Select Committee on Public Administration Fifth Report


144. In this chapter we describe a series of reforms which we believe are needed to ensure that the national honours system adapts to changing circumstances and is consistent with the principles of sound public administration. They include a reshaping of the Orders and significant improvements to the process by which awards are made. Yet they are also firmly in the tradition of prudent re-invention that has characterised the history of the honours system.


145. Our proposals envisage a radical simplification of the national honours system, while leaving untouched the small number of awards which are in the personal gift of the Queen. We recommend in particular a substantial reduction in the number of Orders and levels of award, to make it easier for the public to understand the system and appreciate the reasons why people are honoured.


146. We believe that the treatment of state servants in the honours system should be radically reformed. If civil servants, army officers or diplomats render outstanding service, they should in future receive due recognition, in fair competition with those in other walks of life. They should no longer enjoy almost exclusive access to their own awards. There should be no room for 'automaticity' anywhere in the honours system.

147. The main example of such 'automaticity' is the use of the Orders of the Bath and of St Michael and St George to honour state servants. We do not recommend the abolition of these Orders. However, we consider that, like many others before them, they should be consigned to the category of obsolescent Orders. We wish to ensure, nevertheless, that this action does not have unfair consequences for state servants. They should be treated in exactly the same way as everybody else.

148. We recommend that the Government should announce its intention to cease the award of honours in the Orders of the Bath and of St Michael and St George at an early opportunity. The Government should make it clear that in future honours will not be conferred on a person simply because they hold a particular post. Measures should be taken to ensure that these changes do not disadvantage state servants in the general allocation of honours.


149. We considered what changes might be required to the most widely-conferred national Order, that of the British Empire. We have already set out our objections to the continuing use of the term 'Empire' in the title, and recommend that a new approach is needed. Appointments to the Order of the British Empire should cease as soon as practicable, and a new Order should be founded to take its place.

150. The name of the new Order must be chosen with care. There are arguments in favour of the "Order of Britain", as recommended in the Wilson Review. This would be clear and understandable, and in line with practice in other Commonwealth countries. However, there are also some disadvantages. It is important that any new award should try to sound inspiring. We agree with Lord Hurd's comment that "Order of Britain" sounds 'flat and flavourless'".[114] There is also history to consider. The introduction of the Orders of Canada and Australia was welcomed in those countries as symbolic of their growing independence from Britain. There would be no such resonance to the Order of Britain, which would sound like a pared-down version of its predecessor. Names matter, and this name seems to have failed to capture the imagination of our witnesses. There was no support for it among those who submitted evidence to us.

151. We now turn to the other main suggestion for a new title, the "Order of British Excellence". While it might be objected that the new name would sound somewhat contrived, it would have the important advantage of continuity. As the initials would be the same, there would be no need for fundamental change in acronyms and abbreviations; and those already honoured with the CBE or MBE would be less likely to feel that they possessed an outdated award. It would also be a fitting reminder of the fact that the Empire Order was originally described as "the Most Excellent". Perhaps most importantly, it would actually mean something, embodying our principle that only excellent service or achievement should be recognised in the honours lists. The Government, pledged as it is to build an inclusive society, should take the opportunity to exchange 'Empire' for 'Excellence' and thereby look to the future instead of the past. No doubt there will be some who will denounce as political correctness what is really just sensible adaptation.

152. We accept, nevertheless, that change must be carried out with care. Dr Galloway points out[115] that there are legal complexities in changing old Orders, or setting up new ones. We simply observe in response that the convenient flexibility of the prerogative has been used time and again to amend the honours system and create new Orders. It will doubtless prove possible to use it in this way again. Dr Galloway also urges us to take into account the feelings of existing members of the Order of the British Empire. Given the complex history of the system, in which Orders of different vintages have co-existed happily for generations, we consider such concerns to be exaggerated. We are confident that no-one will see the institution of the new Order (whose name and structure are specifically designed to be as close as possible to those of the old one) as a repudiation of the past. Still less should it be seen as in any way devaluing the service and achievements for which past honours were granted. It is simply that time, and the country, have moved on.

153. We therefore recommend that there should be no further appointments to the Order of the British Empire. A new Order, the Order of British Excellence, should be founded in its place.


154. In line with this approach, we are not minded to recommend major changes to the most frequently-used levels of award. There should be Officers and Members of the Order of British Excellence, matching directly those ranks in the old Empire Order, and continuing to reflect different levels of service and achievement. But the term 'Commander', as used in the CBE, has a militaristic ring which now sits oddly with a largely civilian award. The new Order should therefore have 'Companions' instead. This will give a single main national honour, with three clearly-defined levels.

