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Political Honours (Amendment)

4.24 pm

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin) : I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to restrict the granting of honours for political purposes.

It is 10 years since, shortly after assuming office, the Prime Minister restored the power that previous Prime Ministers had had to grant honours for political purposes. This is a particularly urgent matter because, in 10 days' time, there will be a new Queen's birthday honours list, with some 1,000 names on it and some 250 different distinctions and decorations being awarded, ranging from peerages at the top to the British Empire medal at the bottom. Few hon. Members would object when some recognition is given to people who otherwise receive little reward or recognition--those who are outstanding in times of national disasters and those who for long periods provide voluntary service to their communities. But that is not what is happening under the honours system as managed by the Prime Minister. Indeed, it rarely happened under the honours system in the past.

In the past 10 years, the honours system has had two main characteristics. There has been a massive exercise of patronage by the Prime Minister. It may be called the Queen's birthday honours, and it may be the Queen's birthday, but the honours are the Prime Minister's. In addition, the kind of honour that is given depends not so much on what a person has done as on who he or she is. It is closely related to rank in society. We do not yet know whether in the forthcoming Queen's birthday honours any awards will be given to the people who were involved in the rescue operations after the Lockerbie air disaster, the Clapham disaster and, more recently, the Hillsborough disaster, but we can predict with certainty that the recognition given to them will be nothing compared with the recognition given to a time-serving Conservative Member of Parliament or an industrialist who gives large sums to the Conservative party. It is historic fact that in the same honours in which the Prime Minister's adviser on publicity and public relations received a knighthood, the fireman who was badly injured in the Bradford fire received the British Empire medal, the lowest of awards that can be given. For anyone who is in any doubt, the citation for the British Empire medal spells it out beautifully : it is to be

"awarded to those who do not qualify by rank for a higher medal". We know that, whatever aspect of our society is being recognised, the honour depends on a person's rank. If an honour goes to the Civil Service, the permanent secretaries get the knighthoods ; the clerical officers, if they get anything at all, get the lowest rank of honour. A knighthood comes as automatic rank for a permanent secretary-- [Interruption.] Conservative Members are apparently horrified at the prospect of recognition of rank in our society differing from that. We know that if honours are to be given to the Health Service, knighthoods go to the chairmen of district health authorities but if nurses and hospital porters were to be recognised, which they are not, the honour would be at the lowest rank. If awards are to be given to the education service, the knighthoods go to the vice-chancellors of universities while teachers in busy city-centre comprehensives get nothing or the lowest level of award.

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My Bill has two objectives. I am sure that the main part of it will be non-controversial and therefore not opposed. It is taken from an editorial in The Times on 31 December 1987, which stated : "Honours should be taken out of the direct gift of the Prime Minister and politicians. They should be controlled by a strong, independent body."

I agree wholeheartedly with that statement, but I would go even further. We need a commission of inquiry into the honours system to determine whether it continues to serve any useful purpose in our society.

The way in which the Prime Minister has used the honours system is quite disgraceful. For example, the main characteristic in the decision whether to reward an industrialist is not the contribution that his company has made to the economy, but the contribution that it has made to Conservative party funds. Two thirds of the 110 industrialists awarded knighthoods or peerages by the Prime Minister represent companies which contribute to Conservative party funds. Yet only one third of the top 200 companies contribute to Tory party funds. The chance of an honour is roughly doubled if an industrialist contributes to Conservative party funds. That is outrageous and should be stopped.

Another aspect is the granting of honours to Conservative Members of Parliament. When I returned to this place after an absence of eight years I recognised many familiar faces on the Conservative Benches, but I could not get used to the fact that almost all of them had knighthoods. I have done a little checking and discovered that 100 of them have knighthoods and that only four Conservative Members with continuous service since 1964 do not have one--

Hon. Members : Name them.

Mr. Julian Critchley (Aldershot) rose --

Mr. Grocott : The hon. Gentleman and his three Friends deserve the admiration of the whole House.

We know of the awards given to the ideological supporters of the Conservative party in the past 10 years. Massive awards have been given to Aims of Industry, the Centre for Policy Studies, and the Institute of Economic Affairs--presumably on the basis of the economic advice that it has given to the Government. Now that the Government's economic policy is falling apart, I wonder whether the awards will be handed back.

I find it a disgraceful practice to reward journalists for doing their job, and I speak as a member of the National Union of Journalists. The overwhelming majority of those given awards are known for their political neutrality, such as Lord Wyatt, but the one group that will not receive awards anything like those given to Lord Wyatt are those doing such an outstanding job reporting what is happening in China under conditions of great danger.

I doubt whether this uncontroversial Bill will be opposed. If it is, I hope that it will not be opposed by any hon. Member who has been either a beneficiary of the present system or hopes to be so in the future. It is common sense to recognise after this length of time that the honours system has been abused by the Prime Minister. We should scrap the present method of fixing political honours and set up a public inquiry. The House should support my Bill.

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4.34 pm

Mr. Neil Hamilton (Tatton) : As one who qualifies under the criteria laid down by the hon. Member for the Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) of neither having been a beneficiary, nor likely to be one, of the honours system-- [Interruption.] I am encouraged by the objections of my right hon. Friend the Patronage Secretary. I do not know whether it is an indirect attempt to shut me up. In the past, that has sometimes been his objective.

It would be wrong to allow this opportunity to pass without a sensible point of view being put across. I am surprised at the sensitivity--indeed, the gall--of the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) in introducing a Bill of this kind. He was a Back-Bench supporter of a previous Administration, which we recall with some fondness, headed by Lord Wilson of Rievaulx, so I can only regard the hon. Gentleman's speech today as a kind of atonement for some of the events that occurred in 1976. We recall that Lord Wilson in the honours list of that year not only provided titles for people, but for many of them he provided official residences as well, particularly residences with a high degree of security--with bars on the windows.

