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Saturday 16 December 2017

In-out vote on EU top of UK's new programme for government

David Cameron
David Cameron
LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 27: Prime Minister David Cameron, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and acting leader of the Labour Party, Harriet Harman, process though the central lobby during the State Opening of Parliament at the Houses of Parliament on May 27, 2015 in London, England. The Queen's Speech is the centrepiece of the State Opening and is expected to see promise of an EU referendum, tax cuts and an extension of Right to Buy in the in the first all-Conservative Queen's Speech since 1996. (Photo by Dan Kitwood - WPA Pool /Getty Images)

Robert Hutton, Thomas Penny and Alex Morales

UK Prime Minister David Cameron gave priority to legislation for a referendum on leaving the European Union as Queen Elizabeth II set out the government's agenda for the coming year.

The Queen's Speech, delivered to parliament in London amid traditional pageantry, contained most of the measures promised in the Conservative Party's election manifesto published in April.

They included welfare cuts, giving tenants of non-profit housing providers the right to buy their homes, and making strikes by essential workers more difficult.

Along with promised income-tax cuts, the emphasis was on domestic policy areas that top voters' concerns.

The queen, reading words written for her by Mr Cameron, promised "a one-nation approach, helping working people get on, supporting aspiration, giving new opportunities to the most disadvantaged and bringing different parts of our country together."

Scotland will get more control over welfare spending and income tax while gaining new power to borrow money as part legislation aimed at appeasing the country's nationalists and keeping the UK together. But the focus of most of Mr Cameron's efforts over the next two years will be almost the last measure the monarch read out, "early legislation" to allow an EU referendum.

Mr Cameron is due to set off on a four-country tour of EU members whose support he needs to change the terms of Britain's membership.

The official position of the government remains simply that the referendum will be held before the end of 2017. Still, there are arguments for going to the country sooner, if Mr Cameron can persuade those doubtful about EU membership that he has secured meaningful reforms.

France and Germany are holding elections in 2017, which may make it harder for them to appear to give ground to Britain. And in 2016, elections are being held in Scotland and London, places where the anti-EU UK Independence Party performs less well.

"If you're worried about low turnout, and you want a vote to stay in the EU, you might argue that it would be good to hold a vote when people who are more likely to back you are already voting," said Anthony Wells of polling company YouGov Plc.

"But I wouldn't necessarily worry about low turnout. This is a very big issue."

Mr Cameron is to visit the Netherlands and France today, and Poland and Germany tomorrow, to make his case. The draft EU Referendum Bill will be published today, and Sky News reported that it would set a question in which voters will be asked to vote "Yes" if they wish to stay in the bloc. Mr Cameron's office declined to comment.

Other measures in the speech will give intelligence agencies more power to access communications data, a move that was blocked by the Liberal Democrats in coalition. An Extremism Bill will allow the banning of groups that support terrorism.

The Scottish Parliament will be given the right to set and keep the revenue from taxes including income tax, leaving it raising 40pc of its taxes and controlling 60pc of its public spending. In parallel, the government will move to stop Scottish lawmakers voting on legislation that doesn't affect Scotland.

The moves won't satisfy the Scottish National Party, especially after its landslide election victory in Scotland this month. The SNP took 56 of Scotland's 59 districts in the May 7 election.

A High-Speed Rail Bill will give the government the right to buy the land needed for a fast link from London to Birmingham. In energy, the Oil and Gas Authority will get more powers over the domestic industry, while councils will get the power to block onshore wind farms, which are to lose their government subsidies. (See Richard Curran, Business page 20)

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