Select Committee on Public Administration Fifth Report


126. In reaching our conclusions, we have measured the honours system against the principles we set out in Chapter One. We have asked whether it properly rewards excellence, and whether it demonstrates integrity, transparency, dignity, clarity and fairness.

127. It is a mixed picture. We have found that there is widespread public acceptance of the value of the awards made in the Order of the British Empire. This part of the system is respected as a dignified and appropriate way of rewarding achievement, and helps to make the country "feel good about itself", to use the words of the Wilson Review. It has in many ways fulfilled the democratic hopes expressed at the time of its introduction in the early part of the last century. Nor is there evidence of the pervasive and systematic corruption of the system that destroyed its reputation in the 1920s, when Parliament had to legislate to ban the buying and selling of honours. The safeguards introduced then and the changed environment of public life have in most cases been effective in maintaining the integrity of the process.


128. However, we share the unease expressed by a number of our witnesses at the continued award of honours to donors and others who have rendered political or similar service. There was special concern about the use of honours as the 'lubricant of the state', and some scepticism at the claims of those who run the system that it is entirely based on merit. The regular conferral of knighthoods on Members is sometimes viewed, cynically, as a mere tool of political party management. This invites unflattering comparisons with countries such as France and Canada, which exclude serving members of their parliamentary bodies from receiving certain honours. The hereditary baronetcy conferred by Mr Major on Sir Denis Thatcher, an award which appears to have caused Mr Major some discomfort[111], is just one example of the difficulties faced by British Prime Ministers.

129. This makes the honours themselves more vulnerable to criticism. Even though the Prime Minister is often seen as merely providing a rubber stamp for the work of the Cabinet Office when he passes his list to Buckingham Palace, the danger is that the appearance of political involvement can tarnish the system. Lloyd George and Harold Wilson both suffered blows to their standing because of the way they dispensed honours, but the reputation of honours was damaged too. After more than a quarter of a century, the odour of Wilson's notorious 'lavender list' still lingers, however faintly. As well as tainting public life, this is unfair on the many thousands of deserving holders of honours.

130. One of the main reasons for this problem is the continuing failure to make the system transparent. While accepting that individual decisions must remain confidential, we are frustrated that so much of the process is still secret. Our inquiry revealed a system that is out of date and out of line with good governance. The Nolan reforms of the 1990s, setting out principles for the proper conduct of public business, have had a profound and salutary impact on public life. In particular, Nolan made clear the need for greater transparency about decision-making in the public sector. The passage of the Freedom of Information Act has taken the process further, and even the security services have recently become more open. But the honours system remains a bastion of the 'need-to-know' culture. In other countries, such reticence is not thought to be necessary for the administration of the honours system.

131. Our investigations into the case of Professor Blakemore demonstrated the disadvantages of keeping the system largely secret. Once the controversy had become public, it would surely have been prudent for officials to explain to us the sequence of events. Despite our efforts, however, the nature of the honours committee discussion about Professor Blakemore and the status of the disputed minute remained obscure. Committee names are still kept confidential. We found it hard to give the system a clean bill of health because parts of it remained, and still remain, a mystery to us and to the general public.

132. The evidence of Ms Hoey and Lord Monro raises serious questions about another aspect of the system; the nature and extent of ministerial accountability. In some cases, ministers have only a hazy idea of how their own department's system works, and are not in a position to defend or explain the outcomes. Prime Ministers are rarely forthcoming about their own very active involvement in the process. If ministers are neither willing nor able to account for their stewardship of the honours system, there is no reason why they should continue to play such an important role in it.

133. Neither is there enough independent scrutiny in the system. The balance between civil servants and others on the honours committees favours insiders—and insiders who are also largely unaccountable. We were repeatedly assured that the independent members of the honours committees were of the highest distinction and probity, yet the fact that they are anonymous makes it difficult to prove that the system is fair. A much more robust and transparent guarantee of integrity is required.


