This House of Commons Briefing Paper looks at the oath of allegiance or affirmation which Members of both Houses of Parliament are required to take before they can take their seat. It focuses primarily on the Parliamentary Oath in the House of Commons, although later sections look at the oath in the House of Lords, the devolved legislatures and in certain Commonwealth countries. It also sets out some of the key stages in the history and development of the Parliamentary Oath.Jump to full report >>
Members of both Houses of Parliament are required by law to swear an oath of allegiance before they can take their seat in Parliament. The oath must be taken following a general election (even if the MP or Peer was a Member in the previous Parliament), by an MP elected at a by-election, and before taking a seat in the House of Lords. Any Member or Peer who objects to swearing an oath can make a solemn affirmation instead.
The Parliamentary Oaths Act 1866 states that the oath of allegiance 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.
In practice, at the beginning of a new Parliament all Members are offered the opportunity to take the oath or affirm. A number of days are set aside exclusively for this purpose between the election of the Speaker and the Queen’s Speech. These are known as “swearing in days”.
For a Member elected at a by-election the time for swearing in is set out in House of Commons Standing Order No. 6:
Members may take and subscribe the oath required by law at any time during the sitting of the House, before the orders of the day and notices of motions have been entered upon, or after they have been disposed of; but no debate or business shall be interrupted for that purpose.
Mr Speaker Bercow, following consultations with the Procedure Committee, changed the former practice of delaying swearing in till the start of main business in 2013 so that the time for Members to swear in is now after Questions but before Urgent Questions and Statements on Mondays to Thursdays. On a Friday (or another day on which for some reason there is no Question Time) swearing in takes places immediately after prayers and before the day's main business commences.
A notable difference to the swearing in process after a by-election is that there is a requirement for newly returned Members to be supported by two other Members of the House.
An MP who has not taken the oath or made the affirmation cannot participate in any formal proceedings of the House and may not sit in the Chamber or vote in divisions. In addition to not being able to take part in proceedings, Members of the House of Commons are not paid their salary until they have taken the oath or affirmed.
There is no obligation for MPs elected to take their seat in the House of Commons, and the practice of abstentionism has been adopted by certain Irish MPs as a matter of policy for nearly a century. However, penalties are applicable to MPs who participate in proceedings before they have formally taken up their seat in the House (that is, if they participate before having taken the oath or affirmed).
The Parliamentary Oaths Act 1866 states that:
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.
The legislation is clear therefore that any Member who participates in proceedings before having sworn in will be liable to a financial penalty (£500—the same level as was first set in 1701) and they will cease to be the Member. Subsequently a Writ would be moved to declare the seat vacant and a by-election would be held—at which the same Member could, at least in theory, stand again for election.
Commons Briefing papers CBP-7515
Author: Michael Everett