In recent years an arcane parliamentary tactic has been revived by Parliament to increase their ability to scrutinise the Executive. This method is the Humble Address mechanism. So what is it and why have Parliament begun to use it routinely?
What is a Humble Address?
A humble address is a message from either House of Parliament directly to the monarch. They are most often used ceremonially. For example, after each year’s King’s Speech both houses will debate the contents of the speech under the heading of a Humble Address thanking the King for attending Parliament and giving his speech.
However, it can also be used as a mechanism to directly petition the monarch on an issue, particularly relating to the disclosure of documents. Erskine May, the guide to parliamentary procedures says:
” An Address to Her Majesty is the form ordinarily employed by both Houses of Parliament for making their desires and opinions known to the Crown as well as for the purpose of acknowledging communications proceeding from the Crown. In the House of Commons the procedure upon a motion for an Address is the same as upon an ordinary substantive motion. It requires notice and can be debated, amended and divided upon. Usually, the motion for an Address is made in the form ‘That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty to …’ and the necessary prefatory words are inserted when the actual copy of the Address is prepared. An amendment to leave out the word ‘humble’ is not in order. In both Houses Addresses or resolutions are ordered to be presented by the whole House or by Privy Counsellors, or members of the royal household, or, in some cases, by Members specially nominated.”Paragraph 9.10 of Erskine May
How has it been used?
Historically the Humble Address disappeared as regards having anymore than a ceremonial function. However, it has increasingly been used to force the Government to disclose documents to Parliament that they don’t want the them to see. The Humble Address motion is usually put forward on one of the 20 Opposition Days that take place in each parliamentary session. If a motion is put forward it will be debated and a division will be held. If the motion is voted for, the address will be sent to the Monarch.
Examples of the Use of the Humble Address
2017 – Papers on the economic impact of Brexit on the Economy:
In 2017 the Government refused to reveal documents which they held about the potential economic impact of Brexit. Consequently, on 1st November 2017 a humble address was submitted to the monarch asking for this disclosure:
“That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give directions that the list of sectors analysed under the instruction of Her Majesty’s Ministers, and referred to in the Answer of 26 June 2017 to Question 239, be laid before this House and that the impact assessments arising from those analyses be provided to the Committee on Exiting the European Union.”
The address was passed without division, with the Government clearly knowing enough of their own backbenchers would support the disclosure, for example shown in this speech by Jacob-Rees Mogg (then a backbencher):
“I have no doubt that the motion is, in all senses, binding. It is not parliamentary wallpaper. It is exercising one of our most ancient rights, to demand papers…As to the papers themselves, I have no particular view—this is, in normal circumstances, a matter for the Government—and I would have gone along with the Government had they wished to oppose the motion. But in the event that they do not, they must publish these papers to the Brexit Committee in full”
2018 – Legal Advice regarding the Withdrawal Agreement
Following the success of the Humble Address in 2017 Labour submitted an address in November 2018 to the monarch to seek the legal advice that provided to the government regarding the EU Withdrawal agreement that Theresa May was negotiating with the European Union:
“That an humble address be presented to Her Majesty, that she will be graciously pleased to give directions that the following papers be laid before parliament: any legal advice in full, including that provided by the attorney general, on the proposed withdrawal agreement on the terms of the UK’s departure from the European Union including the Northern Ireland backstop and framework for a future relationship between the UK and the European Union.”
Again, facing defeat if they opposed the motion, the Government did not oppose it. However, when the papers were released Parliament found that they were incomplete and the government had not followed the requirements of the humble address. Parliament subsequently held a vote to hold the government in contempt of Parliament. The motion was passed by 311 to 293 and this was first time that a Government had ever been found to be in contempt of Parliament.
2019 – Papers on Operation Yellowhammer
In September 2019 another humble address was laid in front of the House of Commons regarding documents relating to Operation Yellowhammer and controversial the prorogation of Parliament:
“That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, that she will be graciously pleased to direct Ministers to lay before this House, not later than 11.00pm Wednesday 11 September, all correspondence and other communications (whether formal or informal, in both written and electronic form, including but not limited to messaging services including WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, Facebook messenger, private email accounts both encrypted and unencrypted, text messaging and iMessage and the use of both official and personal mobile phones) to, from or within the present administration, since 23 July 2019 relating to the prorogation of Parliament sent or received by one or more of the following individuals: Hugh Bennett, Simon Burton, Dominic Cummings, Nikki da Costa, Tom Irven, Sir Roy Stone, Christopher James, Lee Cain or Beatrice Timpson; and that Ministers be further directed to lay before this House no later than 11.00pm Wednesday 11 September all the documents prepared within Her Majesty’s Government since 23 July 2019 relating to operation Yellowhammer and submitted to the Cabinet or a Cabinet Committee.”
