Resignation from the British House of Commons

Members of Parliament (MPs) sitting in the House of Commons in the United Kingdom are technically not permitted to resign their seats.[1] To circumvent this prohibition, a legal fiction is used. Formerly, appointment to an "office of profit under the Crown" disqualified an individual from sitting as an MP. Hence an MP who wished to give up his or her seat would ask to be appointed to such an office – one which no longer has any duties associated with it – thus causing disqualification and vacation of the seat. Offices of profit are no longer disqualifying, but appointment to various specified offices is, and two offices are specified as disqualifying for this purpose: the Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds and of the Manor of Northstead.[1][2]

Principal offices

Members of Parliament wishing to give up their seats before a general election are commonly appointed to an office which causes the MP to be disqualified from standing. A number of offices have been used for this purpose historically, all of them "offices of profit under the crown", but only two are currently used.[3] These are:[4]

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.[3] 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 Succession to the Crown Act 1707 (also called the Place Act), 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 a sitting MP accepting an office of profit under the Crown, but it did not disqualify someone already holding such an office from being elected to the House of Commons. As a result, this meant a ministerial by-election when any MP 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 of the provision of 1624, 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 and involved negligible duties and scant profit, but were in the King's gift nonetheless. After the "office of profit" disqualification was removed, the two stewardships were instead specified by statute as offices whose appointment disqualified the holder (among many others).

First usage

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".[5] Pelham wrote to William Pitt (the elder) indicating that he would intervene with King George II to help.[6] On 17 January 1751 Pitt was appointed the role of Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds, and was then elected unopposed for Dorchester.

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


The Chancellor can in theory deny an application, although the last time this happened was to Viscount Chelsea in 1842.[7] 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.[8]

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.[9] 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."[9] Although David Cameron said during Prime Minister's Questions that Adams had "accepted an office for profit under the Crown", Adams denied this,[10] and hence continued simply to reject the title, albeit not its effect of removal from office.[11]

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.[12] McGuinness has also said that he rejects the title.[13]

Present law

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.[2]

The mentioned schedule lists offices that are disqualified from the Commons. Section 6 of that Act describes the consequences of disqualification (for sitting MPs, that their seat shall be vacated).

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. Once released, they are again free to seek election to the House of Commons.

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."[14]

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.[15]

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.[16]

The precise wording of the above announcements may vary somewhat, and relevant changes are naturally made when the post in question is that of Northstead rather than the Chiltern Hundreds.[17]

Former offices

Other offices formerly used for the same purpose are:

See also


  1. 1 2  Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Chiltern Hundreds". Encyclopædia Britannica. 6 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 163–164.
  2. 1 2 Text of the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 as in force today (including any amendments) within the United Kingdom, from
  3. 1 2 "The Chiltern Hundreds" (pdf). Factsheet P11 Procedure Series. House of Commons Information Office. August 2010. Retrieved 14 January 2011.
  4. 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.
  5. 'Pitt, John' in History of Parliament 1715–1754, vol II p. 350-1, citing Newcastle (Clumber) mss.
  6. 'Pitt, John' in History of Parliament 1715–1754, vol II p. 350-1, citing Chatham Corresp. i. 53–54.
  7. See the Annual Register 1842 (Google Books)
  8. Walter L. Arnstein, "The Bradlaugh Case", Oxford University Press, 1965, p. 279.
  9. 1 2 "Adams 'becomes baron'". The Irish Times. 26 January 2011. Retrieved 26 January 2011.
  10. "Morning Press Briefing from 27 January 2011". 10 Downing Street. 27 January 2011. Retrieved 2012-12-30.
  11. Hennessy, Mark; Keegan, Dan (27 January 2011). "Adams not resigned to being appointed officer of the crown". The Irish Times. Archived from the original on 13 September 2016. Retrieved 27 January 2011.
  12. Manor of Northstead Treasury
  13. Martin McGuinness becomes Crown aristocrat with 'Steward' title Belfast Telegraph
  14. "Press notice: Three Hundreds of Chiltern". 8 June 2009. Retrieved 8 February 2011.
  15. "House of Commons Vote and Proceedings for 13 January 2010". Retrieved 8 February 2011.
  16. "House of Commons Debates 19 Jun 2008, c. 1061". Hansard. Retrieved 8 February 2011.
  17. House of Commons Votes and Proceedings Monday 22nd October 2012.
  18. 1 2 3 4 5 6 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)
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