WPC chairmanship in doubt as Field resigns Labour whip

by Kim Kaveh and James Phillips

Veteran parliamentarian Frank Field has resigned the Labour whip to serve as an independent Labour MP, sparking uncertainty over his role as chair of the Work and Pensions Committee (WPC).

His resignation means his continued chairmanship of the WPC is now uncertain, as select committee chairman positions are allocated between parties proportionately based on the number of MPs they have.

A tweet by the WPC – since deleted – said there was “no effect” on the chair’s position as he had not resigned from the Labour Party.

Royal London director of policy Steve Webb explained there are effectively three paths ahead for the committee, but the situation was “unprecedented”.

He said either the House of Commons votes to remove Field from the position after an MP submits a motion, which the Labour party may want to do to discourage other potential defectors; or Field also resigns his Birkenhead seat to call a by-election, at which point he would be automatically removed from the committee and replaced by a Labour MP.

If neither of those options happens, Field will continue to serve as an independent chairman of the committee.

Hoping MPs support Field in “retaining this key role” if the issue came to a parliamentary vote, Webb said the chances of Field being removed were slim.

“Labour might go to the House of Commons and say ‘hang on a minute, we’re supposed to have a Labour chair of this committee. That’s the deal. He’s not Labour anymore; we want him out’,” he said. “I think you would need a motion of the House of Commons to get him out and I don’t think that would pass.

“So, my hunch is the most likely way he would go is if he caused a by-election [for Birkenhead]. He would no longer be an MP, Parliament would choose a new Labour chair of the committee. If Frank got back in again, there would be no ‘move over mate’ unless that new Labour chairman then resigned.”

The window for Labour, or any other MP, to submit a motion to the House of Commons seeking Field’s removal is small for the immediate future. Parliament is still in its Summer Recess, returning on 4 September for seven working days before breaking again for party conference season.

In the meantime, the WPC will hold its first oral hearing session in its inquiry into pension costs and transparency on 5 September.

Resignation

In a letter to Labour’s chief whip Nick Brown released yesterday (30 August), Field said was quitting over “current excuses for the party’s toleration of anti-Semitism”, and called on Labour to regain its position as being the leading force against racism in this country.

He added that the leadership needed to “recognise the culture of nastiness, bullying, and intimidation that it has allowed to grow unchecked and expel local members whose public conduct is simply disgraceful”.

Field – who has represented Birkenhead since 1979 – further noted in the statement: “The party needs to send out a clear signal against nastiness, bullying, and intimidation at every level by taking effective action.”

However, the WPC chairman declared his intent to continue to represent Birkenhead in Westminster, as he has “had the honour to do so for almost 40 years, and I will do so as an independent Labour member. I shall of course remain party member as I have been since 1960”.

He concluded: “The values I have espoused during this time will be the same that will continue to govern my conduct as I also intend, providence willing, to represent those views when the next election is called.”