The motion passed by 311 to 302 and the government released the papers relating to Operation Yellowhammer. However, they refused to release the private messages asked for saying:
Where the Humble Address procedure has been used previously, it has been to request
Ministers to provide specific documents. The procedure has not been, nor should it be, used to purport to place obligations on civil servants, or to seek to understand the private views of those individuals. Ministers, not civil servants, are the decision makers. They are accountable, both in Parliament and to the electorate, for the decisions taken. This Address is therefore inappropriate in principle and in practice, would on its own terms purport to require the Government to contravene the law, and is singularly unfair to the named individuals.
2021 – Papers on Randox and Lobbying
In late 2021 former Government Minister Owen Paterson was embroiled in a lobbying controversy. He had been paid by a company called Randox and was lobbying Government Ministers on their behalf. The Opposition tabled a humble address calling for the disclosure of correspondence relating to any Government contracts that Randox had been given during the COVID-19 pandemic:
That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, that she will be graciously
pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House the minutes from or any
notes of the meeting of April 9 2020 between Lord Bethell, Owen Paterson and Randox
representatives, and all correspondence, including submissions and electronic
communications, addressed or copied to, or written by or on behalf of, any or all of the
(a) a Minister or former Minister of the Crown,
(b) a Special Adviser of such a Minister or former Minister, or
(c) a Member or former Member of this House
relating to the Government contracts for services provided by medical laboratories,
awarded to Randox Laboratories
The Government responded with the required information after the motion was passed without division.
2022 – Lord Lebedev‘s appointment to the House of Lords
In December 2020 Russian-British billionaire Lord Lebedev was given a peerage to sit in the House of Lords. Lebedev is the owner of the Evening Standard and the Independent whose father is a Russian Oligarch and a former KGB officer. A piece by the Sunday Times newspaper alleged that the government had been warned that Lebedev was a security risk and should not be appointed to the House of Lords. Consequently, the Opposition tabled a motion forcing the government to turnover to Parliament documentation relating to any security concerns disclosed to them regarding Lord Lebedev:
” That, given the concerns raised about the appropriateness of, and process for, appointing Lord Lebedev as a member of the House of Lords and the role of the Prime Minister in that process, an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty that she will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House, no later than 28 April,
(a) any document held by the Cabinet Office or the Prime Minister’s Office containing or relating to advice from, or provided to, the House of Lords Appointments Commission concerning the appointment of Evgeny Alexandrovich Lebedev as a Member of the House of Lords; and
(b) the minutes of, submissions relevant to and electronic communications relating to, any meeting within the Cabinet Office or the Prime Minister’s Office at which the appointment of Lord Lebedev, or advice relating to that appointment, was discussed in a form which may contain redactions, but such redactions shall be solely for the purposes of national security.”
Again, knowing they would lose, the motion was passed without a division. The government therefore had to disclose the documents by April 30th 2022.
Why are is the Humble Address motion significant in extending scrutiny?
Parliament cannot effectively perform its role of scrutinising the Executive unless it gets access to official documentation. At times, the government will not want to disclose this documentation because it may be damaging to them politically – as such, they will try to withhold it from disclosure. The crisis over Brexit created schisms in British politics and saw a number of unprecedented events. It was Brexit that provided the impetus for the revival of mechanism that had not otherwise been used in this way for 150 years. Since then, it has been used more routinely, being used at least once per year since 2017. In September 2023 Labour attempted to use the mechanism to force the disclosure of documents relating to the RAAC crisis in schools. As such, it has become a useful tool for Parliament to ensure they are given the full opportunity to scrutinise the government. The fact that the government had not opposed many of the motions instead of whipping their MPs indicates that they accept the legitimacy of Parliament asking for those documents, even if it is not in their political interest.
The Humble Address mechanism has been revived as a tool by which the Opposition in Parliament can force the disclosure of documents the government might otherwise not want to release. However, it should be noted it still requires a majority of Parliament to agree to the motion, so a united government is normally able to avoid scrutiny via the mechanism.
Humble Address – A direct petition by either House of Parliament. Until 2017 this procedure had not been used in a substantive way since 1866 but has been used a number of times since 2017 to force the government to produce documents to Parliament.
Opposition Day – Days in which the parliamentary agenda is controlled by the Opposition. 17 days are given to the Official Opposition, 3 to the second biggest opposition party and 7 to backbench debates organised by the backbench business committee.
Contempt of Parliament – A finding that the government has acted in contempt of Parliament. A motion of contempt has only been found in the government once. This was in 2018 when Theresa May’s government failed to fully disclose documents relating to Brexit after a humble address motion.