It would be reasonable to assume that the Queen's speech at the State Opening of Parliament on 15 November would be the first thing discussed by MPs afterwards.  But this is not the case, in fact an ancient bill dating back to the 1600s is the topic of the first discussion in the House of Commons.

Since 1558, during the reign of Elizabeth I, there is evidence that the first item of business in the House of Commons is a discussion of a Bill completely unrelated to the content of the monarch's opening speech.  The Bill discussed is the Outlawries Bill and its purpose lies not in what it can achieve as an Act of Parliament, but rather in the idea that it encapsulates.  The reason for this is to illustrate the independence of Parliament from the monarchy and demonstrate its right and determination to set its own agenda.  Tensions between Parliament and the monarchy came to a head during the reign of Charles I, exacerbated by religious strife and wars with Scotland, France and Spain, England fell into civil war which ultimately ended with the beheading of Charles I in 1649 and England's first and only republic.

For many decades various bills were used for this first reading. Initially, as some bills were real proposals, they made progress and were enacted. In 1604 a resolution allowed a specific bill a first reading after every monarch's speech.  The Outlawries Bill was introduced for this purpose in 1727, the bill deals with people outwith the law, such as fugitives.  Before this Commons procedure became established, two Outlawry Acts had been passed into English law: the Outlawry Act 1331 and the Avoidance of Secret Outlawries Act 1588, neither of which is still in force.  This Outlawries Bill has not made any progress since 1727, although various amendments have been made to its terms. 

Despite its vintage, the current Bill will almost certainly never become a fully-fledged Act.  The terms of the Bill are archaic and incomprehensible even to lawyers, and there are missing dates, penalties and other details.  The importance of the Outlawries Bill therefore stems not from its content but in its re-affirmation of the distinction between monarchy and Parliament.

On 15 November, following consideration of this ancient Bill, the Commons then went on to consider the Address in Reply to the Queen's speech over several days. In so doing an indication is given of the views of Parliament regarding the government's present-day agenda.  Other Bills will certainly come and go throughout the year, but paradoxically because the Outlawries Bill remains a Bill it has much more influence than it every would do should it become an Act.

 

 

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