155. This brings us to the question of titles and name-changing honours. We realise that this is a contentious issue. However, if reforms are to be made, it seems to us that it makes sense to devise a comprehensive reform package that will last. This is why we believe it is right to tackle the issue of titles now. Such titles are redolent of past preoccupations with rank and class, just as 'Empire' is redolent of an imperial history. Their continued use strikes a false note (which is no doubt why some recipients now prefer not to employ them) and other countries in the Commonwealth and elsewhere have dispensed with them. More importantly, a reformed and modernised honours system, on the lines we suggest, would no longer require titles to mark distinction.

156. It would be entirely consistent with the almost democratic spirit in which the old Order was conceived for the renamed Order of British Excellence to have no knighthoods or damehoods. That would leave the Companion of Honour, suitably, expanded in number, as the single and senior separate award. This approach would also be much more consistent with our principle of clarity. The recent decision of New Zealand to end the award of knighthoods and damehoods confirms that they are not an indispensable part of a Westminster-style honours system.[116] We believe, therefore, that knighthoods (including GBEs and knights bachelor) and damehoods should be phased out of honours lists, integrated either into the Companion level of the new Order of British Excellence or into the expanded Companion of Honour list. We assume that those who already have titles will continue to use them if they wish. The knighthoods in the personal gift of the Queen will of course be unaffected by this move.

157. However, the continuing uncertainty over the future direction of the House of Lords poses a difficulty. Professor Cannadine cautioned us against recommending an end to all titles while the situation is so unclear. We take the view that it makes it even more imperative to separate out the honours system from a legislative role in the second chamber. Our reformed honours system would accommodate those for whom the peerage is given as an honour.

158. We might have thought it appropriate to recommend the amalgamation of the Order of Merit and the Companion of Honour, as proposed by a number of our witnesses. However, the Order of Merit is in the personal gift of the Queen and is thus outside our remit.

159. The reforms we propose would reduce the number of Orders outside the personal gift of the Queen from five to two, and the total number of acronyms from 15 to just four. Table B compares the current system with the proposed one.

Table B: LEVELS OF AWARD (Except awards in the personal gift of the Queen)

Knight/Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath (GCB)
Knight/Dame Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB/DCB)
Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB)
Knight/Dame Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG)
Knight/Dame Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG/DCMG)
Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG)
Knight/Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire (GBE)
Knight/Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE/DBE)
Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE)
Officer of the Order of the British Empire(OBE)
Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE)
Knight Bachelor
Companion of Honour (CH)
Companion of Honour (CH)
Companion of the Order of British Excellence (CBE)
Officer of Order of British Excellence (OBE)
Member of Order of British Excellence (MBE)

160. We recommend that the levels of the Order of British Excellence should be Companion, Officer and Member. The only other national honour (i.e. except those awarded for gallantry and those in the personal gift of the Queen) should be the Companion of Honour. Consideration should be given to a substantial increase in awards of the Companion of Honour and to a matching decrease in awards of knighthoods and damehoods, with the objective of phasing out the awards of knighthoods (including knights bachelor) within five years.


161. Closely related to the issue of the award of honours to state servants is the question of the independence of the committees that make the recommendations. We propose the establishment of an Honours Commission, with members to be appointed by transparent procedures in a similar way to the equivalent body in Australia, and publicly named. The Commission should take over the role, currently exercised by ministers, of making honours recommendations to the Queen. The civil servant-dominated honours committees should be abolished. We would expect these arrangements to cover all special honours lists including resignation honours lists produced by prime ministers.

162. The Commission, though, should not become simply a receptacle for the Great and the Good. It would be counter-productive for it to replicate the mistake made by the House of Lords Appointments Commission and appear to be simply another committee of familiar faces. The very disappointing figures on gender balance and on black and ethnic minority representation in the honours lists show that there is an urgent need for action to make the system fairer to all. See para 119 above. There should be real efforts, like those made in Australia, to produce a diverse and representative as well as expert membership of the honours selection bodies. Representative citizens should play a central role in the process of honouring their fellow citizens.

163. Whatever our doubts about some of the assumptions upon which it is based, we have been impressed by the scrupulous work of the civil servants who support the committees. We would not envisage that staffing arrangements for the Commission would need to be radically different from those in the current Ceremonial Secretariat. More account, however, needs to be taken of the work of those who, as we explained in paragraph 93, are active in a wide variety of fields and fail to attract attention from the committees as presently constituted. The Commission would also benefit from having on its strength a limited number of additional staff who are experienced in encouraging greater public participation and awareness, and good recruitment practice. The transparency of the system should be increased wherever possible, and best practice from other countries should be used as the model. There should be an active role for the Commission in searching out and identifying potential honours recipients, using a range of methods and networks. We recommend that the Commission examines the Australian system and considers whether it is appropriate to adopt the same methodology in order to achieve greater diversity in the UK honours lists.

