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7.46 pm

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Douglas Alexander): I have listened with interest to the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown). Time is pressing this evening, as I understand that he has a Burns supper to attend, and as a fellow Scot, I would not want to come between my hon. Friend and a plate of haggis and neeps. Also as a fellow Scot, it is hard to resist pointing out that the 1966 England football team was defeated by the Scottish team in 1967.

My hon. Friend has raised a number of important points, and I have noted his concerns about the current honours system. I will respond to some of his specific points in a few moments and I will also give a brief overview of the current honours process, but I would like to begin by recognising the fact that, as he pointed out, my hon. Friend experienced difficulty in securing tonight's debate.

The Prime Minister is responsible for the honours system. However, it has been a long-standing convention under successive Administrations that the Prime Minister does not take part in Adjournment debates such as this, and thus it has not in the past been possible to hold a debate on the issue in these circumstances. After my hon. Friend raised the matter with the Leader of the House at business questions on 18 December 2003, I was asked to represent the Prime Minister on this occasion so that my hon. Friend could secure his debate.

As my hon. Friend acknowledged in his introductory remarks, responsibility for the honours system clearly rests with the Prime Minister. To give an example to show how the system works in practice, during my time at the Cabinet Office, on no occasion have I ever had sight of any honours lists before they are published in the London Gazette and the national newspapers, and on the No. 10 website. No other Minister, with the exception of the Foreign Secretary and Secretary of State for Defence—I shall come to that point in a moment—has direct responsibility, except in so far as they may be asked by the permanent secretary of their Department for views on the names that the Department has it in mind to put forward for the next new year or birthday honours list, whether those be the Department's civil servants or individuals who work in its field of expertise.

Advice to the Prime Minister on honours matters comes from the Cabinet Secretary, and the Prime Minister himself makes recommendations to Her

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Majesty the Queen. The Cabinet Secretary has devolved his involvement in the honours process to Sir Hayden Phillips, permanent secretary at the Department for Constitutional Affairs. The Cabinet Office has managerial responsibility for the ceremonial branch, which co-ordinates the honours system. There is also an honours secretary in the Prime Minister's Office, who gives advice directly to the Prime Minister.

I shall give the House a brief account of the way in which the current honours system operates in the United Kingdom, and I shall then say a little about the review of the system that is currently being carried out under the leadership of Sir Hayden Phillips. As my hon. Friend will know, the Prime Minister's honours lists are published twice a year, on new year's eve and on the Queen's official birthday in June. Each list includes up to 1,000 names. There are also separate lists for the diplomatic and military services, which the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary respectively oversee, and those are published at the same time.

The selection process is independent of Ministers and is based on merit. A series of specialist assessment committees consider all the candidates put forward in a particular field, such as the arts, sport, industry and medicine, and each makes a series of recommendations. These recommendations go forward to a final moderating committee, which looks to achieve a balance of representation and standards across the proposed list. The revised list goes forward to the Prime Minister via the Cabinet Secretary. The Prime Minister may, of course, make changes to the list, but any new names that he adds will be scrutinised for propriety by the honours scrutiny committee before the final list goes forward to Her Majesty the Queen for approval.

Achievement and service at many levels, over a wide variety of fields, have been recognised in a way which has given a great deal of pleasure not only to those honoured, but also to those who have been associated with or benefited from their work.

The honours system has been criticised for being unduly opaque. My hon. Friend has raised concern about the lack of openness and clarity in the current system. That is why I am glad to be able to tell the House that Sir Hayden Phillips is leading a review of the honours system which will look, in particular, at ways in which it can be made more open and transparent, without sacrificing the confidentiality of candidates, recipients and assessors, which is intended to protect them against undue interference or intervention. I wish Sir Hayden Phillips well with his review and look forward to seeing the outcome, probably within the next few months.

I note that the Public Administration Committee is also currently conducting an inquiry into the honours system, and my hon. Friend may wish to feed into that inquiry his observations on the need to notify those making nominations of their progress, or indeed on the

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names of specific honours, and any other observations that he may have on the honours system in general. I—and no doubt many other hon. Members—look forward to seeing the Committee's report on this matter in due course.

My hon. Friend raised the specific issue of tracking where applications are in the honours process, and of notification of unsuccessful applications. It is true that under the current system people who have nominations are not routinely informed of progress. However, I would encourage any hon. Members concerned about progress to contact directly the ceremonial secretariat, which will be able to provide an update on the progress of a particular application.

In answer to my hon. Friend's question about the extent of the involvement of the lords lieutenant in the honours process, I have been informed that they are consulted about candidates nominated for services at a very local level, to obtain a local assessment of the merit of the nominations. I have also been informed that the views of lords lieutenant are taken into account by the assessment committees, but that they play no part in the final decision-making process.

I now turn to the important matter of the people who actually receive the awards. On each Prime Minister's list there will be some 30 to 35 awards at the level of knight or dame and 120 at companion or commander level, for people who have made important and inspirational contributions at a national or regional level. The remainder of the awards will be at OBE and, for more than half the list, at MBE level, on occasion reflecting the very local contribution made not just by the traditional lollipop lady, but by people such as scout leaders, ward nurses, parish councillors, lifeboat men and many, many more.

I am informed that nearly half of all the awards in any one list go to people who are involved in one way or another in voluntary work, and half the people on the list will have been nominated by, or supported by, members of the public. Contrary to recent press speculation, these are not people who have been selected on political lines. I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating all his constituents, and indeed those of other hon. Members, who have been rightly recognised for their exceptional achievement or service by the award of an honour.

I have listened to the concerns and frustrations with the current honours system so clearly set out by my hon. Friend. I conclude with my own hope that the review led by Sir Hayden Phillips and the inquiry being carried out by the Public Administration Committee will at least go some way to meet the expectations of all those, including my hon. Friend, who have expressed views, both positive and negative, on the way in which the honours system currently operates.

Question put and agreed to.

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