I do not know whether hon. Members representing the centre parties in the House intend, if there is a Division. to support the hon. Member for The Wrekin, but we recall with fondness another man of high principle who held the highest office of state open to a mere commoner--Mr. Lloyd George, who did many great things in the course of his long Administration, the greatest of which was the sale of peerages on a very substantial scale indeed. I do not recall that in the days of the "lavender list" we had any calls for witch-hunts in No. 10 Downing street by, for example, the hon. Members for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and all the other great men of rectitude on the Opposition Benches. Nor do I recall recently--say, just before the last election--the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) being slow off the mark in using the honours list to reward his former right hon. Friend, now Lord Cocks, for the great services that he had rendered to the Opposition in making way--we were delighted at the occurrence--for the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster). Clearly, the honours system has its uses from time to time for Opposition Members.

Perhaps I may recall an utterance by the late Lord Keynes, who said that dangerous human proclivities could be canalised into relatively harmless courses by the making of money. We do it far mor effectively and cheaply by the maintenance of an honours system. The worst corruption that we have witnessed in this country in recent years has been the corruption that comes from Socialism, whereby the Government of the day bribe the electors with their own money-- [Interruption.]-- as in the Hull by-election of 1967, which brought the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) to the House, although we do not often see him these days, except on television.

The honours system provides a relatively harmless and costless way of rewarding people who perform great functions to the state. Honours are awarded in all walks of life. We have the sportsman of the year, for example. Last year we could have given the Leader of the Opposition the award of foreign traveller of the year for the great services that he performed in Zimbabwe. This year he may qualify

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for the title of broadcaster of the year for the signal services that he has performed for the Conservative party in recent weeks on BBC radio.

The hon. Member for The Wrekin, in his egalitarian extremism, seems sadly out of touch with the new model Labour party. I do not know whether he is forming an alliance with the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), whose desire it is to abolish the whole honours system and perhaps replace it with a kind of dishonours system with the public stripping of double- barrelled names, the expunging of entries from Who's Who, the public burning of pedigrees and the presentation of a certificate of proletarianism to prove that one can be prolier than thou.

The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) cane up with the wizard idea just before the last election of creating 1,000 peers in order to abolish the House of Lords. But then, of course, he realised that the whipping system in the House of Lords is perhaps rather less strict than it is in this House and that he would not be able to achieve his objective. It would be a shame indeed to abolish the only real opposition to the Government in this country today, which is in the House of Lords. I say that just to show that I can be fair-minded.

It would also be a shame to frustrate the legitimate expectations of my right hon. and hon. Friends. Mention has already been made in an oblique way to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley), of whom it must be said that any attempt to honour him would be merely to put tinsel on the Christmas tree, as he carries such great dignity in any event that it would be impossible to expand it. It would be a shame, too, to frustrate the legitimate desires of the many Labour councillors who petition Conservative Members of Parliament from time to time for some recognition of the great work that they perform in the interest of the public. I am sure that hon. Members will readily agree that the rewards of public life are few and small when compared with the great sacrifices that we make for the benefit of the public.

I hope that all my hon. Friends and perhaps some Opposition Members who have nothing else to look forward to but the prospect of some meretricious honour of this kind, will join me in the Lobby in opposition to the Bill.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 19 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business) :--

The House divided : Ayes 134, Noes 128.

Division No. 230] [4.40 pm


Adams, Allen (Paisley N)

Allen, Graham

Archer, Rt Hon Peter

Armstrong, Hilary

Ashton, Joe

Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)

Battle, John

Bell, Stuart

Benn, Rt Hon Tony

Boyes, Roland

Bradley, Keith

Bray, Dr Jeremy

Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)

Caborn, Richard

Callaghan, Jim

Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)

Campbell-Savours, D. N.

Canavan, Dennis

Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)

Clelland, David

Clwyd, Mrs Ann

Cook, Frank (Stockton N)

Corbett, Robin

Corbyn, Jeremy

Cousins, Jim

Cryer, Bob

Cunliffe, Lawrence

Dalyell, Tam

Darling, Alistair

Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)

Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)

Dixon, Don

Dobson, Frank

Duffy, A. E. P.

Column 245

Dunnachie, Jimmy

Eastham, Ken

Evans, John (St Helens N)

Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray)

Fatchett, Derek

Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)

Fisher, Mark

Flannery, Martin

Flynn, Paul

Forsythe, Clifford (Antrim S)

Foster, Derek

Foulkes, George

Fraser, John

Fyfe, Maria

Galbraith, Sam

Garrett, John (Norwich South)

Godman, Dr Norman A.

Golding, Mrs Llin

Gould, Bryan

Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)

Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)

Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)

Grocott, Bruce

Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy

Haynes, Frank

Heffer, Eric S.

Henderson, Doug

Hinchliffe, David

Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)

Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)

Hoyle, Doug

Hughes, John (Coventry NE)

Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)

Hughes, Roy (Newport E)

Illsley, Eric

Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)

Kennedy, Charles

Kilfedder, James

Lamond, James

Leighton, Ron

Lestor, Joan (Eccles)

Livingstone, Ken

Loyden, Eddie

McCartney, Ian

McFall, John

McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)

McLeish, Henry

Madden, Max

Mahon, Mrs Alice

Mallon, Seamus

Marek, Dr John

Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)

Martlew, Eric

Meale, Alan

Michael, Alun

Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)

Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)

Moonie, Dr Lewis

Morgan, Rhodri

Morley, Elliott

Mullin, Chris

Murphy, Paul

Nellist, Dave

O'Neill, Martin

Patchett, Terry

Pike, Peter L.

Powell, Ray (Ogmore)

Quin, Ms Joyce

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