The Curious Matter of MP Resignations

As a Canadian, following UK politics is fairly simple since our systems of government and our parliamentary traditions and procedure are so similar. Yet every now and then, I learn something new about how things work at Westminster. Sometimes, it is something that I think might be a good idea to adopt in Canada – such as the incumbent Speaker campaigning for re-election as “Speaker”, and not as a member of a political party. Other times, however, I learn something that, quite frankly, I find rather baffling.

Such was the case recently when I discovered that MPs elected to the House of Commons can’t resign.

In Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, a Member who wishes to resign simply informs the Speaker in writing that they are doing so. If the Speaker isn’t available, there are other provisions available to the Member, for example, they can submit their letter of resignation to two other Members (in Canada), or to the Governor General (in Australia), etc. My point is not to go into procedural detail for each o these jurisdictions, but simply to make clear that a Member’s resignation is a fairly simple and straightforward procedure.

A Member of the UK House of Commons, however, can’t resign. According to Erskine May, “[I]t is a settled principle of parliamentary law that a Member, after he is duly chosen, cannot relinquish his seat; and, in order to evade this restriction, a Member who wishes to retire accepts office under the Crown, which legally vacates his seat and obliges the House to order a new writ.” (Erskine May, 23rd ed., p. 57) This rule dates back to 1642.

There are two offices to be used for this purpose – the Member will be appointed either steward or bailiff of Her Majesty’s three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham, or steward of the Manor of Northstead. These offices don’t actually exist – they probably did at one time, and have been preserved as “legal fictions” handed out by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to any Member who applies for them.

On the whole a rather quaint tradition, and one that hasn’t caused any problems until very recently, when Sinn Fein MP Gerry Adams announced that he was resigning his seat so that he can run for a seat in the Irish parliament. Now, it should be noted that the Sinn Fein MPs have never actually taken their seat in the House of Commons because they refuse to swear an oath of loyalty to the Queen. Similarly, Adams has said that he won’t apply for one of the two positions which would allow him to resign his seat at Westminster, thus forcing a by-election for his Belfast West seat. Adams, instead, wrote a letter to the Speaker informing him of his resignation, which, of course, is not how things are done.

This appears to be creating somewhat of a procedural standoff. Commons authorities are waiting for Adams to follow proper procedure and ask for one of the nominal appointments, and Adams bluntly refusing to do so.

Some might think that this would mean that Adams won’t be able to run for election to the Irish Parliament. Alas, this isn’t the case. In the UK, under the “Disqualifcations Act of 2000 means Westminster MPs can also sit in the Irish parliament, the Dail. In Ireland, members of parliament are banned from sitting in the European Parliament but not in the House of Commons.” Consequently, Adams can run and even win a seat in the Dail, while remaining an MP in the House of Commons, and he will remain an MP in the House of Commons until the next general election, expected in 2015:

The dual mandate option is unlikely to appeal to the Sinn Fein president, who has stressed that he is committed to serving only in the Dail.

Mr Morgan said that it leaves only a handful of other options for disqualification, including bankruptcy, mental illness or imprisonment for a term of more than a year.

“Assuming that none of these is likely to apply to Mr Adams, the only other option is elevation to the House of Lords and I think we can be quite sure that is not going to happen either,” he added. (BBC article reference above)

According to BBC political Editor Michael Crick, another option might be for Adams to show up and try to take his seat in the House of Commons. “He would then be automatically disqualified from the House on the grounds that he hasn’t sworn the oath, and a writ would then be moved for a by-election in West Belfast.”

As much as I love a lot of the ancient traditions that accompany Westminster-style parliamentary government, this might be one tradition that the House of Commons might want to consider modernizing by allowing MPs to resign the same way everyone else does – in writing, to the Speaker. Seems to work well enough in other jurisdictions.

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