Select Committee on Public Administration Fifth Report


Marking service to the community

1. This report examines the honours system and assesses whether it is now fit for purpose as a way of recognising and rewarding service to the community. It considers possible proposals for reform.

2. In its inquiry into the honours system the Committee has been aware of the importance of history, and of the need to understand the often ancient and complex traditions which underlie the system. But it has become clear that the history of British honours is also a story of reform and re-invention. Our inquiry has tried both to respect that history and to pay due attention to the need for further appropriate reform. We have taken a special interest in the part played by honours in the work of the Civil Service.

3. This inquiry emerged from our larger examination of the ministerial prerogative, which began in 2003 and on which we reported in March 2004.[1] It seemed to us at the end of 2003 that this highly visible use of the prerogative deserved special attention. There had been allegations which cast doubt on the integrity of the process by which awards were made, and widespread questioning of the relevance of the most-used Order, that of the British Empire. In our seven evidence sessions (as well as a number of sessions which were originally part of the inquiry into ministerial powers and the prerogative) we explored many of these issues.

4. We heard oral evidence from 15 witnesses and received over 100 written submissions of various kinds, many of them from individuals with personal accounts of what it is like to deal with the honours system. There were a number of highly constructive contributions, and we are very grateful to all those who provided evidence. The statistical supplement in the Annex was produced by one of our Members, Anne Campbell MP, to whom the Committee is particularly grateful.

What are honours for?

5. One of the oddest features of the honours system in Britain is that there is very little discussion about its purpose. It is as if, despite its importance in public administration, and the substantial sums of public money and official time spent on it, the reasons for the existence of the honours system were beyond discussion. We do not agree with this view. We take the honours system seriously, as a way in which the state seeks to recognise service and achievement that it values. This is an important function, which is why it deserves proper attention.

6. In particular, we consider that honours are not mere decorations; they are important symbols of what is valued in national life. To frame our discussion, we set out below some principles which we have used as a guide in assessing the quality of an honours system. We then briefly describe the current system.

These principles provide a yardstick against which the current operation of the honours system can be assessed.


7. About 3000 honours are awarded annually, at New Year and on the Queen's Official Birthday in June. This does not include the lists produced when Prime Ministers resign, which have in the past sometimes been controversial.[2] A small number of awards (such as those in the Orders of the Garter and the Thistle) are in the personal gift of the Queen. Our inquiry has not covered the issues raised by the Queen's honours, or awards for gallantry, but has concentrated on the others, which for convenience we shall call the "national" honours. The Prime Minister's list, as it is known, with some 1,000 names on each occasion, provides the largest part of the overall total of national honours. The Diplomatic Service and Overseas list is submitted by the Foreign Secretary and contains about 150 names. The Defence Services list is submitted by the Secretary of State for Defence and has some 200 names. There have been a number of reforms to the system over the years, the last extensive one in 1993, when the then Prime Minister John Major initiated various changes, notably to make it easier for the general public to nominate candidates for honours and to increase the number of those honoured for voluntary work.

8. Central to the machinery for the Prime Minister's list are a number of Honours selection committees: Agriculture, Commerce and Industry, Maecenas[3], Media, Medicine, Local Services, Science and Technology, Sport, and State Services. They examine the merits of all candidates for honours, sifted from the nominations considered by Departments. From these the Committees select (or endorse) those for recommendation to the Prime Minister.

9. The selections are referred to the Main Honours Committee which is made up of the Chairmen of the selection committees and one or two others. As a recent Government report summarises it: "The Main Committee reviews the work of the Committees, reassesses any sensitive or controversial recommendations or omissions and seeks to ensure that the balance between the various sectors is satisfactory".[4] The Chairman of the Main Committee submits a list to the Prime Minister along with a personal report. The Prime Minister subsequently makes his own recommendations to the Queen. The deliberations of these Committees are confidential, although at the end of 2003 there were leaks to the media of a number of documents relating to the selection of candidates.

10. The three lists submitted by the Prime Minister, Defence Secretary and Foreign Secretary, are composed partly of names generated by Government departments themselves through their networks of public bodies and other contacts, and partly of those who have been nominated directly by the public. The present public nomination system dates from 1993, when Mr Major concluded that "the means of nomination for honours should be more widely known and more open".[5] There is a standard nomination form, setting out the type of information which is required to assess candidates.

11. The Ceremonial Secretariat in the Cabinet Office has 16 staff, all of whom are civil servants, and is currently headed by Mrs Gay Catto, the Ceremonial Officer. It plays the pivotal role in supporting the honours committees and processing the large amount of paperwork involved in what continues to be a wholly paper-based operation. We are very grateful to Mrs Catto and her staff for welcoming us to the Secretariat and briefing us on the way it carries out its functions. An average of 6,000 to 7,000 new nominations come in annually. The last decade has seen a substantial but not entirely consistent rise in the proportion of directly nominated candidates (said to have "public support") from 37% in the New Year Honours 1995 to 51% in the Birthday Honours 2003.

