the need for Members to act in the national interest rather than self-interest.