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Westminster Hall

Thursday 27 April 2006

[Mr. Edward O'Hara in the Chair]

Honours System (Reform)

[Relevant documents: A Matter of Honour: Reforming the Honours System—Fifth Report from the Public Administration Committee, Session 2003–04, HC 212 and the Government's response thereto, Cm 6479.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Watts.]

2.30 pm

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to be able to introduce to the House a report of the Public Administration Committee on the honours system. It is always customary to say that reports are timely, but in this case the report is particularly so. However, in a sense it would always have been timely. I shall quote from a report:

That is from the report of the royal commission on honours in 1922.

Honours matter. They are important. I shall quote only once from our report, at the beginning of which we stated:

We continued:

Last week I visited a youth club in my constituency in an area called Hednesford, which is an old mining area. Just behind the Florence street Methodist church is a building that is no more than a wooden shack, in which a 70-year-old ex-miner twice a week runs an over-subscribed youth club. He is also, by the way, the caretaker at the local school, where he acts as a general counsellor to the students. It would never occur to that man that he might be thought of for any kind of honour. It is work that he does because he thinks he should, because his God has asked him to and his civic consciousness drives him to it. I cite that example only because I came away from there thinking that if ever a man needed an honour, it was that man. That is why the honours system matters. It is a way for us to say, "This is the kind of activity that our society values." That is what the honours system should do.

If we cause that system to be contaminated by things that should not contaminate it, we of course devalue the system across the board for people, including the man I have described, who deserve honour. That is what happens. A confusion has always existed between honour as something that we should like to value as a
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society and honour as a lubricant of patronage—usually patronage associated with money. Those two ingredients have always characterised the honours system and caused difficulties.

As the first of my quotations suggests, there is nothing new about that. In case any hon. Member is minded this afternoon to try to make political points by describing the problem as a phenomenon of a particular period or Government, the merest glance at history is enough to sweep such attempts away. Our old friend Maundy Gregory, the only man to be convicted under the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925, was only one of the touts who engaged in the trade in the first part of that century.

It was said that Maundy Gregory would sell a viscountcy for £80,000 to £120,000 and a barony for £30,000 to £50,000, and that a baronetcy would cost from £25,000 and a knighthood £10,000 to £15,000. Lloyd George is estimated to have amassed more than £1.5 million in his private bank account from the sale of honours—that is about £150 million at today's prices. Between 1916 and 1922, 120 hereditary peerages were created, and more than 1,500 knighthoods were awarded.

It has been suggested that Gregory was paid £30,000 a year for his role as an honours broker. He continued to sell honours after Lloyd George's resignation in 1922 and after the 1925 Act was passed, splitting his spoils with a corrupt Conservative official, Sir Leigh Maclachlan, and Sir Ronald Waterhouse, Stanley Baldwin's private secretary, through whom he was able to get names on the honours list. He was caught after approaching Edward Billyard-Leake, a retired naval lieutenant-commander, and offering him a price of £10,000 for a knighthood.

Billyard-Leake reported Gregory to the police and he was charged under the Act. He was fined £50 and jailed for six months—of which he served two—in 1933. After serving his brief sentence in Wormwood Scrubs he was collected by car from Conservative central office before he could be rearrested on a murder charge, and was whisked off to a life of exile in France on an alleged £30,000 payment authorised by Baldwin; he died there in a prison camp during the Nazi occupation.

I put that on the record only so that we may remember where we have come from; and so that, when some people suggest that there has been a great falling-off in standards in public life, we can compare standards in public life at the beginning of the 21st century with what was taking place at the beginning of the 20th century.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): One of my predecessors as Member for Caernarfon, Lloyd George, took, in the 1920s, a very straightforward view of the sale of honours as a way of raising money for his political enterprises. Does not the contrast with today lie in the amount of pious claptrap about the exchange of honours possibly for political support? Is it not that hypocrisy and claptrap that brings the system into disrepute in the country?

Dr. Wright : I suspect that there was always hypocrisy and claptrap, but if the hon. Gentleman asks whether I think that things were more dishonest at the beginning of the 20th century than they are at the beginning of the
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21st, I am in no doubt that they were massively more dishonest then. To bring the story a little more up to date, just for historical accuracy, when the Home Affairs Committee tried in the 1990s to produce a report on party funding, it broke down on party lines. The Conservative majority of the day refused to assent to a proposition that party funding needed to be investigated and reformed.

Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): Before my hon. Friend leaves that point—I give him credit for the extraordinarily deep historical research that he has undertaken—I want to refer to the large number of hereditary peerages and baronetcies that he mentioned. Is my hon. Friend aware of whether any of the original purchasers of those honours are still sitting in the House of Lords? If so, should not their names be more widely known?

