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LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's coalition government put a crackdown on immigration at the heart of its legislative agenda on Wednesday in the hope of stopping an exodus of voters to a populist anti-immigration party before a national election in 2015.
In a pageantry-rich ceremony marking the annual opening of Britain's parliament, Queen Elizabeth said a new immigration bill would "ensure that this country attracts people who will contribute and deters those who will not".
Donning her crown, she was reading out the government's plans days after the UK Independence Party (UKIP) made sweeping gains in local elections at the government's expense, posing a threat to Prime Minister David Cameron's re-election chances.
His Conservatives are the senior member of a two-party coalition, but hope to win outright in 2015 and govern alone.
The programme for the year ahead contained other bills too but the government chose to highlight its swoop on immigration. Legislation to address big issues like the economy and Britain's relationship with the European Union was notably absent.
Questioning immigration was for years regarded as racist in Britain. But all three main parties have started to talk tough on the subject after opinion polls showed it was one of the issues that worried voters the most at a time when a weak economy means their own living standards are being squeezed.
UKIP and local newspapers have suggested Britain risks being inundated by "hordes" of Romanians and Bulgarians next year after EU restrictions on their freedom of movement expire.
Even the Liberal Democrats, Cameron's left-leaning junior coalition partner, support tougher measures.
The new bill will require landlords to check the immigration status of their tenants, levy big fines on businesses that use illegal labour, and limit newcomers' access to the National Health Service. It will also make it easier to deport people and harder for people to challenge attempts to remove them.
Most analysts believe that the rise of UKIP, which wants Britain to leave the EU and end "open door" immigration, has shifted the immigration debate to the right.
Peter Wilding, director of British Influence, a group campaigning for Britain to stay in the EU, said the issue had been exaggerated. "We've got to get real on European immigration," he told Reuters. "Fewer than one in 50 EU migrants have ever claimed benefits here."
Once derided as a party of "closet racists" by Cameron, UKIP won a quarter of the vote in local elections on May 2, siphoning ballots from the Conservatives, the Lib Dems and even the opposition Labour party.
Cameron said his government had cut immigration by one third since it took power in 2010.
Ed Miliband, the leader of Labour, some of whose voters have also defected to UKIP, suggested the government was doing too much to pander to the anti-immigration party.
"The government has a reality problem. This gracious speech was their chance to answer (UKIP)," Miliband told parliament.
"It should have contained ... action to get growth moving and to genuinely confront the cost of living crisis. But it fails on all those fronts."
Editing by Mark Heinrich