Every MP must take an oath of allegiance to His Majesty King Charles III at the beginning of a new Parliament. If they do not, then they cannot sit or vote in the House of Commons.

This Insight looks at the statutory basis for what is known as the Parliamentary Oath. Members of the House of Lords must also take an oath, although this is not discussed in this Insight.

Taking the Parliamentary Oath

Once a Speaker has received the Royal Approbation and returned to the House of Commons, the next item of business at the beginning of a new Parliament is for all MPs to take and subscribe (or affirm) the “oath required by law”. The Speaker is the first to do so, standing upon the upper step of the Speaker’s Chair. The Clerk of the Commons “administers” this oath.

Other MPs then follow. Since the beginning of the 1997 Parliament, Members have been called to take the oath in order of seniority: first the Mother and Father of the House, then members of the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet, other Privy Counsellors, other ministers of the Crown and finally other MPs “according to seniority” (length of service).

MPs normally continue to take the oath on that day and on one or more subsequent days. These are known as “swearing in days”. MPs are also able to take the oath, if necessary, at subsequent sittings. Immediately after taking the oath, MPs sign the Test Roll (a book containing the text of the oath) and are introduced to the Speaker by the Clerk of the House.

Statutory basis of oath

Section 1 of the Parliamentary Oaths Act 1866 provides that an oath (the Parliamentary Oath) must be “made and subscribed by members of both Houses of Parliament on taking their seats in every Parliament”. Section 3 provides that it must be taken:

by every member of the House of Commons at the table in the middle of the said House, and whilst a full House of Commons is there duly sitting, with their Speaker in his chair, at such hours and according to such regulations as each House may by its standing orders direct.

Section 1 of the Oaths Act 1978 provides that the person taking the oath:

shall hold the New Testament, or, in the case of a Jew, the Old Testament, in his uplifted hand, and shall say or repeat after the officer administering the oath the words “I swear by Almighty God that . . . . . .”, followed by the words of the oath prescribed by law.

The oath “prescribed by law” is in section 2 of the Promissory Oaths Act 1868:

I [name of Member] do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to [His] Majesty King Charles the Third, his heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.

MPs may also swear on any holy text they have requested: section 1(3) of the Oaths Act 1978 provides that in the case of a person who is neither a Christian nor a Jew, “the oath shall be administered in any lawful manner”.

Section 3 provides that a person can also swear the oath with “uplifted hand” (and no text), which is the “form and manner in which an oath is usually administered in Scotland”. Section 5 allows for a non-religious “solemn affirmation” in place of swearing, while section 6 provides the form of such an affirmation.

By law the oath or affirmation must be made in English, but MPs may subsequently repeat it in another language. Following the 2017 general election, for example, oath and affirmation cards were made available in Ulster Scots, Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh and Cornish in addition to English.

Penalties for not taking the oath

An MP who has not taken the oath or made the affirmation cannot participate in any formal proceedings of the House of Commons and cannot sit in the chamber or vote in divisions. Under a ruling by the Speaker in 1924, they will also not be paid a salary.

Section 5 of the Parliamentary Oaths Act 1866 provides the penalty for participating in Commons business without having taken the oath:

if any member of the House of Commons votes as such in the said House, or sits during any debate after the Speaker has been chosen, without having made and subscribed the oath hereby appointed, he shall be subject to a like penalty for every such offence, and in addition to such penalty his seat shall be vacated in the same manner as if he were dead.

In that scenario, a writ would be moved to declare the seat vacant, and a by-election would be held. The penalty is £500, which can be recovered in the High Court.

Sinn Féin MPs and the oath

MPs representing Sinn Féin refuse to swear the oath or make the affirmation as they do not recognise the King as head of state and desire a united Ireland. As a result, Sinn Féin MPs do not take their seats in the House of Commons. This long-standing policy is known as “abstention”.

This means Sinn Féin MPs do not receive a salary. However, since a Commons resolution of 18 December 2001 (which took effect on 8 January 2002), those MPs have been able to use Parliament’s facilities and services and can claim some expenses, such as travel costs:

Members who have chosen not to take their seats and thus do not qualify to participate in the proceedings in Parliament may use the facilities within the precincts of the House and the services of departments of the House, and may claim support for their costs as set out in the Resolution of 5th July 2001, relating to Members’ Allowances, Insurance &c., and the allowances relating to travel within the United Kingdom for Members, their families and staff.

In 1999 the late Martin McGuinness, then a Sinn Féin MP (and future deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland) challenged the obligation to take the oath in the European Court of Human Rights. The court held unanimously that this did not contravene the terms of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In 2010, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Owen Paterson, told Mr McGuinness that if the oath was “an obstacle” to Sinn Féin MPs taking their seats in the Commons, then they could suggest “an alternative text”.

No oath of allegiance is required for Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) at Stormont, where Sinn Féin members play a full part in Northern Ireland Assembly proceedings.

Further reading:

About the author: Dr David Torrance is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in monarchy and the constitution.

Photo Credit: House of Commons Chambers Credit: ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

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