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Blair forges ahead with tough reforms

The British Prime Minister is also taking steps to allow gay marriages

Robert MacPherson | November 27, 2003

Queen Elizabeth II delivers her speech to members of the House of Lords and the House of Commons during the State Opening of Parliament in London, yesterday. In her speech she mentions reforms for same-sex couples. (Photo: AFP/Russel Boyce/WPA Pool)
LONDON — British Prime Minister Tony Blair used the ceremonial state opening of parliament on Wednesday to flag his determination to forge ahead with a raft of reforms, some of them patently unpopular, even if a general election is as little as 18 months away.

In a speech read by Queen Elizabeth II, the Labour government said it would submit bills in the coming year to increase university tuition fees, introduce national identification cards and pave the way for a referendum on the euro.

It will also take steps to allow gay marriages, toughen up asylum procedures, and wipe away the right of hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords, the upper chamber of parliament.

"My government will maintain its key commitment to economic stability and growth," said Queen Elizabeth, wearing her heavy diamond crown of state, in her annual speech to parliament -- which is actually written by Blair and staff.

"This will enable my government to continue to deliver reform of the public services, and continue to focus on greater opportunity and social justice, enhanced security and protection, and constitutional reform."

On foreign policy, the queen said: "My government will maintain Britain's commitment to rebuilding Afghanistan and Iraq, to promoting peace in the Middle East, and to tackling the underlying causes of conflict and extremism."

The 77-year-old monarch added that in light of the threat from "international terrorism" her government would submit a bill intended to create "long-term foundation for civil contingencies".

Blair's office later explained this meant legislation allowing the government to deal with the "most serious emergencies".

In the event of a "catastrophic incident", for example, "police could be given powers to restrict public access to sensitive sites if there was a serious threat of a terrorist attack", Blair's office said.

The queen's speech signalled Blair's determination to wrap up his New Labour domestic reform agenda regardless of his flagging popularity among voters since the Iraq war.

His deadline is mid-2006, the latest he can call a fresh general election for a third term. But more and more political analysts speculate that he could call Britons to the polls as early as the spring of 2005.

On November 19 his most controversial domestic undertaking to date -- to grant more operating autonomy to selected "foundation hospitals" in Britain's state-run and troubled National Health System (NHS) -- squeaked through by only 17 votes, after a legion of his own Labour backbenchers voted against it.

Sure to be equally troublesome in the coming year will be plans for "top-up fees" which Britain's better universities like Oxford and Cambridge would be able to charge their students as tuition fees.

Undergraduates now pay just 1,300 pounds (1,580 euros, 1,870 dollars) to attend any British university, but top-up fees could take that up to 3,000 pounds -- putting more money into sorely underfunded campus coffers.

The main opposition Conservatives want tuition fees to be abolished altogether, as do many Labourites -- not to mention students themselves who already graduate with mountains of debt.

Other proposals announced Wednesday include the first steps towards national ID cards -- commonplace in mainland Europe, but outrageous for many Britons who think it will undermine their civil liberties.

Legislation to allow a referendum on Britain's adoption of the euro is to be presented, though the actual vote will depend on whether the so-called "five economic tests" -- the yardstick of its ability to switch to the single European currency without a hiccup -- are met. –Sapa-AFP

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