Resignation from the British House of Commons

From Academic Kids

Members of Parliament of the House of Commons in the United Kingdom are technically forbidden to resign. In order to circumvent this prohibition, a legal fiction is used. Appointment to a "paid office under the Crown" disqualifies an individual from sitting as a Member of Parliament (MP). Two such offices are used to allow MPs to effectively resign their seats:

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

A number of offices have been used for this purpose historically, but only the Chiltern Hundreds and the Manor of Northstead are used today.

The offices are only nominally paid. Generally they are held 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 exactly the same time. When more than two MPs resign at a time, as for example happened when 15 Ulster Unionist MPs resigned on December 17 1985, the resignations are in theory not simultaneous but instead spread throughout the day, with each member holding one of the offices for a short time. The holder can subsequently be re-elected to Parliament.

In 1623 a rule was declared that said 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 weaker, and service was sometimes considered a resented duty rather than a position of power and honour. However, an MP who accepted an "office of profit" from 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. Therefore, the legal fiction was invented that the MP who wished to give up his seat applied to the King for the post of "steward of the Chiltern Hundreds" or "steward of the Manor of Northstead", obsolescent offices of negligible duties and scant profit, but in the King's gift nonetheless.

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, to end the need for members of the government to undergo re-election.

The Chiltern Hundreds were first used as a pretext for resignation on January 17, 1751, by John Pitt, who wanted to vacate his seat for Wareham and stand for Dorchester.

The Manor of Northstead was first used as a pretext for resignation on April 6, 1842, by Patrick Chalmers, Member for Montrose District of Burghs.

Other offices that were formerly used for the same purpose are:

  • Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of East Hundred, or Hendred, Berks. This stewardship was first used for parliamentary purposes on September 14, 1763 by William Hamilton, 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 after that date.
  • 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 up 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, and it is difficult to understand how it came to be regarded as a crown appointment. 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 up to 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.
    • February 1801: William Talbot (Kilkenny)
    • March 1804: John Claudius Beresford (Dublin City)
    • February 1819: Richard Nevill (Wexford Town)

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