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What is the debate on the ‘Address’?

Speaker of the House of Commons Sir Lindsay Hoyle MP in the Chamber, 9 September 2020. UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor
UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor

After the King's Speech has been delivered, each House must respond to it. This response takes the form of a 'humble Address' from the House to the King, thanking him for the Speech. The debate on this motion is properly called the 'Debate on the Address'. The debate lasts for several days in each House and provides an occasion for a wide-ranging and constitutionally significant discussion about the Government's policies and programme.

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The debate on the Address - which is sometimes also referred to as the debate on the 'Loyal Address' - allows a wide-ranging debate on virtually any aspect of government policy. The debate ends when the motion to present the humble Address to the King is put to the House for a decision, in the normal way.

The motion to present the humble Address is amendable, but it may be amended only to add further text at the end of the original motion.

In the King’s Speech debate, the House of Commons and House of Lords debate their responses to the Speech. The debate lasts for several days in each House and provides an occasion for a wide-ranging and constitutionally significant debate on the Government's policies and programme.

The King’s Speech debate normally lasts for five or six sitting days in total. The House of Lords' debate is sometimes a day shorter than the Commons'.

The debate on the Address is Government business. The Government thus decides, each time, how many and which parliamentary days to allocate to it. The Government does not need to secure either House's agreement to a business motion in order to schedule the King's Speech debate, or to change the schedule which is initially announced.

In both Houses, the King's Speech debate normally starts on the day of the Speech.

Normally, the debate takes place on successive sitting days. However, the Government may decide to interrupt the debate at any point after the first day, schedule one or more days on which only non-King's Speech business is taken, and then resume the King's Speech debate. There may thus be more sitting days between the start and end of the debate than are spent on the debate itself.

Both Houses of Parliament can consider other business during the debate on the King's Speech.

In the House of Commons, it would be normal for the King's Speech debate to take priority over other Government business. However, it is possible for the House to take other business in the Chamber as normal while the King's Speech debate is not yet concluded, including on days on which the House also debates the Speech.

The exception is the first day of the King's Speech debate, when there can be no Urgent Questions nor applications for emergency debates under Standing Order No. 24.

There are also no oral questions to Ministers during the first three sitting days of the new Session because Standing Orders specify that there must be a minimum two-day notice period for such questions. This does not apply to Prime Minister’s Questions for which advance notice is not given.

There are no sittings in Westminster Hall until after the debate on the Address in the Commons Chamber is concluded.

In both Houses, the debate starts with the motion to make a humble Address to the King being moved and seconded.

The King's Speech debate is the only occasion in the UK Parliament on which a motion is seconded.

In both Houses, the motion is moved by a Government backbencher, not a Minister. The motion is also seconded by a Government backbencher. (During the coalition government of 2010-15, the motion was moved by a Conservative backbencher and seconded by a Liberal Democrat backbencher.)

In both Houses, the two backbenchers are picked by the Government and usually comprise one long-serving Member and one relative newcomer. By tradition, in both Houses the speeches made by the mover and seconder of the motion are unconventional – they do not make controversial political points, and instead may include personal or (in the Commons) constituency-related comments and reminiscences, and they may be humorous.

In the House of Lords, the first day of the debate consists only of the speeches by the mover and seconder of the motion.

In the House of Commons, the speeches by the mover and seconder of the motion are followed, in order, by those of the Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister, the leader of the second-largest opposition party, and then other Members.

In both Houses, the first day of the King’s Speech debate is a general one.

In both Houses, each subsequent day of the debate is normally given a different theme. This is a way of bringing speeches on similar topics together, giving the debate some coherence (and making it easier for Members to decide on which day or days they wish to participate). The themes for debate are not necessarily the same in the two Houses.

The House of Lords normally agrees its motion in response to the King's Speech without amendment or dissent, and so with no need for a formal decision or vote.

In the House of Commons, there is normally a vote on the motion.

The House of Commons may also decide on amendments tabled to the motion.

Under Standing Order No. 33(1), the Speaker may select up to four amendments for debate and decision. Of these, one may be moved on the penultimate day of debate, and up to three on the final day.

Usually, the amendment moved on the penultimate day and one of those moved on the final day are tabled by the Leader of the Opposition. A further amendment in the name of the leader of the third largest party will usually also be moved.

In the normal way, the House first decides whether it agrees with any of the selected amendments. It then decides whether it agrees with the main motion, in its original form (if no amendments have been agreed) or as amended (if amendment[s] have been agreed).

The King’s Speech sets out the Government's policies and programme. The House of Commons' vote(s) on the response to the Speech is (or are), in effect, a vote on whether this programme enjoys the support of the House.

It has therefore long been a constitutional convention that votes on the King's Speech are a matter of confidence, and that if the Government were defeated it would be obliged to resign or seek an early dissolution of Parliament and General Election.

However, there is no legal requirement to this effect, and the Government has not lost a vote on the Gracious Speech since 1924, so there is a degree of uncertainty around the contemporary position. (During the life of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act [FTPA], 2011-2022, further steps would have been needed in any case to trigger an early General Election.) However, a Government that was defeated on the King’s Speech would be in serious political difficulty.

The obligation on the Government to resign after a defeat on the King's Speech would be clearer if the Government stated explicitly before the vote that it was treating it as a matter of confidence; or if the motion on the King’s Speech, rather than simply being defeated, were amended so that it explicitly expressed no-confidence. This is what happened in January 1924.

6:00pm, 6 November 2023

Hansard Society (2023), The debate on the 'Address', (Hansard Society: London)

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