164. The future of the Honours Scrutiny Committee also needs review. For nearly 80 years, since it was established under the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925, it has been a useful antidote to misuse of the system. The Committee lost its responsibility for ensuring propriety in appointments to peerages when the House of Lords Appointments Commission was established, and its members told us of their desire to see its remaining functions transferred to that Commission. We do not believe that such a move would be appropriate. The Appointments Commission is focussed on the peerage and cannot be expected to take on responsibility for the much larger and more diverse honours system. We believe that an independent Honours Commission, anchored in and scrutinised by Parliament in the way that we recommend below, should remove the need for the limited extra assurance offered by the Honours Scrutiny Committee, taking a full responsibility for propriety issues. The Committee should be abolished.

165. This implies radical reform of the role played by ministers. They will no longer have responsibility for making recommendations to the Queen or overseeing the operation of the honours committees. We are not convinced by Professor Hennessy's notion of a separate 'adventure playground' in which ministers can continue to award their own honours. This would contaminate the rest of the honours system with the taint of political patronage, and runs the risk of creating a two-tier system, with one sort of honour ethically superior to the other. Ministers should be able to make nominations along with others. Similarly, there is nothing wrong with honours for distinguished political service, but such honours should be considered alongside all other kinds of public service.

166. However, as the advisers to the Queen, ministers should continue to play the central role in setting the policy agenda for the honours system, subject to parliamentary oversight. Indeed, that role should be enhanced. A new system for making recommendations will demand new forms of guidance. The regular publication of such guidance would allow the Government to communicate its policy for the honours system, reflecting changes in public priorities (such as the emphasis on education after 1997), while removing it from the individual decisions which have caused controversy in the past. The Honours Commission would have to take it into account as guidance but would have the right to take a different view. The Commission would also play a role in those circumstances where forfeiture of an honour was thought appropriate.

167. We see some force in Mr Major's concerns about the pressure which would be placed on the members of the honours selection machinery by the publication of their names. However, in our opinion the benefits of greater transparency outweigh the potential disadvantages and; experience of the more open Canadian and Australian systems does not suggest that the pressure is too burdensome. Nevertheless it should be made absolutely clear that lobbying of a member of the Honours Commission would be both highly improper and counter-productive.

168. We recommend that the honours selection committees should be replaced by an Honours Commission, which would take over from ministers the task of making recommendations to the Queen for honours. It should be established by statute, following the precedent of the Electoral Commission.

169. The members of the Honours Commission should be independent and appointed through 'Nolan' procedures. There should be a requirement on those appointing the members of the Commission to ensure that, as far as possible, its membership should reflect the diversity of the country.

170. The names of all members of the Honours Commission should be published and the Commission's policy on the transparency of its procedures should be based on best practice in similar bodies in other countries.

171. We recommend that the secretariat of the Commission should be similar in size and functions to the current Ceremonial Secretariat in the Cabinet Office, augmented by staff with experience in publicity, recruitment and community involvement, who would be responsible for increasing public awareness and encouraging appropriate nominations for honours.

172. We recommend that the Government should, on a regular basis, set out publicly, as guidance to the Honours Commission, its proposals for the allocation of honours between various sectors of the community in the light of public priorities.

173. We recommend that the Honours Scrutiny Committee should be abolished .


174. We believe that one way of re-establishing public confidence would be to make more explicit the criteria for the different levels of award. We see no inherent contradiction between the necessarily subjective nature of the judgements made by the honours machinery and the need for clarity and openness about the sort of service that is appropriate. The Wilson Review notes that the Australian government at one time proposed a series of detailed honours criteria which lay equal stress on local, regional and national service.[117] In the interests of transparency, and with a view to giving due recognition to local service, we believe that such criteria would form a useful model for the new Order. The Commission should make it a priority to develop its own ways of discovering people who give outstanding local service, beyond the present reliance on such figures as Lord-Lieutenants in the counties. This should become an opportunity for wider public participation in local life, opening up the nomination process to as many people as possible.

175. We recommend that explicit criteria, along the lines proposed by the Australian government and reported in the Wilson Review, should be published for each level of award in the Order of British Excellence. Like the Australian proposals, the criteria should emphasise that eminent service at local level would be regarded as being just as meritorious as the same sort of service at national level.


