Blair defies rebels with fees bill in packed programme

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The Government today published a packed and controversial legislative programme which could see Tony Blair defeated in the Commons for the first time since coming to power.

The Queen's Speech unveiled plans for 23 Bills - including two carried over from the last session - and seven draft Bills.

The first measure she confirmed was the Higher Education Bill containing powers to charge students top-up university fees after they have completed their course, a move bitterly opposed by scores of Labour backbenchers.

It was also confirmed that a new Office for Fair Access would be established to help students from poorer backgrounds, but that is likely to do little to dent Labour rebels' anger.

Up to 100 are threatening to vote against the measure and plan to put down a Commons motion tomorrow opposing it. Mr Blair has a working majority of 161, under threat if more than 80 backbenchers vote against him.

Today's Queen's Speech, delivered from the golden throne in the House of Lords after the traditional pomp and ceremony of the State Opening of Parliament, also confirmed plans for a draft ID cards Bill, moves to create a simpler asylum appeals system, plans 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.

In a move to extend gay rights, the Civil Partnership Bill will not actually use the term gay marriage, but will allow gays to sign an official document at a register office in front of the registrar and two witnesses.

It will even offer couples the right to dissolve the agreement in a form of divorce.

But the speech contained no specific commitment to a Hunting Bill, which will also anger campaigners and Labour backbenchers alike.

Reflecting the high state of alert in Britain against an al-Qa'ida inspired terrorist attack, the Government also 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.

Security around Westminster was tightened for today's State Opening. Dozens of extra police officers patrolled the streets and road blocks were in place as a police helicopter hovered above Parliament Square, around which barriers had been set up.

Scotland Yard would not say how many extra officers were involved in the operation but confirmed that numbers had been increased "sufficient to meet the needs of any contingency".

The Queen's Speech also confirmed plans to abolish the remaining 92 hereditary peers in the House of Lords and to abolish the office of Lord Chancellor and create a new supreme court.

There will also be legislation preventing convicted criminals from sitting in the Lords, a move seen by some as designed to prevent Lord Archer resuming his seat.

Measures to prevent scandals over the retention of organs without consent from the families were announced, one of few moves not widely previewed.

Parents of children who had their bodies stripped of organs without giving their permission said they were "delighted" by the inclusion of the Human Tissue Bill in the Government's legislative programme.

It follows events at the Royal Liverpool Children's Hospital in Alder Hey and the Bristol Royal Infirmary after it emerged that many children's bodies had been buried with major organs missing and stored without proper consent.

The Bill would make consent "the fundamental principle underpinning the lawful removal, retention and use of human bodies, body parts, organs and tissue".

Downing Street said the Queen's Speech "is about fairness and the future".

No 10 said: "It's about facing up to the challenges of the future, but doing so in a way that pursues social justice."

This is Mr Blair's seventh programme unveiled by the Queen and is designed to show the Government is not running out of steam after six years in power.

There are four more Bills announced than last year, including the two carried over from the last parliamentary term.

Plans were also confirmed to legislate for a Child Trust Fund, announced by the Chancellor in his Budget, and to protect workers' pensions if companies go bust.

Home Secretary David Blunkett has a heavy legislative load, including plans to update the law on domestic violence to give better protection to victims and to create a Commissioner for Victims and Witnesses.

Downing Street said: "This Queen's Speech addresses some of the key challenges of the future.

"The Higher Education Bill is about how we get more children from poorer backgrounds into higher education, and more funding for our universities to compete in the world.

"The Asylum and Immigration Bill is about how we continue to ensure we have an asylum system with real integrity - streamlining the appeals process - so that those fleeing persecution are made welcome, and those who aren't are dealt with quickly."

No 10 also singled out the Child Trust Fund bill, designed to give every youngster born after September 2002 a nest egg, and the draft ID cards Bill as highlights of the programme.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy accused Labour of failing to use its overwhelming power in Parliament to address the issues of most concern to the British people.

"For a Government which still commands such a big majority and is in a potentially powerful position, an awful lot of this will frankly pass people by," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

This afternoon Prime Minister Tony Blair and Tory leader Michael Howard will clash in the Commons as debate begins in earnest on the measures outlined in the Queen's Speech.

Mr Howard was this afternoon expected to accuse the Government of "taxing, spending and failing" and not delivering the public services that those living in the fourth largest economy in the world were entitled to expect.

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