Dr. Wright : That is a fascinating suggestion. I am surprised that members of the press, who are so assiduous on so many fronts, have not been assiduous in tracing the lines of descent from some of those characters who were given hereditary peerages all those years ago. It would be nice to see from where their claim to legislative authority derives.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): Mark Thatcher was of course given a hereditary baronetcy by the former Conservative Prime Minister—

Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair): Order. I do not think that there is any suggestion that Mark Thatcher's line of descent is anything to do with the argument.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. O'Hara. Surely, the title was given to Denis Thatcher, not Mark Thatcher.

Dr. Wright : Indeed it was. When the Committee took evidence from John Major, it was interesting to see the embarrassment that the insistence on awarding that baronetcy had caused him. There is a lot of murky history behind this issue.

I was referring to the Home Affairs Committee's failure to produce an agreed report into party funding in the 1990s. The minority report noted that

I well remember how we used to campaign on those matters. We used to have the list of Conservative donors on one side of the table and the list of peerages on the other. For the sake of historical accuracy, therefore, we must accept that the issue has been endemic in our political system for a long time and that we have resolutely failed to address it.

When we talk about honours, we must clear some considerations away.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman was able to go back
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only 100 years. Is he aware that the abolition of the Irish Parliament in 1801 was lubricated by a substantial number of United Kingdom peerages, which entitled Irish peers and some Members of the Dublin Parliament to sit in the House of Lords in the imperial Parliament?

Dr. Wright : I am grateful for that reminder. The danger of citing historical instances in which honours have acted as lubricants of the system is that we can offer endless examples to make the point.

There is something inherently and necessarily subjective about the award of honours. It is not a science, but an art, and although we should make it as sophisticated an art as we can, it remains inherently subjective. We do not know the motivations of people who do good works; we do not know whether they do them because they are good people or because they would like to get an honour and have worked out that their chances of doing so will be increased by doing good works. In a sense, it does not matter, and it is up to the honours system to make the subjective judgments that make the outcome seem reasonable.

It is sometimes said that people should not receive honours just for doing their job and that they should do something more to receive one. That might seem like a decent principle, but it, too, leads to complications. We might all want to honour someone whose job it is to find a cure for cancer even though they are just doing their job. Someone who scores the winning goal for England in the forthcoming World cup might just be doing their job, but they might be thought to deserve an honour.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that some civil servants might get an honour automatically? Is that acceptable?

Dr. Wright : Indeed it is not. A reader of our report will see that we deal quite vigorously with that issue and seek to strip out honours that have been reserved for civil servants. We say quite directly that civil servants should take their place with everybody else in the honours system and that there should not be a separate category.

Mr. Michael Wills (North Swindon) (Lab): I have been listening to hon. Members' exchanges and I wonder whether my hon. Friend agrees that the crucial point about honours is that they should be a reward for services to the nation, not dispensed by the state for services to it? Those two things are not synonymous.

Dr. Wright : Indeed they are not, and a well-honed honours system will take that on board when honours are awarded—as I said, such a system is inherently subjective, and awarding honours is an art, not a science. Sometimes, the two things that my hon. Friend mentioned coincide, but they will not necessarily do so. As I was going to say, a clever state might seek actively to use an honours system to cultivate the behaviours that it would like displayed, and it is perfectly proper for it to do so—that is a potent instrument. As I said, we do not know why people do things, and it is not improper for a state actively and imaginatively to deploy an honours system to reward the behaviours that the community wants.

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that we owe some people a
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posthumous debt of honour for services of distinction to the nation? In our review of the honours system, we have an opportunity to ascertain whether a case can be made for someone of the ilk of R. J. Mitchell, who made such a contribution to the nation. We have an opportunity to take on board his son's concern that the nation still needs to award him an adequate honour for his innovation in engineering design and his invention of the Spitfire.

Dr. Wright : He was a Staffordshire man, and I am inherently well disposed towards awards for Staffordshire men and women, living or dead. My hon. Friend talks of a reformed honours system, but we do not have such a system. If we did, however, I think that we would find a way to consider such issues.

I have talked about some of the difficulties involved in sorting our the criteria, and Sir David King, the Government's chief scientific adviser, told us that the test was whether an honour added lustre to the award. That is probably the best test that we will get. Will giving someone an honour add lustre to the award and the honour itself? Many honours will pass that test, but some will not. When Harold Wilson was Prime Minister, he used to say that he did not like dull honours lists and that he liked to sprinkle a little stardust across them. However, a bit too much stardust has been sprinkled across honours lists, and there has been too much desire to ensure that there is a bit of celebrity recognition. The more we go down that route, the less lustre we add to the award—indeed, the more lustre we will remove. That is the nearest that I can get to a seriously objective test.

