New British PM targets economy in royal speech

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Britain's new coalition government made slashing the country's mammoth public deficit its top priority on Tuesday, as Queen Elizabeth II set out plans including radical electoral reform.

In a traditional ceremony of pomp and splendour, the Queen's Speech unveiled the legislative programme of Britain's first coalition government since World War II to a packed chamber of members of parliament (MPs) and peers.

Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives and their Liberal Democrat coalition partners said improving Britain's grave economic situation would be their main focus.

"The first priority is to reduce the deficit and restore economic growth," the queen said, in the traditional speech written for her by the new premier.

The speech came the day after the government revealed the details of plans to cut 6.25 billion pounds (8.9 billion dollars, 7.2 billion euros), the first step in bringing Britain back from the brink of the worst debt levels in its history.

An emergency budget on June 22 will set out the next steps to reduce public borrowing, which soared to 156.1 billion pounds in 2009/2010.

Britain edged out of recession last year, but the economic turbulence the government faces was underlined on Tuesday when stock markets plunged on concerns about the eurozone and tensions between North Korea and South Korea.

The speech at the State Opening of Parliament also laid out plans for a referendum on scrapping the first-past-the-post system in favour of the Alternative Vote method.

The measure was a key demand of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats when they agreed to go into coalition with the Conservatives after the closest general election for decades on May 6.

Proposals will be submitted by the end of the year to change the upper house of parliament, the House of Lords, into a "wholly or mainly elected" chamber elected by proportional representation.

In another radical departure, Cameron's government would introduce legislation for fixed-term five-year parliaments, with a requirement for 55 percent support of MPs to seek an earlier dissolution.

Cameron has argued this measure is essential to guarantee the government's stability.

The queen also confirmed the new government's plans to limit the number of non-European Union nationals entering Britain and end the detention of children in immigration holding centres.

In another proposal, parents would be given more opportunity to have a greater say in the running of schools.

Clegg said ahead of the speech that the government wanted to hand back power to the people after 13 years of Labour rule under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown which saw a large-scale expansion of the state.

He told the BBC that while previous Queen's Speeches had been "about governments grabbing more power for themselves", this one would be "something remarkably new."

"We are actually wanting to give people and families and pupils and parents and patients more say about how they run their lives."

Another proposal will aim to ensure that "this parliament and the British people have their say on any proposed transfer of powers to the European Union."

The move is an apparent gesture to eurosceptic Conservatives, many of whom are deeply unhappy at their party's alliance with the Lib Dems.

Ahead of the ceremony, an anti-war protester who maintains a round-the-clock demonstration outside the Houses of Parliament was arrested as police carried out security sweeps.

An eyewitness reported seeing Brian Haw being forcibly detained and handcuffed by officers at the camp, a collection of scruffy tents, opposite the building.

A police spokesman said two people were arrested for allegedly obstructing police.

© 2010 AFP

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