Chiltern Hundreds and Manor of Northstead

3.22It is a settled principle of parliamentary law that a Member, after being duly chosen, cannot relinquish his or her seat;1 and, in order to evade this restriction, a Member who wishes to retire is appointed to an office under the Crown, which legally vacates the seat and obliges the House to order a new writ. The offices usually selected for this purpose are the office of steward or bailiff of Her Majesty's three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham, or that of the steward of the Manor of Northstead. These were undoubtedly offices or places of profit in former times,2 and the legal fictions of their existence and their disabling effect on Members have been carefully preserved in the subsequent statutes relating to disqualification.3 Under s 4 of the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 it is provided that for the purposes of the provisions of that Act relating to the vacation of the seat of a Member of the House of Commons who becomes disqualified by the 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 Pt III of sch 1 to the Act.

The practice is to issue the appointment to the Chiltern Hundreds and the Manor of Northstead alternately, so that, if desired, two Members can vacate their seats at the same time. A Member may vacate a seat by appointment to one of these offices in order to stand for re-election in the same or another constituency.4

These offices are today purely nominal and are ordinarily given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to any Member5 who applies for them6 or who otherwise indicates to the Chancellor an intention to retire.7 Each office is retained only until the Chancellor appoints another Member who wishes to retire, or until the holder applies for release from it.8

These offices can be granted during a recess.9 The appointment to any of them during a recess at once vacates the seat of the Member, but the statutory power conferred on the Speaker for the issue of a writ to fill up a vacancy caused by acceptance of office (see para 2.16 ) does not extend to vacancies caused by appointment to these stewardships, so no writ can be issued until the House returns.

Footnotes

  1. CJ (1547–1628) 724; ibid (1640–42) 201.
  2. According to Hatsell, the practice of applying for the Chiltern Hundreds began about 1750 (2 Hatsell 54n). The offices of steward of the manors of East Hendred and of Hempholme were previously also used for the purpose, the last occasions of their use being respectively 1840 and 1865. For the history of the offices, see HC 278 (1894) pp 57–58.
  3. See, for example, Re-election of Ministers Act 1919, sch; and HC 120 (1940–41) pp xix–xx.
  4. A sitting Member cannot stand for election to another seat without vacating the first one: for examples of where this has been done, see Erskine May (21st edn, 1989), p 52. For examples of acceptance of these offices for the purposes of re-election, see CJ (1852) 178, 185; Votes and Proceedings (1852) p 285; CJ (1865) 4, 50; ibid (1878) 402; ibid (1972–73) 137, 184; ibid (1985–86) 93, 94 (acceptance of office by 15 Members). In 1955, a Member accepted one of these offices in order to present himself at a by-election in his former constituency, but Parliament was dissolved before the new writ was issued (London Gazette, 25 March 1955, p 1780). Cf also the discharge of an order for the issue of a writ for a by-election caused by the death of a Member which would have been overtaken by the general election announced subsequent to the order being made (CJ (1982–83) 365; HC Deb (1982–83) 42, c 727). In 2008, a Member accepted one of these offices for the purpose of campaigning in the subsequent by-election on a specific issue of public policy (CJ (2007–08) 461, 466, 543).
  5. Unsworn Members may be granted these offices (CJ (1849) 340; ibid (1857) 343). When in 1884, Bradlaugh sat and voted without being sworn, he was granted the Chiltern Hundreds, which enabled a new writ to be issued to fill the vacancy which his action had created (ibid (1884) 46). In 1847–48, a Member who had doubts about whether or not he was qualified to sit applied for the Chiltern Hundreds. As the time for challenging his return had expired and as the House had no official cognisance of his probable disqualification, there could be no objection to his accepting the office. See also CJ (2010–12) 400; CJ (2012–13) 440; Votes and Proceedings, 16 June 2018.
  6. Parl Deb (1893–94) 8, c 50; ibid (1902) 103, c 212. The grant of the Chiltern Hundreds has been refused (see 18 Parl Hist 418n; HC 544 (1842); Lord Dalling Life of Lord Palmerston (1874) iii, p 103.) See the Memorandum of the then Chancellor of the Exchequer to the Select Committee on House of Commons (Vacating of Seats) (HC 278 (1894) 57–58) on the power to grant or withhold an appointment.
  7. HC Deb (2010–12) 522, c 404.
  8. Appointments to either office are seriatim, HC Deb (2012–13) 551, c 857.
  9. Parl Deb (1892) 1, c 462.