Queen unveils British government's reform agenda ahead of EU vote

LONDON (Reuters) - Queen Elizabeth unveiled plans by British Prime Minister David Cameron on Wednesday to overhaul prisons and help the poor under a social reform agenda he hopes to press after a referendum on European Union membership.

In a ceremony laden with pomp and pageantry in the upper house of parliament, the queen announced plans for more than 20 new laws, ranging from tackling extremism to making it easier for people to adopt children who are wards of the state.

Cameron described his agenda as “a series of bold choices that will deliver opportunity for all, at every stage of life”, but some members of his divided Conservative Party said measures had been watered down because of the June 23 vote.

The government also appeared to put off at least one measure demanded by those pressing to leave the European Union - a Sovereignty Bill which some Conservative lawmakers want in order to assert the supremacy of parliament over EU laws.

“My government will ... deliver security for working people, to increase life chances for the most disadvantaged and to strengthen national defenses,” the queen, wearing her crown and ceremonial robes over a white dress, said at the state opening of parliament which starts the legislative year.

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She listed some of the laws the government planned to introduce, including reforms of prisons, adoption rules and a commitment to build more homes, which some commentators said was aimed at securing Cameron’s “modernizing” legacy.

The government would also tackle “the poisonous ideology that is at the heart of the extremist threat”, the prime minister said, outlining a bill criticized by some for possibly curbing free speech.

The leader of the main opposition party, Jeremy Corbyn, told a rowdy session of parliament after the queen spoke that Labour would scrutinize the government’s work and criticized what he said were the government’s unnecessary cuts in social spending.

“Whether you are in or out of the EU, the main obstacle holding back the people of this country is not the EU but that Conservative government,” said Corbyn, elected last year on a promise to fight austerity.

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The yearly Queen’s Speech is a major fixture in Britain’s political life when governments can unveil up to about 30 new laws and try to woo voters with eye-catching measures.

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This year, the ceremony, when the queen addressed an audience made up of politicians clad in crimson robes trimmed with white ermine, has been overshadowed by an increasingly bitter battle over Britain’s EU membership.

The queen said her “ministers will uphold the sovereignty of parliament and the primacy of the house of commons (lower house of parliament)”.

But it was the lack of a specific Sovereignty Bill, mooted by Cameron earlier this year, which triggered criticism from a former senior minister who said the government has “been watering down key elements of their legislative program”.

“To compound that, now it appears the much vaunted Sovereignty Bill ... has been tossed aside as well,” Iain Duncan Smith said in a statement.

Asked about whether such a bill would ever be introduced, Cameron’s spokesman said work was “under way”. He denied that the referendum had forced the government to soften its agenda.

But the prime minister will have to win big at the vote, his aides say, if he wants to put back together a party which has been all but torn apart by the increasingly divisive EU campaign.

Additional reporting by William James; Editing by Alison Williams and Dominic Evans