Resignation from the British House of Commons
Members of Parliament sitting in the House of Commons in the United Kingdom are technically not permitted to resign their seats. To circumvent this prohibition, a legal fiction is used. Appointment to an "office of profit under the Crown" disqualifies an individual from sitting as a Member of Parliament (MP).
Members of Parliament wishing to give up their seats are commonly appointed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to an office which has the possibility of a payment from the Crown. A number of offices have been used for this purpose historically, but only two are provided for in present legislation. The two offices which currently allow Members to vacate their seats are as follows:
- Crown Steward and Bailiff of the three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham
- Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead
The offices are only nominally paid. Generally they are vacant until they are again used to effect the resignation of an MP. The Chiltern Hundreds is usually used alternately with the Manor of Northstead, which makes it possible for two members to resign at the same time. When more than two MPs resign at a time, as for example happened when 15 Ulster Unionist MPs resigned in protest at the Anglo-Irish Agreement on 17 December 1985, the resignations are in theory not simultaneous but instead spread throughout the day, each member holding one of the offices for a short time. The holder may subsequently be re-elected to Parliament.
In 1624 a resolution was passed that Members of Parliament were given a trust to represent their constituencies and therefore were not at liberty to resign them. In those days, Parliament was a far weaker institution. Members had to travel to Westminster over a primitive road system, a real problem for those who represented more distant constituencies. While at Westminster (and while in transit to and from) an MP could not effectively tend to personal business back home, yet for their services MPs received only nominal pay. Therefore service in Parliament was sometimes considered a resented duty rather than a position of power and honour.
However, by a provision in the Act of Settlement 1701 (repealed in 1705 and re-enacted in modified form by the Place Act 1707), an MP who accepted an office of profit under the Crown was obliged to leave his post, it being feared that his independence would be compromised if he were in the King's pay. The prohibition was on an MP accepting an office of profit under the Crown, but it did not disqualify someone with such an office being elected to the House of Commons. As a result this meant a by-election when anyone became a government minister, including the Prime Minister. The law was partly changed in 1919, and finally in 1926, so that MPs were no longer disqualified by being appointed to government office.
In consequence the legal fiction was invented that the MP who wished to give up his seat applied to the King for a sinecure post of the Stewardship of an estate which had come into the ownership of the Crown. Such offices were obsolescent, involved negligible duties and scant profit, but were in the King's gift nonetheless.
The procedure was invented by John Pitt, who wanted to vacate his seat for Wareham in order to stand for Dorchester but could not be a candidate while he was still an MP. Pitt wrote to Prime Minister Henry Pelham in May 1750 reporting that he had been invited to stand in Dorchester, and asking for "a new mark of his Majesty's favour [to] enable me to do him these further services". Pelham wrote to William Pitt (the elder) indicating that he would intervene with King George II to help. On 17 January 1751 Pitt was appointed the role of Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds, and was then elected unopposed for Dorchester.
The Chancellor can in theory deny an application, although the last time this happened was to Viscount Chelsea in 1842. When Charles Bradlaugh took the Chiltern Hundreds in 1884 in order to seek a vote of confidence from his constituents, Lord Randolph Churchill and the Conservative-supporting press were highly critical of the Gladstone government for allowing Bradlaugh a new opportunity to demonstrate his popularity with the electors of Northampton.
Sinn Féin resignations
On 20 January 2011, Sinn Féin MP Gerry Adams submitted a letter of resignation to the Speaker, but did not apply for a Crown office, which would be politically unacceptable for a Sinn Féin politician. On 26 January, a Treasury spokesperson said "Consistent with long-standing precedent, the Chancellor has taken [the letter] as a request to be appointed the Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead and granted the office." Although David Cameron said during Prime Minister's Questions that Adams had "accepted an office for profit under the Crown", Adams denied this, and hence continued simply to reject the title, albeit not its effect of removal from office.
Another Sinn Féin MP, Martin McGuinness, resigned and was formally appointed as Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead on 2 January 2013, leading to the 2013 Mid-Ulster by-election. McGuinness has also said that he rejects the title.
The law relating to resignation is now codified and consolidated in section 4 of the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975:
For the purposes of the provisions of this Act relating to the vacation of the seat of a member of the House of Commons who becomes disqualified by this Act for membership of that House, the office of steward or bailiff of Her Majesty's three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham, or of the Manor of Northstead, shall be treated as included among the offices described in Part III of Schedule 1 to this Act.
Notice and orders
An MP applies for the office to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who usually then signs a warrant appointing the MP to the crown position. The appointee holds the office until such time as another MP is appointed, or they apply to be released. Sometimes this can be a matter of minutes, as on an occasion when three or more MPs apply on the same day.
When an MP is appointed to the post, the Treasury releases a public notice: "The Chancellor of the Exchequer has this day appointed [named individual] to be Steward and Bailiff of the Three Hundreds of Chiltern."
After the Speaker has been notified, the appointment and resulting disqualification is noted in the Vote and Proceedings, the Commons' daily journal of proceedings:
Notification, laid upon the Table by the Speaker, That Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer had today appointed [named individual], Member for [named constituency], to the office of Steward and Bailiff of the Three Hundreds of Chiltern.