134. If public support for the honours system is to be maintained over the long term, it needs to have a clearer, simpler structure. We found that few people have any grasp of the difference between a CB and a CBE, or why some people become GBEs, some KBEs and some are simply Knights Bachelor. Name-changing honours are especially baffling, and carry connotations of social divisiveness. Simon Jenkins and Peter Harper were among those distinguished people who were delighted with the recognition of a knighthood but unhappy at using the title; a number of members of the House of Lords exhibit a similar sort of discomfort and avoid using their titles. Increasingly, titles appear to be an embarrassment rather than a cause for celebration. As we have noted, many other Commonwealth countries have abandoned knighthoods and other name-changing titles, without damaging their public life in any noticeable way. It is perfectly possible to recognise different levels of contribution to the community without conferring knighthoods—a fact acknowledged by Lord Curzon nearly a century ago when he considered proposals for the Companion of Honour.


135. We considered carefully the treatment of state servants by the honours system. In one sense, the honours that are conferred on the most successful—the permanent secretaries, generals and ambassadors—can be seen as appropriate recognition of their distinction and achievement. From that point of view, such honours uphold our principle of excellence, rewarding the outstanding qualities which are necessary to make it to the top. The numbers involved are by definition very small and do not reduce the chances of others being honoured.

136. On the other hand, the seemingly automatic nature of the awards, the sense that they are expected and assumed, creates a feeling of unfairness and undermines the credibility of the system—especially when senior civil servants are so prominent on the honours committees. The argument that honours are needed to compensate for low state pay is hardly conclusive; in strict logic, it would mean that those in paid employment in the voluntary sector (where salaries are often very modest) should be treated with even greater generosity. Privileged access for state servants is something of an anachronism. The original historical justification for favourable treatment has weakened as the Nolan principle of selection on merit has established itself as an integral part of public life. The practical utility of some honours also appears dubious. Lord Hurd's view after many years in the Foreign Office, was that ambassadorial knighthoods were simply not necessary to the proper conduct of diplomacy, while a former ambassador's wife described to us her husband's unsuccessful battle to avoid acquiring one.[112]

137. A recurrent theme in the evidence to us was a general dislike of honours being given to someone simply for doing their job. It was thought that something extra should be required (as in Sir David King's reference to 'good citizenship'). We have much sympathy for this view. However the nation will also sometimes want to recognise outstanding achievement in its own right, especially when it brings with it significant public benefit. These considerations make it essential that the criteria for honours, at different levels, are made as clear as possible.


138. Neither is the system entirely successful in supporting public service reform. There is still too little to encourage those on the front line. While the Government has made admirable efforts to honour properly those who serve the public directly, the lists still appear to give senior policy officials rather too much of what they expect. This Whitehall-centred approach is also out of line with recent Government professions of support for localism, whether new or old.


139. We have paid tribute to the respect in which the Order of the British Empire is generally held. But it suffers from one significant flaw. The presence of the word 'Empire' in the title of this most frequently-conferred Order is, we believe, no longer acceptable. The term is thought to embody values that are no longer shared by many of the population.

140. This is anachronistic and insensitive, an inappropriate symbol for today's Britain. The United Kingdom has an increasingly diverse population, many of them with links to the countries of the former Empire, and they are often uneasy at something that reminds them of imperial domination. Ms Alibhai-Brown and others persuasively argued that this reminder of foreign rule made it more difficult for people to feel 'British in their hearts'. Irrespective of other considerations, the fact that the current nomenclature of honours makes it difficult for some potential recipients to accept them suggests that change is now necessary.

Options for change

141. Having reviewed the evidence, we have identified three options for the future of the honours system. These are:

142. We favour a judicious combination of the last two options. To leave the system unreformed, at a time when parts of it appear out of tune with recent developments in public life and some profound social changes, is not a realistic option. On the other hand we do not wish to destroy a system which brings so much pleasure and expresses public gratitude for so much excellent service. It is an important part of the fabric of our national life.

143. History demonstrates that reform can work. Indeed, evidence from the France of President de Gaulle, who radically reshaped his country's honours system, culling 16 obsolete orders, shows that a ruthlessly unsentimental approach to the honours system can co-exist with fervent patriotism.[113] We were impressed that John Major, who initiated the last concerted reform in 1993, now favours a more radical, though still measured, approach. We believe that he is right, and explain our proposals in the next Chapter.

111   Q 888 Back

112   HON 73 Back

113   Wilson Review: Criteria for levels of honours, para 46 Back

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