It was busy final week of the Parliamentary ‘session’ before Parliament was ‘prorogued’ on 26 October ahead of the State Opening and the King’s Speech on 7 November. As MPs, it is not lost on us that sometimes the procedures and language of Parliament can be a little disconnected from the world that exists beyond Westminster.
Parliamentary “sessions” and “prorogation”
A session is simply a Parliamentary year which typically begins in the Spring with the State Opening. Here, the monarch formally opens Parliament and, in what will this year be the first King’s Speech in 70 years, outlines the Government’s proposed policies for the year ahead. This is the only routine occasion where the three constituent parts of Parliament – Commons, Lords, and Crown – gather in the same place.
The most recent session lasted slightly longer than normal, having started back in May 2022, and now that it has ended, Parliament is currently in period of prorogation. This is the formal name given to the gap between the end of one session of Parliament, and the State Opening and the start of the next. Prorogation usually lasts a few days and begins following an announcement read out on behalf of the monarch in the House of Lords, which took place last Thursday.
Once a session ends, legislation that has not completed its passage through both Houses of Parliament is generally ‘lost’. This means that anything that has not become law has to start its Parliamentary journey from scratch in the next session, should the Government still wish to pursue it. As such, there was a concerted effort to get important pieces of legislation passed before prorogation on 26 October.
Bills on levelling up and regeneration, energy, and online safety all received Royal Assent and became law before the cut-off point.
The 2023 State Opening of Parliament and the King’s Speech
The King's Speech, formally known as the Speech from the Throne, is a key part of the State Opening of Parliament ceremony, which signifies the commencement of a new parliamentary year. This is set to happen on the 7th of November 2023 where King Charles will deliver his first King's Speech since ascending to the throne.
The King is well acquainted with the formalities, though, having delivered the final Queen’s Speech on behalf of the Late Queen in May last year, and through accompanying her to State Opening’s during the final decade of her reign.
This tradition, dates back nearly a thousand years to the time of William the Conqueror and brings together the three pillars of the UK Parliament: the House of Commons, the House of Lords, and the sovereign. The proceedings follow centuries-old protocol which are largely unchanged, commencing with the sovereign's procession to the Palace of Westminster, followed by the gathering of members from both Houses in the Lords chamber, and ultimately the reading of the speech. Since the time of Charles II, with very few exceptions, this speech has been delivered by the sovereign themself.
How does the day unfold?
The day of the King’s Speech commences with the Yeoman of the Guard, who is the King’s bodyguard, performing a ritual inspection of the basements of the Houses of Parliament. This practice dates back to the 16th-century "Gunpowder Plot" of Guy Fawkes.
The State Opening traditionally begins with a grand procession, during which the King travels from Buckingham Palace to Westminster by carriage. Upon arrival, the monarch uses the Sovereign's Entrance, reserved exclusively for the monarch. Subsequently, the King leads a procession to the throne in the House of Lords. The King then leads a procession to the throne in the House of Lords. MPs are then summoned to Lords by Black Rod, an official position currently held by Sarah Clarke. Before entering the House of Commons, Black Rod has the door shut in their face, symbolising the chamber's independence from the monarchy.
It has been traditional for the speech to begin with announcements of upcoming state visits and other planned visits from foreign heads of state, reflecting the state of international relations. Following this, the sovereign outlines the Government's legislative agenda for the forthcoming parliamentary session. In the modern era, these speeches are drafted by the Government to articulate their agenda. The length of the speech depends on the number of proposed laws and other announcements, but typically lasts around 10 minutes. The monarch delivers the speech in a neutral tone to avoid any appearance of political support.
MPs, peers, and dignitaries in the House of Lords listen to the speech in silence. It is a convention for the Government MP holding the position of vice-chamberlain of the household, currently Jo Churchill, to remain "hostage" in Buckingham Palace while the King is in Parliament to ensure the monarch's safe return.
Approximately two hours after the speech, MPs reconvene in the House of Commons to commence a debate on its contents. Following introductory speeches by two MPs, the Prime Minister presents the speech to the Commons, outlining a vision for the country. The leader of the opposition then gets the chance to respond before other MPs are allowed to contribute. The discussion, known as "the Humble Address", typically lasts for approximately five days. At the end of the debate there is a vote. It's normally seen as symbolic, as it is extremely rare for a government to lose it.
As for what will be announced, the Government has confirmed a bill to phase out some leaseholds in England and Wales will be included. Measures to deliver on Government priorities on health and education are also likely.
I look forward to finding out more on Tuesday and will be certain to update my website with details on all of the measures announced.
If you would like to find out more about the State Opening of Parliament, please visit Parliament's website.