Blair sets up a showdown

AMID all the pomp and ceremony that only the British can put on, the Queen yesterday outlined the parliamentary timetable as the Government gears up for a General Election.

AMID all the pomp and ceremony that only the British can put on, the Queen yesterday outlined the parliamentary timetable as the Government gears up for a General Election. EADT Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the meat on the legislative bones

IT would have been perfectly understandable had the Queen's thoughts yesterday been on the outcome of the Rocom handicap steeplechase – £10,000 added – run at Wetherby at 2pm.

As she sat on the golden throne of the House of Lords, she knew that there would be few if any surprises in the speech she had been given to read out at the State opening of Parliament.

In typical, New Labour fashion, all the contents had been leaked well in advance. None of the assembled MPs and Lords needed to concentrate on what she was saying – the 23 Bills and seven draft Bills have been discussed in the media for days.

So when Her Majesty inadvertently read our National Hunt Services Bill for National Health Services, it seemed her thoughts were still deep in the pages of her favourite morning newspaper, the Racing Post.

The Queen effortlessly corrected her uncharacteristic slip – after all, she has spent the past 51 years reading what her governments have written for her – and without further ado carried on with Tony Blair's legislative programme.

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Nobody can accuse the Prime Minister of being a coward. Recklessly, he is pressing ahead with plans to introduce top up fees for university students after they have completed their courses, knowing full well they could be thrown out by mutinous Labours MPs who will join the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in voting against them.

Indeed the Higher Education Bill may only get through with the votes of Labour MPs in Scotland, which is not affected by the legislation. Following approval in similar manner last week for foundation hospitals, it will be a further example of how Labour's hotch-potch devolution is grossly unfair on the 85% majority English population.

Downing Street proclaimed the Queen's Speech was about "about facing up to the challenges of the future, but doing so in a way that pursues social justice."

That's hardly likely to buy off Labour rebels angry at this "tax on learning." And neither is the typical piece of Blair speak when the Queen confirmed that a new "Office for Fair Access" will be established to help students from poorer backgrounds.

Up to 100 Labour backbench MPs, including former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, are threatening to vote against the measure and plan to put down a Commons motion today opposing it. Mr Blair has a working majority of 161 – it could evaporate if more than 80 of his own backbenchers vote against him.

Reflecting the high state of alert in Britain against an al Qaida inspired terrorist attack, the Queen announced plans for a Civil Contingencies Bill designed to streamline local and national responses to a possible outrage, including updated fire and rescue equipment designed to deal with collapsed buildings.


The Queen's Speech also confirmed a draft identity cards Bill and the creation of a simpler asylum appeals system in which children of failed asylum seekers will be taken into care if parents refuse a free flight home.

Plans were also announced for same sex couples to be given extra legal rights and a commitment to a draft Bill on holding a referendum on the euro if the Government's five economic tests are met. The Civil Partnership Bill will allow same sex couples to sign an official document at a register office in front of the registrar and two witnesses, ending the iniquities for gay and lesbian couples of inheritance laws.

Closer to Her Majesty's heart, the Speech confirmed plans to abolish the remaining 92 hereditary peers in the House of Lords – although there are no plans for direct elections to the upper house – the abolition of the office of Lord Chancellor and the creation of a new supreme court.

The only surprise in this, the seventh Speech written by Tony Blair, was no mention of hunting with hounds. It may resurface in a Private Members' Bill, leading to more lengthy arguments over the rights and wrongs of allowing chased foxes to be torn to bits by dogs.

If Mr Blair and his Home Secretary thought they would get an easy ride from the Conservatives over asylum seekers, they hadn't reckoned with new Tory leader Michael Howard, the son of a Romanian refugee.

In the Commons debate on the Speech yesterday afternoon, Mr Howard said the Government had now gone further "than any civilised Government should go"' by planning to use the children of asylum seekers as "pawns.". The Tories would oppose the "despicable" plans that could see children of failed asylum seekers taken into care.

Although he welcomed some of the individual measures in the Queen's Speech, he believed that "the overall reaction will be one of disappointment." He told MPs the Government came to power with a huge majority and "had the world at its feet"' but six and a half years on Mr Blair had little to show for it.

Liberal Democrat leader Kennedy said it was a tired Queen's Speech from a tired government. "At the last General Election, people thought that Labour was a disappointment but were prepared to give them another chance. None of this is going to raise their spirits. In fact most of these measures will probably pass them by completely.

"What people want are better schools and hospitals, to feel safe on their streets and reliable public transport. Instead the Government is determined to force through unpopular tuition fees, which put students from modest backgrounds off going to university. Top-up fees will only make the problem far worse."

The Queen had left Westminster for Buckingham Palace long before the debate began. And Sir Storm came home at 4-1 in the 2pm at Wetherby.

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