Two parliamentary by-elections took place yesterday in Stoke on Trent and Copeland. During the count one of the resigning MPs tweeted:
This refers to the convention by which MPs cannot just give up their seats. Instead they must apply for an ‘office of profit’ under the Crown which disqualifies them from sitting in the House of Commons. Jamie Reed raises an interesting point – here I will answer the question as well as provide some background on the mysterious process by which an MP can leave Parliament voluntarily.
It was in 1624 that the House of Commons resolved “that a man, after he is duly chosen, cannot relinquish”. There are a number of ways an MP can be removed – death, expulsion by resolution of the House, or the election being declared invalid. However, if a member wishes to leave this is only possible by rendering themselves ineligible for office.
It had long been accepted that a person who held a paid position from the Crown had a conflict of interest – necessary criticism of the Government and the Crown could easily be curtailed if an MP was also an object of patronage. In 1680 this was confirmed in another Commons resolution which stated that no member could “accept of any Office, or Place of Profit, from the Crown” while remaining an MP.
During Queen Anne’s reign a 1707 Act of Parliament (6 Anne c.7) made the position clear:
If any person being chosen a Member of the House of Commons, shall accept of any Office of Profit from the Crown, during such Time as he shall continue a Member, his Election shall be, and is hereby declared to be void, and a new Writ shall issue for a new Election, as if such Person so accepting was naturally dead. Provided nevertheless, that such Person shall be capable of being again elected, as if his Place had not become void as aforesaid.
Initially a number of empty positions, which conferred no real advantage, were used for the purpose of allowing MPs to stand down. This could be so that they could stand for re-election to test the feelings of their electors, to change constituencies, or to be returned after being appointed a Minister (a requirement until 1919).
The ‘offices of profit’ included stewardships of the Manors of:
- Old Shoreham, Sussex (last used for the purpose in 1799)
- East Hendred, Berkshire (1840)
- Poynings, Sussex (1843)
- Hempholme, Yorkshire (1865)
Now only two of these stewardships are used for the purpose: the Stewardship of the Chiltern Hundreds, Buckinghamshire (first used around 1750); and the Manor of Northstead in Yorkshire (first used in 1844). By the 1600s there were no duties or revenues associated with either position – their only use was as a legal fiction.
Now, when an MP wishes to resign he has to apply for one of these offices of profit. The Chancellor of the Exchequer signs a warrant of appointment which disqualifies the MP and enables a writ for a by-election to be issued. The two offices are used alternately, which allows more than one MP to step down at the same time.
The holder of the office holds it until the next appointment. So, the answer to Jamie Reed’s question is – he is still Steward of Northstead and he can enjoy the title for the time being. The next resignee will get the Chiltern Hundreds, and only when another MP wishes to step down will he lose the stewardship.