Select Committee on Public Administration Fifth Report


96. In this chapter we examine the case for reform of the honours system, in the light of criticism of existing arrangements, and consider some of the specific proposals that have been put to us.

97. In Chapter Two we described the historical arguments for leaving the system broadly unchanged. However, we also received evidence from a number of witnesses which supports a very different interpretation of the facts. According to this analysis, the honours system has, over the past two centuries, been subject to necessary and regular reform in response to great events and underlying social change. Despite its medieval and monarchical roots, such historians and commentators see the honours system as being eminently capable of recreating itself to meet contemporary needs. Philip Collins of the Social Market Foundation was among those who interpreted the facts in this way:

    "There is a perfectly good conservative argument which says simply that institutions evolve and adapt reflectively to changing circumstances, and that the honours system is wildly out of kilter with the kind of nation that we have become. The imperial example is an obvious one. We should remember too that this system as we now have it is a relatively modern invention. The OBE, under which most awards are currently given, was invented in 1917. We are always reinventing our nation and our institutions; they are not as old as we would like to claim they are".[82]

98. The reform proposals which emerged from our inquiry can be divided into two main categories. Some recommended modest improvements to the present system, aimed mainly at enhancing its transparency and the diversity of recipients. Others argued for more radical and systemic changes. There were some, but not many, demands for complete abolition.

Proposals for limited change

99. There were a number of suggestions for improvements to the operation of the system at the margins, without challenging its core assumptions. Mr Heydel-Mankoo, urging greater openness, argued that citations should be published:

100. The opportunities offered by devolution also appealed to Mr Heydel-Mankoo, who proposed separate Welsh, Scottish and English honours:

    "In light of UK devolution, regional/local honours may be a possible solution to the problem of increasing honours amongst the under-represented portions of the population. Direct inspiration may be drawn from the honours systems in place in the Canadian provinces. Separate Scottish, Welsh and English honours would be a welcome addition to the honours system … regional medals could certainly be struck: St. Andrew's Medal or Medal of Scotland would be appropriate".[84]

101. In the same spirit of local initiative, some argued that Lord-Lieutenants should play a more active role. The precise influence on the system of these important local figures continues to be obscure and our attempts to obtain oral evidence from them were unsuccessful. However their impact appears to be modest. A letter from William Chapman, Appointments Secretary in the Prime Minister's Office, lists five "main duties" of a Lord-Lieutenant including the "presentation of medals and awards on behalf of Her Majesty", but no mention is made of any advisory role in the selection of recipients.[85] J B Ogilvie suggested that recommendations should be "taken out of the hands of the Government of the day" and "brought down to county level with the Lord-Lieutenant chairing a committee of carefully selected people".[86] Lord Monro saw the current limitations on the role of Lords-Lieutenants as a missed opportunity to give the system greater local credibility:

    "Much more weight in the CBE-OBE-MBE area should go to the recommendation of the Lord Lieutenant. I had 34 years of experience as an MP and had an excellent relationship with successive Lords Lieutenant … the Lords Lieutenants know more about local affairs than Civil Servants".[87]

102. Lord Thomson of Monifeith, Chairman of the Honours Scrutiny Committee, urged us to recommend the abolition of his committee, because very similar work was now being carried out by the House of Lords Appointments Commission:

    "it might be simpler in our view and more straightforward if these duties were carried out by privy councillors within the new statutory Appointments Commission, where, as it happens, Baroness Dean and Lord Hurd [members of the Honours Scrutiny Committee] are already members. We continue to exist in an odd way as a matter of history but it really makes little sense, certainly in my personal view, to have two separate bodies carrying out such similar functions".[88]

103. Bronwen Manby made the case for a change to the procedure by which honours were awarded. At present, potential recipients are sent letters stating that they have been recommended for an award, and asking whether they would accept. Ms Manby felt that this took away much of her pleasure in the award:

    "Individuals should not be given the formal option of choosing whether to accept. Of course, in the end, anyone can send the award back. But the current system requires you to assess not only the acceptability of the system itself, but also your own worthiness—which is not something I found a pleasant experience …Mostly, I just wish I hadn't been asked. This is presumably not the desired effect".[89]

104. The Wilson Review made some recommendations for ways of ensuring that the honours system becomes better known. These ranged from "A campaign to increase the general public's awareness of their right to nominate people for honours, accompanied by some clear and simple material on what the honours system is for and the sort of service and achievements we are seeking to recognise and celebrate" to "a pilot in one of the regions to see if the quantity and quality of nominations could be improved by calling for nominations to be made on a regional basis".[90] Other "Wilson" proposals included a database of past recipients to encourage nominations and a better website for the Cabinet Office Ceremonial Branch. A number of other witnesses contributed similar suggestions.

Proposals for radical change

105. The proposals for more radical changes came from a variety of sources and were directed at a range of issues. We here identify the main ones.


