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What is the Queen's Speech debate and how does it take place?

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

In the Queen'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.

After the Queen'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 Queen, thanking her for the Speech.

Each House must formally agree to make the humble Address. It does so by debating and agreeing a motion "That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows: ...", with the following words of thanks differing slightly between the Commons and the Lords. The 'Queen's Speech debate' is the debate on this motion. The debate is properly called the 'Debate on the Address' – referring to the Address to be made by the House, not the Speech made by the Queen. (Sometimes, the House's Address is also called the 'Loyal Address'.) The debate ends when the motion to present the humble Address to the Queen 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.

The debate on the Address allows a wide-ranging debate on virtually any aspect of government policy.

The Queen's Speech debate normally lasts for five or six sitting days in total. In the Commons, in recent years the debate has consistently lasted for six sitting days. 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 Queen's Speech debate, or to change the schedule which is initially announced.

In both Houses, the Queen'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-Queen's Speech business is taken, and then resume the Queen'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 Queen's Speech debate.

In the House of Commons, it would be normal for the Queen'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 Queen's Speech debate remains unconcluded, including on days on which the House also debates the Speech. The exception is the first day of the Queen's Speech debate, when there can be no Urgent Questions nor applications for emergency debates under Standing Order No. 24.

The Government determines the day on which the normal daily House of Commons 'question time' of oral questions to Ministers (including Prime Minister's Questions) re-starts. The day on which question time re-starts will be after the day of the Queen's Speech.

There are no sittings in Westminster Hall until after the Queen’s Speech debate in the Commons Chamber is concluded.

In both Houses, the Queen's Speech debate starts with the motion to make a humble Address to the Queen being moved and seconded.

The Queen'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. 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 Queen'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 which day or days to attend). The themes for debate are not necessarily the same in the two Houses.

In the Commons, the subjects of each day of debate are normally announced by the Speaker at the start of the debate.

The House of Lords normally agrees its motion in response to the Queen'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.

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 Queen'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. There has therefore long been a conventional view that votes on the Queen'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 Queen's 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.) A Government defeated on the Queen's Speech would certainly be in serious political difficulty.

The obligation on the Government to resign after a defeat on the Queen's Speech would be clearer in either of two possible scenarios:

  1. if the Government stated explicitly before the vote that it was treating it as a matter of confidence; or

  2. if the motion on the Queen's Speech, rather than simply being defeated, were amended so that it explicitly expressed no-confidence. This is what happened in January 1924.

The motion agreed by the House of Commons on 21 January 1924 at the end of the Queen's Speech debate, with the amendment expressing no-confidence in the Government
The motion agreed by the House of Commons on 21 January 1924 at the end of the Queen's Speech debate, with the amendment expressing no-confidence in the Government