Crown Steward and Bailiff of the three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham

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Crown Steward and Bailiff of the three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham
Incumbent
Patrick Mercer

since 30 April 2014
Appointer George Osborne

The Crown Steward and Bailiff of the three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham is one of two sinecure posts currently used in the British political system to effect resignation from the British House of Commons by sitting Members of Parliament (MPs). The post has no responsibilities or functions, but as a nominal paid office of The Crown, being appointed to the post means an MP is automatically disqualified from sitting in the Commons. This then allows a by-election to be called to elect their replacement (if the post is not left vacant until the next general election). The post was an ancient office that dates back to when land was divided into 'hundreds', and the Chiltern Hundreds were an area of Crown owned land in the Chiltern Hills in Buckinghamshire, England. Having been depreciated to simply a nominal post by the 17th century, it was the first to be used as a procedural device for MPs resignation in 1751. Several others followed, but in the present day only it and the Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead are used, normally in rotation.[1]

Present day[edit]

Under the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975, MPs who accept a paid office under the Crown (i.e. the Government) are disqualified from Parliament, on the principle of the separation of powers. Currently, the Chiltern Hundreds appointment is one of two sinecure posts which are used to effectively allow resignation from the House of Commons by appointment to these posts, which otherwise have no role or responsibilities. The other post is the Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead. A number of other such offices have been used in the past. Appointments to the posts are made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Using two posts allows more than one MP to resign simultaneously, although more commonly, single resignations are effected with alternating appointments to the Northstead and Chiltern Hundreds offices. The office is held until the Chancellor appoints another applicant or the holder applies for release from it.[2] The last MP to be appointed to the Chiltern Hundreds office was Patrick Mercer on 30 April 2014 after vacating his seat of Newark.[3]

History[edit]

The three Chiltern Hundreds referred to in the title were originally the hundreds of Stoke, Desborough, and Burnham, where a hundred was a traditional administrative division of an English county that could support one hundred households. The area was Crown property from the 13th century, and the Steward and Bailiff was a legal office appointed by The Crown and answerable to the reigning monarch. By the end of the 16th century such positions had been depreciated by changes in local and Crown representations and roles - the government of Elizabeth I had established royal representatives (Justices of the Peace, Sheriffs, and Lords Lieutenant) in every county of England and Wales; they ensured that Royal commands and laws were obeyed. By the 17th century the office of steward and bailiff was reduced to just a title with no attached powers or duties.

In the 17th century many MPs were often elected against their will. On 2 March 1624, a resolution was passed by the House of Commons making it illegal for an MP to quit or wilfully give up the seat. Under the Act of Settlement in 1701, any Member of Parliament accepting an office of profit under the Crown must give up his or her seat. This became the basis for the current legal practice of using sinecure posts such as this to effect resignations.

The Chiltern Hundreds were the first to be officially used as a procedural device in this way on 25 January 1751, to allow John Pitt, who at the time was one of the two MPs for the constituency of Wareham, to resign. Between 1756 and 1799, 11 MPs also left Parliament by accepting the Stewardship of the Manor of Old Shoreham. The Steward of the Manor of Hempholme was an alternative from 1845 to 1865.

On 20 March 1844, Sir George Henry Rose MP resigned his seat for Christchurch by becoming the Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead in Yorkshire. However the official book recording appointments to the various Stewardships indicates that Patrick Chalmers, MP for Montrose Burghs, was appointed to Northstead on 6 April 1842.[4] But the writ of election was changed to record that Chalmers had accepted the office of the Chiltern Hundreds.[5]

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