106. There were a number of calls for radical restructuring of the Orders of Chivalry. We were presented with a raft of proposals for fundamental reshaping of the honours system, some quite detailed. These ranged from calls for wholesale abolition of orders to demands for new orders to reflect the changes that have taken place in society since the last reform at the time the institution of the Order of the British Empire in 1917.

107. One of the more radical plans was advanced by R J Malloch, who urged the abolition of Orders of the British Empire, St Michael and St George and the Bath. The degrees of baronet and knight bachelor would also "become redundant, and no further appointments would be made". The Orders of the Garter and the Thistle would be retained, but any further awards would be confined to foreign heads of state.

108. Another radical proposal was made by Republic, the Campaign for an Elected Head of State, which argued for a complete abolition of the current honours and their replacement by a system in which: "the elected Head of State would award national honours to British citizens in an appropriately solemn ceremony symbolising Britain's belief in representative democracy".[91] Rt Hon Tony Benn made a proposal for honours decided by a parliamentary committee.[92]

109. Both Mr Major and Professor Cannadine said that consideration should be given to the cessation of further appointments to the Order of St Michael and St George and the Order of the Bath. Professor Cannadine reasoned that "since Britain is no longer a great imperial or military power, it is no longer sensible to have two orders exclusively for diplomats and warriors and civil servants". Mr Major, in the interests of ending 'automaticity' and apparent bias towards state service honours, told us that:

    "One option for the future would be to abolish the special Orders only available to civil servants, military etc (eg Order of the Bath) or to severely cut them back so that Awards are proportionate in number to those offered to other groups".[93]

110. The thinking behind these proposals is well caught in this passage from the Wilson Review:

    "It may be that every state servant who receives an honour fully deserves it and that state service as a whole warrants its overall share of the honours. However, this not only needs to be so; it also needs to be seen to be so. At a time of written contracts and performance-related pay, there seems to be at least a prima facie case for state servants taking their chances in the honours stakes alongside their fellow citizens from other walks of life, competing against them on terms of greater equality".[94]

111. We are also aware of other radical views. Andrew Adonis, now a senior policy adviser in the Prime Minister's Office but then a columnist with The Observer, put forward radical proposals for reform of the honours system in June 1997. Mr Adonis's recommendations included an end to new awards in the Order of the British Empire, a "revamped" Order of Merit which would essentially take its place and, to choose the names, "an independent council, making its recommendations to the Queen without intervention from Downing Street". In his view "Apart from reducing prime ministerial control, a broadly-based council would also ensure a wider spread of honours".[95]

112. There are indications that Mr Adonis's views were at that time shared by the Prime Minister. A press report in that same month of June 1997 suggested that Mr Blair planned "a fundamental shake-up of the honours system to give it more independence" including the possibility of "an honours commission that would compile a list of names which the Prime Minister would send directly to the Queen without intervention by himself or his staff".[96] The radical theme re-emerged a year later when in June 1998 The Sunday Times claimed that "the Government is preparing to perform the last rites over the British Empire by replacing the word 'empire' with 'Commonwealth' in honours awarded by the Queen".[97]


113. The Wilson Review recommended that the Order of the British Empire should be replaced by a new Order of Britain. Lord Hurd feared that the proposed name "would be regarded as flat and flavourless", and it did not attract support from our other witnesses.[98]

114. The idea of changing the name to the Order of British Excellence appears to be more popular.[99] One correspondent said that it would helpfully "keep the headline of the Awards undisturbed" and would "highlight the very thing for which the Honours is being awarded, i.e. excellence of one sort or another".[100]

115. Mr Major also backed the idea of an Order of British Excellence. This view was a direct reversal of his opinion of 1993, when he told the House that he could "see no advantage or purpose in changing the Order of the British Empire". Today, he told us:

    "Although that argument still has force I believe it is now out of date. In order to remove one of the persistent criticisms of the system, I would now be inclined to propose an "Order of British Excellence" with Awards at the level of Companion (i.e. CBE), Order (OBE) and Member (MBE). This is minimum change for maximum effect. It retains the familiar abbreviations whilst removing reference to an Empire that no longer exists. It does have an awkwardness with Northern Ireland, but no more so than now".[101]

116. Professor Cannadine also argued for this renaming of the Order, "thereby keeping the same acronyms and abbreviations". It "should be recognized as the one national honour, apart from those in the sovereign's gift. Knights bachelor should be incorporated in it".[102]

117. On the other hand, Dr Galloway was unimpressed by the case for change in the Order. He identified a period—the 1960s, which saw the independence of many British colonies in Africa and elsewhere—when it was understandable for there to be pressure to rename the Order, to make it appear less "imperial". More recently, however, Dr Galloway believed that the justification for change had weakened. Its very meaninglessness had, he believed, given the Order of the British Empire a new lease of life:

