Politics: Labour denies plan to end pageantry

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A report that the Government is planning to jettison the age-old pageantry of the State Opening of Parliament was yesterday repudiated by the Leader of the Lords. Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, looks at the limits to New Labour modernisation.

The need for the Lord Chancellor to walk backwards from the Monarch, trickily negotiating the steps leading from the throne in the Lords, was questioned by Lord Richard, Leader of the Lords, yesterday.

But he denied any suggestion that ministers were discussing an end to all the sumptuous pageantry associated with the Queen's Speech opening of Parliament, generally staged each autumn.

In a newspaper interview yesterday, Ann Taylor, Leader of the Commons, was quoted as saying that there were bits of the state opening that seemed "peculiar" and were being reviewed by Lord Richard and Lord Carter, the Government Chief Whip in the Lords.

Lord Richard told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that there was no question of the entire ceremonial being changed.

"As far as the state opening of Parliament is concerned, " he said, "this is essentially a matter for the Duke of Norfolk, the [Queen's] Earl Marshall.

"It's not a House of Lords ceremony; it's one which is under his control and if indeed any discussions are going to take place, they'll have to take place with him."

He then added the strong warning: "We'd have to go through a pretty hefty procedure in order to get it changed."

Lord Richard said the limits of his ambition for change were currently confined to the introductory ceremony for new peers and the Lord Chancellor's backward walk.

"Another one which I am casting my eyes at is the prorogation ceremony, where I sit down and do nothing except take my hat off seven times, which doesn't seem to me to be the most profitable use of anybody's time."

As for a suggestion that the frequency of state openings might be reduced - from one a year - Lord Richard was equally dismissive.

"There's talk in the same way as there's always talk about this sort of thing," he said, "but there's no specific proposal."

However, he added that he, personally, was not in favour of any curtailment. "If you have a Queen's Speech," he said, "it sets out a legislative programme and on the whole it produces a certain amount of discipline for the legislative powers that be to stick by.

The Commons committee on the modernisation of Parliament is examining other, more substantial, changes to long-standing procedures, including the use of smart cards for MPs voting in the House.

That could mean that they would not be required to return to the voting lobbies for every vote, but could use special swipe cards in other parts of the parliamentary estate.

At one stage ministers had argued that there was a value in MPs being forced back to the Chamber, where they could meet and discuss issues of concern with ministers - even the Prime Minister - on an informal basis. That argument has to some extent fallen away because of the infrequency with which Tony Blair and some other senior ministers return to the House to vote.