A promise of sweeping reforms of Britain's crumbling prison system from British Prime Minister David Cameron was the centrepiece of the Queen's Speech to parliament on Wednesday.

"My government will legislate to reform prisons and courts to give individuals a second chance," Queen Elizabeth II said in an annual address to parliament on the government's legislative plans for the next 12 months.

"Prison governors will be given unprecedented freedom and they will be able to ensure prisoners receive better education," she said, adding that the government would also improve mental health services for people in the criminal justice system.

Other priorities for Cameron's Conservative government are a counter-terrorism bill to "disrupt extremists," measures to liberalize education, and improvements to child care and adoption services, the queen said, listing 20 proposed bills for new legislation.

"My government will use the opportunity of a strengthening economy to deliver security for working people, to increase life chances for the most disadvantaged and to strengthen national defences," she said.

The government will "continue to bring the public finances under control ... and to move to a higher wage and lower welfare economy where work is rewarded," she said, adding that it would promote wider home ownership by supporting the construction of hundreds of thousands of new houses.

Tim Farron, responding to the speech in parliament for the opposition Liberal Democrats, said most of measures in the speech had been announced before and appeared to be a diversion from campaigning ahead of next month's referendum Britain's EU membership.

"The Queen's Speech is a stopgap to give the warring factions of the Tory (Conservative) Party a couple of days' respite from the referendum," Farron said. "It does nothing to address the key issues at stake."

Cameron is campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU, but several other leading Conservatives are supporting the Vote Leave campaign to exit the bloc ahead of the referendum on June 23.

As expected, the Queen's Speech avoided any discussion of the referendum, but mentioned briefly that it would take place.

Responding ahead of the speech to claims that some of Britain's overcrowded prisons have become ungovernable, Cameron said the changes were part of a "clear programme of social reform, so we break down the barriers to opportunity and extend life chances to all."

"And nowhere is that reform needed more than in our prisons," he said.

The Ministry of Justice said the prison reforms are designed to improve public protection by reducing reoffending and cutting crime.

Education for Britain's 85,000 prisoners will be at the centre of the reform programme, the ministry said.

It said education and employment were "critical in reducing reoffending," but just one in four prisoners enters employment after completing a sentence.

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