    "the further the British Empire recedes into the sands of time, the less embarrassed people will feel in referring to it. By 2017 when the Order of the British Empire celebrates its one-hundredth birthday, its name will have no more meaning than the name of the Order of the Bath—a reference to the obsolete mediaeval rite of purification before admission to knighthood".[103]


118. It was suggested that titles such as "Sir" and "Lady" should be abolished, and that future honours should be confined to awards which do not change the names of recipients. Professor Cannadine said that ceasing to award titles would be quite possible:

119. Miles Irving argued strongly against this view, reasoning that titles were valuable in denoting certain sorts of outstanding service:

    "my main point in writing to you is to caution against the abolition of the tiles Sir or Dame on the grounds that they are socially divisive. If this excuse is used then all other ancient titles should be abolished on the same grounds.

    "Examples of ancient titles currently in use (with the dates of first use taken from the OED) are: Reverend(1486), Father(1300), Canon(1205), Doctor(1303), Professor(1517), Captain(1375), Colonel(1583), Bishop(1382) and Justice, (1172)".[105]


120. The Wilson Review proposed an influx of independent members onto honours selection committees, with a requirement that appropriate proportions should be female or have an ethnic minority background.[106] Several other submissions supported the idea that names should be recommended by an independent body free of ministerial influence, and with non-civil-servants taking the lead.[107]

121. A number of other countries have very strong non-civil service representation on their honours selection bodies. Sometimes outsiders are in the majority. The Council of the Order of Canada, for instance, is chaired by the Chief Justice of Canada, and its members are the Clerk of the Privy Council, the Deputy Minister of the Department of Canadian Heritage (the latter two being civil servants), the Chair of the Canadian Council for the Arts, the President of the Royal Society of Canada, the Chair of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada and two members of the Order who are appointed for a maximum term of three years. On other occasions the bodies are more balanced between officials and others. In the 1960s President Kennedy changed the composition of the board that recommends candidates for the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom, bringing in five members from outside government to complement the five members from within the executive.

122. The Council for the Order of Australia has 15 members: community representatives for each of the eight States and Territories appointed on the advice of the State Premiers, four members appointed on the recommendation of the Prime Minister (one of whom must be able to represent aboriginals and one of whom serves as Chairman) and three ex officio members, the Chief of the Australian Defence Force, the Secretary of the Department of Administrative Services, and the Vice President of the Federal Executive Council. The characteristics of the first twelve members are laid down so that the politicians are constrained to recommend people who will be accepted as representative of and sensitive, to the interests of the general community. Among other things, there must be a 50:50 male-female balance on the Council.

123. Professor Hennessy urged us to consider recommending a separate list in which Prime Ministers could continue to exercise their patronage, which he described as their "adventure playground". Meanwhile the rest of the honours system could concentrate on selection on merit:

    "if Mr Blair and his successors could have an adventure playground within which they could put their political patronage, the lubricant of the State, so that those who were purist about it and felt contaminated by being approved of by No. 10 could be considered for honours by an independent commission, genuinely independent, which was separate from either of the adventure playgrounds (the head of State's and the head of Government's) and would then syringe as much as possible patronage out of the system and inject as much merit into the system as possible".[108]


124. There was a range of opinion about the naming of members of the honours committees. Among those cautiously prepared to contemplate greater openness about members' names was Sir Richard Mottram, Permanent Secretary of the Department of Work and Pensions, who gave evidence to us in his capacity as chairman of the Science and Technology Committee. There were strong arguments on both sides, he told us, and the judgement was a finely balanced one:

125. Another witness with long experience of the system, Mr Major, believed that committee names should remain confidential:

    "In Government, I was shocked at the extent to which a minority of people were prepared to lobby for Honours and, in some cases, at the extent to which they became disaffected if their petition was ignored. Neither the Committee—nor anyone else—should be exposed to such pressure".[110]

82   Public Administration Select Committee, Session 2002-03, Ministerial Powers and the Prerogative, HC 642-iv, Q 127  Back

83   HON 54 Back

84   Ibid. Back

85   HON B/P 17 Back

86   HON 72 Back

87   HON 64 Back

88   Q 249 Back

89   HON 97 Back

90   Wilson Review: Nominations, para 15 Back

91   HON 13 Back

92   HON 12 Back

93   HON 95 Back

94   Wilson Review: Oversight, para 32 Back

95   Observer, June 1997  Back

96   The Times, 5 June 1997 Back

97   Sunday Times, 7 June 1998 Back

98   HON 73 Back

99   HON 97 and Q 381 Back

100   HON 05 Back

101   HON 95 Back

102   HON 53 Back

103   HON 61 Back

104   Q 464 Back

105   HON 66 Back

106   Wilson Review: Committee membership, paras 44-47 Back

107   HON 52 Back

108   Q 434 Back

109   Q 679 Back

110   HON 95 Back

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