Queen returns to public stage with UK govt's new agenda

The Queen - Britain's longest-serving monarch - was accompanied by her 72-year-old son and heir, Prince Charles, as she returned to public duties three weeks after the Duke of Edinburgh was laid to rest. He died last month, aged 99.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II waits to read the Queen's Speech on the The Sovereign's Throne in the House of Lords chamber, during the State Opening of Parliament at the Houses of Parliament in London on 11 May 2021, which is taking place with a reduced capacity due to Covid-19 restrictions. Picture: Chris Jackson/AFP

LONDON - Queen Elizabeth II outlined her government's post-pandemic legislative agenda as she opened a new session of the UK parliament on Tuesday, in her first public appearance since the funeral of her late husband Prince Philip.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, buoyant after his Conservative party's triumph in local and regional elections in England last week, is vowing to deliver on his mantra to "build back better" with a wide-ranging raft of policies.

But he faces renewed questions over the UK's cohesion after pro-independence forces won a majority in elections to the Scottish parliament, with pledges to hold another referendum on breaking away from the centuries-old union.

Johnson's government, after rolling out a successful coronavirus vaccination drive, is intent on reopening the economy and "levelling up" prosperity across Britain following its Brexit withdrawal from the European Union.

"My government's priority is to deliver a national recovery from the pandemic that makes the United Kingdom stronger, healthier and more prosperous than before," the 95-year-old monarch said in a speech from a gilded throne in the upper House of Lords.

Johnson said separately that countering COVID-19 remained the "number one priority" but insisted the recovery provided a "historic opportunity to change things for the better".

BORDERS IN FOCUS

The government plans to introduce an environment bill to set legally binding emissions targets as Britain prepares to host the UN's COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in November.

Meanwhile, a "counter-state threats bill" is intended to provide the security services with tools to tackle hostile activity by foreign states and foreign actors.

New measures will also aim to strengthen Britain's borders and deter "criminals who facilitate dangerous and illegal journeys", after rising numbers of asylum-seekers coming on boats across the Channel from France.

Tightening immigration rules and securing borders were vote-winning promises of Johnson's Brexit campaign in 2016, as well as in securing his thumping 2019 election win.

But by differentiating between asylum-seekers who enter by legal channels, and those who enter Britain from "safe" destinations like France, the government has provoked anger among groups including the UN refugee agency UNHCR.

Ministers will also legislate to fund life-long tuition loans for adults to reskill in new sectors and ban so-called "conversion therapy" - a practice, often carried out in a religious setting, aimed at changing someone's sexuality or gender identity.

Further bills will aim to enhance animal rights and help more people to own their own home.

"There will need to be some signs of delivery on the rather ambitious pledges that the government has made about everything from social care to levelling up the country," Anand Menon, director of the think tank UK in a Changing Europe, told AFP.

"And that is going to be quite a difficult undertaking over the next two or three years," he said.

PAGEANTRY MISSING

The monarch's state opening of parliament last occurred in late 2019 amid political acrimony over Brexit. Normally an annual event replete with five centuries of tradition and pageantry, it was scaled back this year due to the pandemic.

This meant far fewer attendees and the Queen travelled to Westminster by car instead of in a horse-drawn carriage. She wore a powder-blue day dress and feathered hat, instead of robes and a crown.

Only a select few from parliament's two chambers were allowed to attend to maintain social distancing, and those present needed to have tested negative for COVID-19.

The Queen - Britain's longest-serving monarch - was accompanied by her 72-year-old son and heir, Prince Charles, as she returned to public duties three weeks after the Duke of Edinburgh was laid to rest. He died last month, aged 99.

DISUNITED KINGDOM

In her speech, written by the government, the Queen also detailed plans to "strengthen the economic ties across the union", in part by improving national infrastructure.

The monarch's role is to stay above the political fray but the future of her kingdom could be at stake after the election results north of the border gave new impetus to the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP).

When Scots last voted on the question of quitting the UK in 2014, Queen Elizabeth issued a guarded remark for voters to "think very carefully about the future".

They opted against independence then, and Johnson's flat rejection of SNP demands for a fresh referendum threatens to open a new constitutional crisis in the Queen's post-Brexit realm.

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