12. Other government departments make a variety of arrangements for producing possible candidates for honours. Names, which may come either from public nominations or from departmental contacts, are usually collated by an honours secretary with a small team, and considered at one or more meetings by the Permanent Secretary and other senior figures. A series of recent Parliamentary Answers to Brian White MP, one of the Committee's Members, demonstrates that there is a wide range of approaches, reflecting the varying importance attached to honours in each department.[6]

13. For example, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which produces its own list, has five full-time staff, headed by a relatively senior official (a Principal equivalent) in a dedicated honours team. Their work is supervised by members of the Senior Management Structure (Senior Civil Service) who devote "approximately six to seven person-weeks in aggregate a year" to honours. At the other end of the spectrum is the Treasury, which does not identify an honours team but has a middle manager (Higher Executive Officer or Senior Executive Officer) who devotes around 10% of working time to honours. The senior officials on the Treasury Management Board meet twice a year to consider nominations.

14. Table A sets out the Orders and other elements which make up today's honours system (except peerages). Those Orders marked with an asterisk (*) are in the personal gift of the Queen, although formally the Monarch is the 'fount of honour' in a general sense.

Table A

OrderLevels and Postnominals Notes
Most Noble Order of the Garter* KG/LG (Knight/Lady) Founded in 1348. Restricted to senior members of the Royal family and 24 others. Restored to gift of the Sovereign by Attlee in 1946
Most Ancient and most
Noble Order of the Thistle*
KT/LT (Knight/Lady)Revived 1687: Scottish equivalent of the Garter. Restricted to 16 members. Restored to gift of the Sovereign by Attlee in 1947.
Most Honourable Order
of the Bath
GCB (Knight/Dame Grand Cross)
KCB/DCB(Knight/Dame Commander)
CB (Companion)
Revived 1725. Military and Civil Divisions. Upper limits: 120, 365 and 1,975 for the 3 levels. Career civil servants' order.
Order of Merit*OMFounded in 1902. Restricted to 24 members. In the gift of the Sovereign for "savants and soldiers": distinction in military service, literature, science or art.
Most Distinguished Order
of St Michael and St George
GCMG(Knight/Dame Grand Cross
KCMG/DCMG(Knight/Dame Commander)
CMG (Companion)
Established in 1818. Diplomatic Service's order. Upper limits: 125, 360 and 1,750 for the 3 levels.
Royal Victorian Order*GCVO (Knight/Dame Grand Cross)
KCVO/DCVO (Knight/Dame Commander)  
CVO (Commander)
LVO (Lieutenant)
MVO (Member)
Instituted 1896. In the gift of the Sovereign. Royal Household's order.
Most Excellent Order of the
British Empire
GBE (Knight/Dame Grand Cross)
KBE/DBE (Knight/Dame Commander)
CBE (Commander)
OBE (Officer)
MBE (Member)
Founded 1917. "In recognition of the manifold services, voluntary and otherwise, rendered in connection with the war". Most widely conferred order. Upper limits for top 3 levels: 100, 885 and 10,000.
Knights BachelorSir Do not comprise an order of chivalry, merely a status. 1908 the Imperial Society of Knights Bachelor formed.
The Order of the
Companion of Honour
CHFounded 1917. Restricted to 65 members. For service of conspicuous national importance.


15. This table illustrates the antiquity of some of the Orders of Chivalry, but it also indicates the many changes the national honours system has undergone in more recent times. It is a history of adaptation, even of improvisation. Professor David Cannadine argued in his evidence to us that there had been two main periods of change in recent centuries:

    "Since then, the British honours system has undergone two great phases of elaboration and re-invention. The first (and lesser) was from the 1780s to the 1810s, which saw the creation of the Order of St Patrick for Ireland (matching the Thistle for Scotland and the Garter or England), the extension of the Order of the Bath for military service in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars against France, and the creation of the Order of St Michael and St George. This was still, essentially, an aristocratic cum military system, partly hereditary, partly not.