176. We examined some of the proposals put to us for Parliamentary honours. Such awards would have the advantage of involving Parliament very directly in the system and giving both Houses the opportunity to recognise service that they regard as valuable. However, we found little support for such new awards and some concern that they might lead to political disputes which would jeopardise their dignity. We are not inclined to recommend them.

177. Nevertheless, Parliament should have an important role to play in establishing the reformed system and scrutinising its operation. With the introduction of the Honours Commission, accountability will need to be assured. An annual report should be produced by the Commission, and a select committee, perhaps this one, should be given the responsibility of examining it, and if necessary taking evidence on it and reporting to Parliament on its findings.

178. We therefore recommend that the Honours Commission should submit an annual report to Parliament, and that it should be examined by a select committee of this House.


179. Our statistical analysis corroborates other evidence which demonstrates the continuing failure of the honours system adequately to reflect the country's diversity (see Annex). We have considered a number of measures which might help.

180. We would hope that the introduction of the Honours Commission, with its own more diverse membership, would encourage the selection of a more representative range of recipients. It would, however, be naïve to imagine that a better balance would emerge immediately. In the first place, the Commission would be working with the stock of candidates already held by the Cabinet Office; and it is unlikely that this would of itself yield a significantly more diverse list of honours.

181. We note that in the past Permanent Secretaries have been urged to increase the proportions of female and minority ethnic recipients, with target figures attached. This does not seem to have brought about a major improvement, but targets should form part of a broader and more concerted strategy to increase diversity.

182. Diversity will not be improved unless there is much greater public awareness of the opportunity to nominate people for honours, especially among under-represented groups. The recommendations on publicity made in the report of the Wilson Review, including a much more informative and user-friendly internet site with case studies of recent recipients and full citations, appear to us to be sensible. They should form the basis of a strategy to raise public awareness of the honours system; and this should also include improved communications with those who have made nominations. We were concerned that many nominators are unaware of the stage that has been reached in the selection process. We accept that this would, initially at least, lead to an increased workload for those administering the system. However, it is difficult to see how otherwise its diversity can be increased.

183. As we noted above (para 56) our figures suggest some puzzling differences between the numbers and levels of awards conferred on those who live in various regions, or whose service has been given in different fields. We believe that a regular, probably annual, check needs to be kept on the statistics so that the work of the Honours Commission is properly informed, and this should form part of the Commission's annual report.

184. Honours should also become less mysterious and inaccessible. One small reform might be the adoption of Mr Major's proposal for a discreet but recognisable 'lapel' badge for recipients of honours[118]. This would supplement the insignia used on formal occasions and bring the system closer to everyday life, helping to remove the veil of exclusivity which currently surrounds it. It would be a modest public badge of honour.

185. We recommend that the Honours Commission should maintain and publish as part of its annual report a digest of detailed statistics on the honours system, including the regional and ethnic origin of those who receive awards. The statistical analysisin the Annex of this report could form the basis for such a digest.

186. We recommend that the Honours Commission should set indicative targets to ensure that future honours lists reflect more closely the diversity of the UK population.

187. We recommend that the Honours Commission should implement a strategy to increase public awareness of the honours system and encourage more public nominations, based on the recommendations on publicity contained in the Wilson Review of the system produced in 2000 and 2001. A particular emphasis should be placed on attracting nominations for those whose service has been rendered at local level.

188. We recommend that the citations for all honours should be published.

189. We recommend that recipients of honours should be presented with a modest badge or brooch suitable for wearing with non-formal dress.

190. To meet the point, made above, about the need to recognise collective effort, we believe there is a strong case for developing a system of collegiate honours, in addition to the main honours system.

191. Through this the service and achievement of teams and organisations can be properly recognised. The Queen's Award for Industry provides a useful model here, and could be supplemented by similar awards (e.g. Educational Achievement, Civic Achievement) across a range of activities and organisations. We consider that a development of the honours system in this way would be widely welcomed and valued, and we so recommend.

192. We believe that our recommendations provide the basis for a genuinely reformed honours system. The system has adapted and reinvented itself in the past, and needs to do so again now. Honours enable society to recognise service and achievement that it values. This is an important function, which is why it is necessary to ensure that the honours system continues to work well. Our recommendations are designed to achieve this. Awarding honours may be inherently subjective, an art rather than a science, but this makes it even more necessary to have an honours system which commands public confidence. From time to time this requires reforms to the system to be made, and of a radical kind. In our view this is such a time.

114   HON 73 Back

115   Para 30 above Back

116   Wilson Review: Criteria for levels of honours, para 44 Back

117   Wilson Review: Criteria for levels of honours, paras 28-29 Back

118   HON 95 Back

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