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UK government announces EU referendum in Queen's Speech

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Prime Minister David Cameron's government formally announced on Wednesday it will hold a referendum on whether Britain should leave the EU, in a policy speech read by Queen Elizabeth II on Westminster's grandest day.

[LONDON] Prime Minister David Cameron's government formally announced on Wednesday it will hold a referendum on whether Britain should leave the EU, in a policy speech read by Queen Elizabeth II on Westminster's grandest day.

Outlining the newly-elected government's plans for its first year, the 89-year-old queen, in a crown and ceremonial dress, confirmed Britain would face further cuts to public spending.

This will be tempered with measures designed to help middle-income Britons, such as more free childcare and healthcare spending and a promise not to raise three major tax rates for the next five years.

"It's a Queen's Speech for working people from a one nation government that will bring our country together," Mr Cameron told the House of Commons after the monarch's address.

After winning this month's general election with a surprise though slender majority, the centre-right government will Thursday publish its first bill which will pave the way for a referendum by 2017 on whether Britain should leave the European Union.

Parliament could start debating the measure within weeks as Mr Cameron said he hoped the measure would pass in "extra quick time" and has not ruled out holding the referendum vote next year.

After the speech hundreds of people marched through central London to protest the planned austerity measures, carrying banners such as "free education" and "tax the rich", sparking angry confrontations between protesters, politicians and police.

"We've been savaged by cuts. The scale of what is going on is devastating," said public sector worker Keith, 49, a member of the PCS union who said he hoped to build a British anti-austerity movement like Spain's Podemos.

"It's going to create a very dangerous country and they need to be resisted." Three people were arrested in the demonstrations, police said, two on suspicion of violent disorder and another on suspicion of assault.

Left-wing groups are organising demonstrations to take place throughout the summer, and the government's plans to cut welfare spending by £12 billion (S$25 billion) are expected to prove particularly contentious.

The acting leader of Britain's opposition centre-left Labour party Harriet Harman told parliament that the benefits of a tentative return to economic growth were not being felt throughout society.

"Britain faces a fragile future for our economy, our constitution and our public services," Harman said.

CHALLENGE OF SMALL MAJORITY

The white-clad monarch, delivering the 62nd Queen's Speech of her reign, arrived at parliament in a gold and black carriage accompanied by dozens of horsemen to the sound of the national anthem, God Save The Queen.

In a bizarre tradition dating back to times of hostility between parliament and monarchy, an MP was "held hostage" at Buckingham Palace until she returned safely.

Her speech also featured legislation to secure a "strong and lasting constitutional settlement" which will hand new powers to Scotland after it voted against independence in a referendum last year.

However, Nicola Sturgeon's pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), which became the third largest group in the Commons following the election, wants the government to go further.

SNP lawmakers during the ceremonies wore white roses - a tribute to the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid's The Little White Rose Of Scotland.

The government is also introducing new powers to ban "extremist organisations" seen as responsible for radicalisation and a communications bill, dubbed a "snoopers' charter" by critics, which could oblige mobile phone companies and Internet service providers to hand individuals' browsing data to security services.

A proposed measure meaning that 50 per cent of trade union members have to take part in strike votes for them to be valid has provoked anger from the Trades Union Congress umbrella group.

The TUC said the government had declared "open season" on members' rights.

The Conservatives have a majority of only 12 in the 650-seat Commons and could struggle to pass controversial legislation if they face rebellions from within their own ranks.

Mr Cameron has already delayed a plan to scrap some European human rights laws, expected in the Queen's Speech, in favour of a "British bill of rights" due to opposition from within his party.

But his official spokesman told reporters to "be in no doubt" that the move - which Mr Cameron says would make it easier to deport foreign criminals - would still go ahead at some point.

Mr Cameron will now embark on a whistlestop tour of European capitals including Paris, Warsaw and Berlin on Thursday and Friday as he pushes for reforms which he says are necessary before the EU referendum, including on immigration.

AFP