In British parliamentary procedure, a humble address is a communication from one of the houses of the Parliament of the United Kingdom to the monarch. For example, following the speech from the throne opening a parliament, each house will debate the contents of the speech under a motion for a humble address thanking the Queen for the speech.
Address for a return
In the United Kingdom, a humble address for a return is a rarely used parliamentary procedure by which either the House of Commons or House of Lords may petition the monarch, and by extension HM Government, to order documents to be produced. Erskine May notes that this power was used frequently until the mid-19th century, though most such information is now provided by command papers or the explanatory documents attached to Acts of Parliament.
In 1866, as part of a campaign to extend the electoral franchise to women, John Stuart Mill moved an address for a "Return of the number of Freeholders, Householders, and others in England and Wales who, fulfilling the conditions of property or rental prescribed by Law as the qualification for the Electoral Franchise, are excluded from the Franchise by reason of their sex" in order to debate the petition he had presented. The government of the day accepted the motion, but may not have provided the information specifically requested.
In 2017, the House of Commons voted to issue a humble address to request the government to reveal documents about the potential impact of Brexit on the British economy. The motion, put forward by the opposition, requested:
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.
A second Brexit-related humble address was placed before the House on 13 November 2018, seeking the release of legal advice given to the government regarding the proposed EU withdrawal agreement:
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.
The government's response was presented to Parliament by Attorney General Geoffrey Cox on 3 December. However, the following day, it was deemed by MPs to be incomplete, which led to a vote in which, for the first time in history, the Government of the United Kingdom was found to be in contempt of Parliament.
Former Conservative Party Attorney General Dominic Grieve laid a third Brexit-related humble address before the House on 9 September 2019; requiring the publication of documents related to no-deal Brexit (Operation Yellowhammer) and to the prorogation of Parliament scheduled for later that day, it was passed by 311 votes to 302. The motion provided as follows:
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.
- For example Debate on the Address, House of Commons Hansard 22 June 2017 Volume 626 Column 228
- Maidment, Jack (2017-11-01). "Labour to use arcane 19th-Century parliamentary procedure to try to force Government to publish secret Brexit files". The Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 2017-11-02.
- "Labour's 'motion for a return': what and why?". The Constitution Unit Blog. 2017-11-10. Retrieved 2018-05-02.
- HC Deb 17 July 1866 vol 184 cc996-8
- Walker, Peter (2017-11-01). "Government may bow to pressure to release Brexit impact studies". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2017-11-02.
- Maer, Lucinda (1 November 2017). "BRIEFING PAPER Number 8128, Exiting the EU: sectoral impact assessments". House of Commons Library.
- Hope, Christopher (2017-11-01). "Exclusive: Queen 'not happy' after being dragged by Labour into row over Brexit papers". The Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 2018-05-02.
- "Labour aims to force ministers to publish official legal advice on proposed EU deal". The Independent. 13 November 2018. Retrieved 13 November 2018. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
- "Full Brexit legal advice to be published after government loses vote". The Guardian. 4 December 2018. Retrieved 5 December 2018. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
- "MPs demand publication of no-deal Brexit and prorogation documents". ITV News. 9 September 2019. Retrieved 9 September 2019. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
- "MPs order Johnson to hand over aides' messages about prorogation". The Guardian. 9 September 2019. Retrieved 9 September 2019. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
- "Prorogation (Disclosure of Communications) 09 September 2019". House of Commons Hansard. Retrieved 9 September 2019. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)