Why Members take an oath of allegiance
Oaths of allegiance to the Crown are fairly common in British public life and are similar to those in other countries where a declaration of loyalty is made to the state.
Members of both Houses of Parliament are required by law to take an oath of allegiance to the Crown on taking their seat in Parliament.
Until the oath or affirmation is taken, an MP may not receive a salary, take their seat, speak in debates or vote. They could also be fined £500 and – more important – have their seat declared vacant “as if they were dead” if they attempt to do so.
Similar restrictions apply to Members of the Lords: they may not sit, vote or receive allowances until they take the oath or affirmation.
Wording of the oaths
The wording of the oath is prescribed by the Promissory Oaths Act 1868. The form and manner of administering the oath are set out in the Oaths Act 1978.
An MP takes the oath by holding the sacred text in his or her uplifted hand and says the words of the oath.
I (name of Member) swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.
The Act also permits the oath to be taken in the Scottish manner, with uplifted hand but not holding the sacred text. Members who want to do so may also take the oath as prescribed in the Promissory Oaths Act 1868, by kissing the book and using the words:
I (name of Member) do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.
Texts of the oath and affirmation in Braille are available for use by Members of both Houses with impaired sight.
The oath/affirmation must be made/taken initially in English, but Members of both Houses may, if they wish, to follow this with an oath or affirmation in Welsh, Scottish Gaelic or Cornish.
Oath/affirmation cards in these languages are available at the time of swearing-in.
Yr wyf yn addo, trwy gymorth y Goruchaf, y byddaf yn ffyddlon ac yn wir deyrngar i’w Mawrhydi, y Frenhines Elizabeth, ei hetifeddion a’i holynwyr, yn ôl y Ddeddf, yn wyneb Duw.
Scottish Gaelic wording
Tha mi a’ mionnachadh air DIA UILECHUMHACHDACH gum bi mi dìleas agus daingeann d’a Mòrachd, a’ Bhan-Rìgh Ealasaid, a h-Oighrean agus ladsan a thig na h-Aite, a’rèir an Lagha. DIA gam chuideachadh.
Me a le gans Dew Ollgallojak del vedhaf len ha perthy omryans gwyr dhe Hy Braster an Vyternes Elisabet, hy Erys ha Sewyoryon, herwyth an laha. Ytho Dew re'm gweressa.
Wording of the solemn affirmation
Alternatively, also under the Oaths Act 1978, Members may make a solemn affirmation instead of taking an oath, using the words:
I (name of Member) do solemnly, sincerely, and truly declare and affirm, that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law.
A new Parliament
After a general election, the new Parliament is opened by the Royal Commission in the House of Lords, in the presence of Members of both Houses, after which the House of Commons meets to elect a Speaker and the Lords commences oath taking.
Taking the oath in the House of Commons
At the start of a new Parliament, all MPs (whether or not they have been MPs in the past) must take the oath of allegiance or make a solemn affirmation.
After the Commons Speaker has taken the oath, MPs come forward one by one to swear or affirm at the despatch box. MPs take the oath/affirm in order of seniority:
- Father of the House (the longest continuous serving Member)
- Cabinet Ministers
- Shadow Cabinet Ministers
- Privy Counsellors
- Other Ministers
- Other Members in order of seniority (by the Parliament of first entry or, for those with broken service, that of most recent entry)
The Principal Clerk of the Table Office at the despatch box offers a choice of affirmation or oath cards to read. If the MP wishes to swear on a sacred text, that will be provided. At the Table are:
- the New Testament
- the Old Testament (in English and Hebrew, or in Hebrew)
- the Koran
- the Granth
- the Welsh Bible
- the Gaelic Bible
Those books which may not be handled by non-believers are kept in slip-cases.
The MP takes the oath or affirms, then moves along the Table to the Clerk Assistant and signs the Test Roll, a parchment book headed by the oath and affirmation which is kept by the Clerk of the House of Commons.
Finally, the MP is introduced to the Commons Speaker by the Clerk of the House. After shaking the Speaker’s hand, the MP goes behind the Speaker’s Chair, where staff will take a signature for recognition purposes and ask how the MP wishes to be known in House documents.
The initial period of swearing in lasts for about two hours. Most MPs are sworn on the first day, although the House of Commons will also meet for swearing-in on following days.
Taking the oath in the House of Lords
The swearing in procedure for taking the oath is similar in the House of Lords. Immediately after the Royal Commission for the opening of Parliament, Members of the Lords present their writs of summons at the Table of the House and take the oath or subscribe to the affirmation.
Members are also required to sign an undertaking to abide by the House of Lords Code of Conduct as part of the swearing in procedure for the new 2010 Parliament. This implements a new Code of Conduct, agreed by the House on 30 November 2009.
After the initial swearing in process most MPs and Members of the Lords are able to sit and vote in each House. Any remaining MPs or Members of the Lords can take the oath at later sittings.
When the majority of MPs and Members of the Lords have been sworn in, both Houses of Parliament are ready to hear the Queen's Speech at the State Opening starting the business of the session.
Determining order of seniority of MPs
If two or more MPs enter the House at the same election their seniority is determined by the date and/or time they took the oath. The question of seniority can arise for example when deciding who might become 'Father of the House', the MP who presides over the election of a new Speaker.
By-elections and MPs
MPs who have been elected at a by-election are accompanied from the bar of the House by two sponsors. The new Member will have collected a certificate relating to his or her election from the Public Bill Office to hand to the Clerk of the House before taking the oath or making the affirmation.
Commons Library briefing
The House of Commons Library produces briefing papers to inform MPs of key issues. The papers contain factual information and a range of opinions on each subject, and aim to be politically impartial.
Image: Parliamentary copyright / Catherine Bebbington