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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

National Lottery

Question agreed to.

21 Jan 2004 : Column 1444

Honours System

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ainger.]

7.29 pm

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries) (Lab): I am pleased to have secured this Adjournment debate after a third attempt. In fact, when I first applied for the debate prior to the Christmas recess, I was informed by the Table Office that any questions on the honours system were answered by the Prime Minister and that, because my right hon. Friend does not reply to Adjournment debates, it would be impossible for me to secure such a debate. However, I raised the matter with the Leader of the House at business questions and was relieved to hear that he was of a similar frame of mind to myself and that a Cabinet Office Minister could reply. I am more than delighted to see the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Alexander) in his place this evening to do just that.

For some considerable time I have been extremely anxious about an apparent lack of transparency and openness in our honours system, and I am sure that other hon. Members and the public as a whole are concerned when some people receive honours for one reason or another, but many others in our communities appear to miss out—despite having as good as, if not a stronger, case for recognition of their achievements.

During December The Sunday Times ran an article about the leaking of a secret document by a Whitehall whistleblower. Apparently, according to the article, the minutes of the main honours committee revealed

Does not the secrecy of the system lend itself to such an accusation, irrespective of which Government are in power?

Honours for purely party-political services were discontinued in 1966, but that policy was reversed under the premierships of Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher, and John Major continued the policy of awarding political honours. However, it would be wrong to say that no attempts have been made in the past to address problems within the system. In fact, as long ago as the premiership of Lloyd George, and following scandals about honours being "bought", we saw the establishment of the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee in 1923. Following the setting up of a royal commission a year earlier to examine the procedures for the award of honours, its report eventually led to the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925. Strangely, there have been no prosecutions under that Act.

There have also been some recent and welcome improvements. In 1998, the Committee on Standards in Public Life under Lord Neill recommended that the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee should be renamed the Honours Scrutiny Committee and that the committee should be asked to scrutinise every case where a nominee for an honour of CBE or above had directly or indirectly donated £5,000 or more to a political party during the preceding five years. The committee should be satisfied that the donation had made no contribution to the nomination for an honour.

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A further review in 2001, commissioned by Sir Richard Wilson, looked at how the nominations system had developed over the 1990s. The dedicated nominations unit was established and a standard nomination form was produced.

It is the apparent lack of transparency in the honours system and the continuing under-recognition of the unsung heroes in our local communities on which I wish to concentrate my brief comments. Evidence suggests that about 30,000 "live" nominations are currently within the system. An average of 6,000 new nominations come in annually, and about the same number of unsuccessful nominations are taken off the list in order to keep it manageable.

My first point is that anyone making a nomination has no idea whether it is still being considered—unless, of course, the individual that they nominated receives an honour. To the best of my knowledge, no notification is given to those who have taken the time and the effort to submit a nomination. Bearing in mind that for the majority of applications it can take in excess of 18 months before an outcome is determined, I believe that notification of an unsuccessful application should be given. I suggest that, when the decision is made to remove a person's name from the list, all the people who supported the nomination should be informed of the decision not to progress it further. Leaving people in ignorance is no longer an option.

Much media attention was centred on the refusal by the poet Benjamin Zepheniah to accept an OBE. However, it has become clear that refusals are not uncommon. The figures show that, over the past eight or nine years, refusals have averaged about 2 per cent. a year. Undoubtedly, the reasons for that decision vary. If people refuse an honour, that is their choice, but those who have made nominations are entitled to know the outcome.

In recent years, there has been a fairly significant shift in the percentage of awards to people who dedicate so much of their time to voluntary work. I very much welcome that. In the 1994 birthday honours list, only one award in three was given for voluntary service. That figure rose to much nearer 50 per cent. over the next 10 years. In the 1999 new year's honours list, 57 per cent. of awards went to people who did voluntary work. However, I think that a greater percentage—of the order of 75 per cent. or even 80 per cent. of the awards—should go to those unsung heroes who dedicate so much of their time to voluntary service.

A huge number of nominations have been submitted from my constituency. Some of them have my endorsement, as I am aware of the quality of the community work that the people involved have carried out locally. My frustration at the lack of progress being made with the nominations is matched only by that of the people who made the submissions.

As might be expected, local people try—rightly or wrongly—to draw comparisons between the nominations that they have submitted and the awards that are made. Often, they become exasperated when a person who has received one honour then receives a second. That exasperation is even more intense when such recipients are seen to be doing no more than the jobs that they are employed to do.

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Inevitably, honours will continue to be bestowed on people who excel in their career or profession. Indeed, it could be argued that too few awards are made to people in professions such as teaching, nursing and social work. However, it is the ordinary men and women who sacrifice their time and effort in the voluntary sector who remain unrepresented.