16. The history of individual Orders lends support to Professor Cannadine's thesis. The Order of St Michael and St George is less than 200 years old, and was originally intended to honour leading figures in the Ionian Islands and Malta, both then British possessions. But in the mid-nineteenth century the function of the Order changed; and from the 1870s onwards, in response to the presumed requirements of diplomacy, it was conferred on a growing number of British ambassadors. At around the same time it began increasingly to be bestowed on leaders in various parts of the Empire (see below, chapter 3). Today it is the principal Diplomatic Service honour, and no longer has any substantial connection with its origins in the islands of the Mediterranean.[8]

17. The Order of the British Empire is less than a century old, having been created in 1917, in large part to honour civilian work during the Great War. Its introduction led to a huge expansion in the number of awards made, honouring a wide variety of contributions at local and regional as well as national level. In 1921 Burke's Handbook to the Order of the British Empire hailed it as "the British Democracy's own Order of Chivalry". The Order of the Companions of Honour was founded on the same day as the Order of the British Empire, and was intended to provide an honour for those who would, as the Lord President of the Council, Earl Curzon of Kedleston, put it, "not refuse a decoration but would, for reasons entirely honourable to themselves, abjure a title".[9]

18. Not everyone, however, was enthused by the prospect of honouring the humble. Partly because it extended the reach of the system for the first time well beyond the Court and similar limited circles to which honours had previously been restricted (and partly because of the scandal that surrounded the selling of honours by political parties in the 1920s), the new Order was the object of some derision in its early years. As the historian of the Order, Dr P J Galloway, puts it, the Order "suffered a certain amount of scorn and ridicule throughout the 1920s".[10] The Order of the Bath, an honour most often nowadays conferred on senior civil servants and officers in the armed forces, is so-called because of the knightly medieval tradition of ritual bathing, but it is not truly medieval in origin, having been founded in 1725.

19. Obsolescence has also been part of the history of honours. The official account produced by the Central Office of Information describes a number of Orders as "obsolescent", including several whose demise was a result of political change. The Order of the Star of India and the Order of the Indian Empire have had no additions to their numbers since the end of Britain's Empire in the sub-continent in 1947, while since 1936 the same fate has befallen the Order of St Patrick, once conferred on Irish peers by the British monarch.

20. This picture of the birth and death of honours demonstrates the accuracy of Professor Cannadine's judgement that "the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were periods of unprecedented honorific inventiveness", in which "Britain's titular hierarchy was exported to the far boundaries of empire".[11]


21. The present Government has, as a matter of policy, tried to increase the proportion of honours conferred on women and people from the ethnic minorities. It has also increased the proportion of awards to those who directly deliver public services. An example of the latter is the regular flow of knighthoods and damehoods for state school headteachers.[12]

22. Sir Hayden Phillips, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the most senior official responsible for the honours system, initiated an official review early in 2004. It has concentrated in particular on further increasing the diversity of recipients, enhancing transparency and strengthening the independence of the system by which recommendations for honours are made. The outcome of the Review is likely to be published soon.

23. In recent times, the most substantial internal analysis has been the "Wilson Review" of the system carried out in 2000 and 2001 by the senior official David Wilkinson at the request of Sir Richard Wilson (now Lord Wilson of Dinton), then Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service. That Review contained a series of proposals for reform including the creation of a new order and an end to exclusive arrangements for state servants. It also recommended enhanced independence in selection procedures and improved publicity to encourage more public nominations for honours.

24. Other countries, including some with Westminster-style systems of government, have in recent years also taken a radical look at their honours systems. Australia has perhaps gone furthest in reviewing the system, through major public consultations and acting on the results. This review took place in the mid 1990s and, when it asked the public, found "overwhelming support for a structure which reduces the impression of a reward hierarchy duplicating occupational or socio-economic hierarchies".[13]

1   Public Administration Select Committee, Fourth Report 2003-04, Taming the Prerogative: Strengthening Ministerial Accountability to Parliament, HC 422 Back

2   Harold Wilson's resignation honours list of 1976, popularly known as 'the lavender list' because of the paper it was said to have been written on, was the subject of much criticism and a dispute between the government and the Honours Scrutiny Committee. See Michael De-la-Noy The Honours System (1992) p 141 Back

3   This committee covers the arts. Back

4   Cabinet Office Honours Review 2000-01. (Thereafter referred to as the Wilson Review): Committee membership, para 2 Back

5   HC Deb, 4 March 1993, Col 455 Back

6   HC Deb, 30 June 2004, col 353W; HC Deb, 17 June 2004, col 1087W; HC Deb 18 June 2004, col 1143W; HC Deb, 8 June 2004, col 295W; HC Deb, 8 June 2004, col 288W, HC Deb, 7 June 2004, col 259W; HC Deb, 7 June 2004, col 3W; HC Deb, 7 June 2004, col 103W; HC Deb, 7 June 2004, col 95W; HC Deb, 27 May 2004, col 1724W; HC Deb, 20 May 2004, col 1193W; HC Deb 17 May 2004, col 676W Back

7   HON 53 Back

8   PJ Galloway, The Order of St Michael and St George (London, 2000) Back

9   PJ Galloway The Order of the British Empire (London, 1996), p 14 Back

10   HON 61 Back

11   David Cannadine, Ornamentalism: How the British saw their Empire (London, 2001), p 86 Back

12   Wilson Review: Criteria,para 34 Back

13   Ibid para 27 Back

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Prepared 13 July 2004