Thereafter, the former MP's party (or the Government if they were independent or their party has no other MPs) moves for a writ of election to be issued calling for a by-election. The resulting order is in the following form:
Ordered, That Mr. Speaker do issue his Warrant for the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present parliament for the [County Constituency] of [named area] in the room of the [Right Honourable] [named individual], who since election for the said County Constituency has accepted the Office of Steward or Bailiff of Her Majesty's Three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham in the County of Buckingham.
Other offices formerly used for the same purpose are:
- Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of East Hendred, Berkshire. This stewardship was first used for parliamentary purposes in November 1763 by Edward Southwell, and was in more or less constant use until 1840, after which it disappeared. This manor comprised copyholds, the usual courts were held, and the stewardship was an actual and active office. The manor was sold by public auction in 1823, but in some manner the Crown retained the right of appointing a steward for seventeen years afterwards.
- Steward of the Manor of Hempholme, Yorkshire. This manor appears to have been of the same nature as that of Northstead. It was in lease until 1835. It was first used for parliamentary purposes in 1845 and was in constant use until 1865. It was sold in 1866.
- Escheator of Munster. Escheators were officers commissioned to secure the rights of the Crown over property which had legally escheated (forfeited) to it from those attainted or condemned. In Ireland mention is made of escheators as early as 1256. In 1605 the escheatorship of Ireland was split into four, one for each province, but the duties soon became practically nominal. The escheatorship of Munster was first used for parliamentary purposes in the Irish Parliament from 1793 to 1800, and in the united Parliament (24 times for Irish seats and once for a Scottish seat) from 1801 to 1820. After 1820 it was discontinued and finally abolished in 1838.
- Steward of the Manor of Old Shoreham, Sussex. This manor belonged to the Duchy of Cornwall. It was first used for parliamentary purposes in 1756, and then, occasionally, until 1799, in which year it was sold by the Duchy to the Duke of Norfolk.
- Steward of the Manor of Poynings, Sussex. This manor reverted to the Crown on the death of Lord Montague about 1804, but was leased until about 1835. It was only twice used for parliamentary purposes, in 1841 and 1843.
- Escheator of Ulster. This appointment was used in the united Parliament three times, for Irish seats only; the last time in 1819.
- Steward of the Honour of Otford, Kent. Used once in 1742 for Lord Middlesex (East Grinstead).
- Chief Steward and Keeper of the Courts of the Honour of Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire, and Northampton (part of the Duchy of Cornwall). Used once in 1752 for Henry Lascelles (Northallerton).
- Steward of the Manor of Kennington, Surrey. Used once in 1757 for Thomas Duckett (Calne).
- Steward of the Manor of Shippon, Berkshire. Used once in 1765 for Thomas Watson (Berwick-upon-Tweed).
- List of Stewards of the Chiltern Hundreds
- List of Stewards of the Manor of East Hendred
- List of Stewards of the Manor of Hempholme
- List of Stewards of the Manor of Northstead
- List of Stewards of the Manor of Old Shoreham
- List of Stewards of the Manor of Poynings
- List of Escheators of Connaught and list of Escheators of Leinster (used for resignation from the Irish House of Commons)
- "The Chiltern Hundreds" (pdf). Factsheet P11 Procedure Series. House of Commons Information Office. August 2010. Retrieved 14 January 2011.
- Department of Information Services (6 March 2012). "Appointments to the Chiltern Hundreds and Manor of Northstead Stewardships since 1850" (pdf). House of Commons Library Parliamentary Information Lists. Retrieved 21 March 2012.
- 'Pitt, John' in History of Parliament 1715–1754, vol II p. 350-1, citing Newcastle (Clumber) mss.
- 'Pitt, John' in History of Parliament 1715–1754, vol II p. 350-1, citing Chatham Corresp. i. 53–54.
- See the Annual Register 1842 (Google Books)
- Walter L. Arnstein, "The Bradlaugh Case", Oxford University Press, 1965, p. 279.
- "Adams 'becomes baron'". The Irish Times. 26 January 2011. Retrieved 26 January 2011.
- "Morning Press Briefing from 27 January 2011". 10 Downing Street. 27 January 2011. Retrieved 2012-12-30.
- Hennessy, Mark; Keegan, Dan (27 January 2011). "Adams not resigned to being appointed officer of the crown". The Irish Times. Retrieved 27 January 2011.
- Manor of Northstead Treasury
- Martin McGuinness becomes Crown aristocrat with 'Steward' title Belfast Telegraph
- Text of the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 as in force today (including any amendments) within the United Kingdom, from the UK Statute Law Database
- "Press notice: Three Hundreds of Chiltern". 8 June 2009. Retrieved 8 February 2011.
- "House of Commons Vote and Proceedings for 13 January 2010". Retrieved 8 February 2011.
- "House of Commons Debates 19 Jun 2008, c. 1061". Hansard. Retrieved 8 February 2011.
- Ian Crofton, John Ayto (2005). Brewer's Britain and Ireland. Weidenfeld & Nicolson (via Credo Reference). ISBN 0-304-35385-X. Retrieved 2012-09-13. – via Questia (subscription required)