I mentioned that a number of submissions from my area are still live in the system. They include nominations for those who work with young people in leisure and competitive pursuits, in uniformed youth organisations, and in the arts. There are also nominations for those who work with disabled people of all ages, and for those who work with carers. Many of those people have anywhere between 25 and 45 years' experience of voluntary work, and derive great pleasure from their work with specific groups. However, it is not only their time that they dedicate: all too often, they use their own finances to ensure that the work can continue.

I know that the talent that works on a voluntary basis in Dumfries and Galloway is evident right across our country. None of the people involved began their volunteering with the aim of being rewarded. Seeing young people develop skills and talents, or watching disabled youngsters smile and enjoy themselves, or providing help and support for those who care for loved ones on a daily basis, is reward enough. However, more recognition for their efforts, in the form of an honour, can only boost the morale of the army of volunteers who work so tirelessly. That, surely, is what our honours system should be about.

I understand that individual views about an application are subjective, but I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister accepts that there is concern about the current system. It needs to be either replaced, or significantly overhauled. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Mr. Wright), as Chairman of the Select Committee on Public Administration, has launched an inquiry into the honours system. I expect that the Committee, under his leadership, will look very closely indeed at what needs to be done if the system is to be improved. I hope that the Committee will undertake a close examination of how awards are given, and to whom, in different parts of the country, and of the variations that arise. From speaking to colleagues in the House, there seem to be significant discrepancies in our communities. Not enough people in the voluntary sector receive awards. In Dumfries and Galloway over the past four years, around 40 people have done so, and only 20 per cent. of those awards went to people in the voluntary sector, even though, as I know only too well, good work is done in my community.

I do not believe that there is enough local involvement in the honours selection process. Local panels should be established to assist with the process of considering applications and to recommend them to a committee of more senior standing that will deal with such matters.

Around three years ago, a television programme was transmitted on the honours system. I did not see it, but I am reliably informed that there was heavy emphasis on the role played by lords lieutenant. Sir Richard Wilson's review of the system in 2001 showed that around 1,200 public nominations a year do not fit into neat departmental categories. That results in their being

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handled by the ceremonial branch, which appears to obtain views from lords lieutenant. I fully appreciate that lords lieutenant are recognised as Her Majesty's local representatives, but I am not convinced that they necessarily possess full knowledge of an individual's involvement in whatever activity that individual is associated with. Nor do I believe that the average lord lieutenant is necessarily representative of our local communities. I would appreciate it if the Minister could detail the extent to which lords lieutenant are involved in determining whether an application should be taken forward and whether they actually have a say in the final decisions on honours.

As the system stands, in order to bring about fairness, accountability and openness in the selection process, I urge the Public Administration Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase to consider the secretive nature of the nine honours selection committees. If we are to create public confidence in the system, the committees should begin by naming, and possibly changing, the 54 people who sit on them. In 2001, that Whitehall group was described as a predominantly white, male, elderly elite. In spite of the system's secretive nature, I gather that the average age is 60, that only eight members are women and only two are from ethnic minorities. Two of the committees are still all male.

In the 2003 birthday honours list, only around 37 per cent. of recipients were women, and only 20 per cent. of those who received a CBE or higher were women. Black and ethnic minorities received less than 7 per cent. of the honours awarded, and just 3.5 per cent. of the CBEs or higher. If the honours list is to be as representative as possible of outstanding service and achievement across the whole country, whether in the public, private or voluntary fields, the people involved in the selection process must be representative of the population as a whole.

Finally, I want to mention the titles of the honours. The British empire was an important part of our history, and we should never be allowed to forget its significance. History books show, however, that as well as the positive side of our colonial past, there were many dark sides that should never be forgotten. I question the need to continue to link the empire to our honours system. Today's recipients of an honour are being recognised for their achievements in today's modern world, which brings with it the difficulties of today's modern society. For that reason, I hope that in continuing with an honours system, we can look for a modern system and discontinue the use of the phrase "British empire" in the awards.

I want to make it clear that I congratulate all recipients of honours over the years, and, as a Scot, to say that nothing gave me greater pleasure than seeing England's team winning the rugby world cup. I am delighted that all those who took part were rewarded well. I only ask why the 1966 football team were not rewarded so quickly. I can see that the Minister, as a fellow Scot, wonders why I mention all this. I do it to show that the system can be fast-tracked if necessary. I have no doubt that the awards in the new year's honours list were right.

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If we are to retain the awards system and if we are to overcome the growing cynicism towards it, it is time that a modern society in the UK begins to develop an honours system that meets our needs and that is, above all else, open and accountable. I hope, therefore, that my suggestions—proper feedback to those making nominations, more involvement of local communities with local panels considering nominations, an increase in the number of awards to the voluntary sector, a change in the membership of the honours selection committees and an end to references to "British Empire" in the title of awards—will be considered by the Minister. We are embarking on a debate that will inevitably bring the honours system very much to the fore in the months and years ahead.

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