Source AP ©

Britain unviels its agenda for 2008

Strong environmental measures, targeting Iran's nuclear ambitions and tougher anti-terrorist powers – that are the features of British government’s agenda for the next year.

The measures are among 28 bills and proposed bills unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II in a speech at the State Opening of Parliament - a lavish ceremonial occasion that mixes pomp, symbolism and political showmanship.

Sitting on a gilded throne in the House of Lords before a crowd of lawmakers and ermine-clad peers, the queen read a speech written for her by Prime Minister Gordon Brown's government. The speech was a chance for Brown, who took over from Tony Blair in June, to set his stamp on the legislative agenda.

The speech announced bills to improve health care, build more affordable housing and force children to stay in education or training until the age of 18.

The government affirmed its commitment to nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan, to solving the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and to working with the international community to tackle weapons of mass destruction, "including international concerns over Iran's nuclear ambitions."

Typically for a throne speech, it did not go into detail.

The government also will set binding reductions on emissions of the greenhouse gases blamed for global warming - 26 percent to 32 percent by 2020 and 60 percent by 2050. The queen said the bill would make Britain "the first country in the world to introduce a legally binding framework to reduce carbon dioxide emissions."

The government also promised legislation to shore up faith in the banking system following this summer's run on troubled mortgage lender Northern Rock.

Most contentiously, the government is seeking to balance tougher counter-terrorist measures with reassurances that Britain's civil liberties are not under threat.

The speech promised new anti-terrorist powers, but made no mention of extending the period terrorist suspects can be held without charge from the current 28 days. Moves to extend the limit have met fierce opposition from lawmakers and civil libertarians, and Blair suffered his first defeat in Parliament in 2005 while trying to raise the limit to 90 days.

Police - who back a 90-day limit - have claimed the complexities of trawling through seized computers and that following up leads in numerous countries make terrorism investigations time-consuming.

But continued opposition from politicians and civil libertarians has prompted Brown to aim for a compromise. The speech said the government would seek consensus on the issue in order to fight terrorism "while preserving essential rights and liberties."

The queen also announced plans for a draft bill on constitutional reform, which officials have signaled could give Parliament a greater say in sending British troops overseas.

The queen has no say in the legislative program, and opening the parliamentary session is a ceremonial duty.

The event is rich in symbolism. Before the queen arrived at Parliament, Yeomen of the Guard searched the cellars for explosives - a legacy of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, in which Guy Fawkes and a group of Roman Catholic rebels tried to blow up the king and Parliament.

The monarch traveled from Buckingham Palace in a horse-drawn coach with cavalry escort, then donned the Robe of State and the Imperial State Crown, studded with more than 2,000 diamonds.

The monarch is not allowed in the House of Commons, so the event is held in Parliament's upper chamber, the House of Lords.

Lawmakers were summoned from the Commons by an official known as Black Rod - but only after they slammed the door in his face to symbolize their independence. By custom, the lawmakers stroll over the Lords deliberately slowly, chatting and joking to show their lack of reverence for the upper house.

In another symbol of the traditional hostility between Commons and crown, a lawmaker is held at Buckingham Palace as a "hostage" during the ceremony to ensure the monarch's safe return.

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