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend think that the refusal to accept an award adds lustre to the intended recipient?

Dr. Wright : There is an issue about whether someone makes their refusal public. I am not sure that there is anything terribly dignified about a public statement, although there is a certain dignity both in having an award and in refusing one. That is one of the considerations that informed our report, and I shall briefly say something about that.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): About 2 per cent. of awards are refused, but refusals by high-profile individuals grab the limelight. Some people in public life who are doing a good job sometimes refuse an award, but they are never mentioned—only those who sprinkle stardust and starlight on the system get any notice.

Dr. Wright : One reason why the issue has surfaced in recent times is that people feel uncomfortable with the word "empire". Indeed, the report gives some fairly telling quotations in that respect, and a number of people told us, "I come from a colonial background and have spent all my life struggling against colonialism." They are then expected to go around as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. That is not a tenable position. When significant sections of the population feel that they cannot take on board the nomenclature of awards, that invites us to think seriously about whether we need to revisit the subject.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): As the now Sir Tom Jones might say, it is not
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unusual to find people who would add lustre to awards in the way that my hon. Friend suggests in every community, county and region of the country. The problem in achieving fairness and diversity is shown by the fact that 3,000 awards are made a year and there are 1 million people in Leicestershire and Rutland. One sixtieth of 3,000 equals 50 awards a year. Do that many awards go to the people of Leicestershire and Rutland, or indeed to any other group of 1 million? No, of course not. There is a distinct metropolitan skew to the system, is there not?

Dr. Wright : Indeed there is. As I am sure my hon. Friend has seen, the report includes a statistical appendix that gives some figures on the distribution of awards, not only by region but by other characteristics. One of the reasons for wanting a seriously reformed honours system is that those are exactly the considerations on which we would expect the honours system to report on a regular basis. We should be told how well those who run the system are doing to ensure that honours are distributed fairly across the population, including on geographical grounds.

Mr. Wills : My hon. Friend is extremely generous to give way so often. Does he agree that the metropolitan bias referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) reflects a deeper problem with the honours system, which is that it disproportionately rewards status rather than service?

Dr. Wright : Indeed it does. That is one of the fundamental issues. The clearest evidence is that the more senior somebody is, the grander the award that they will get. Although we have made some efforts in recent years to sprinkle some honours among head teachers and so on, that is still fundamentally the case. It is unsatisfactory because it reproduces a system of existing awards, rather than challenging that in the name of a different kind of honour, which would be given to people for work in the community, in particular. That has been increasingly understood.

I have had an interesting correspondence recently with a lord lieutenant, of all people. Lords lieutenant are seen as one of the routes into the honours system. He expressed his dissatisfaction with present arrangements, partly on the grounds referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire. There is widespread feeling that the time has come to revisit those aspects of the system. That was the point—I have finally arrived—of our report.

Reviewing the evidence, we took the view that it was time for a seriously radical reform of the system. That is why we made a number of recommendations. We have recommended that, in essence, we should take the honours system away from politicians and that we should have an independent honours commission. Ideally, that would be done as it was in Australia, with a great public debate about the honours system that we would like, exploring the issues that have been raised, and asking what we, as a society, want to honour and how we would like to do that. We could then convert that into an independent commission to do the work on behalf of society.

Mr. Prentice : Is it not the case that our society is still, in the 21st century, hierarchical? The honours system
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underpins that. Even today it would be inconceivable for a school teacher to be made a dame, or a police inspector to be given a knighthood.

Dr. Wright : As my hon. Friend will remember, we took the view that it was probably time to move away from what we call name-changing titles: knights, dames and the rest of them. In case anyone thinks that that is an outrageous suggestion, it almost happened in 1916, when an official committee considered all that and started to ask what a democratic honours system would look like and whether it would include name-changing titles. It would not, but that was not the view that won through.

Mr. Heald : Is not all this just denying our history? We have well-respected honours that people like, so why go into such a fever of anxiety and concern as though we were a new country trying to have a new system? We are not.

Dr. Wright : That is an interesting observation from the hon. Gentleman. If we consider the history of the honours system, as the report pointed out—

Mr. Heald : It is part of our history.

Dr. Wright : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has read the report. We deal with the point that the system is part of our history. It is a story of endless reinvention. We endlessly reinvent things and then claim that they are an integral part of our long, ancient history. In fact, the honours system has had two major periods of reinvention, the latter of which was in the first part of the 20th century and issued, crucially, the Order of the British Empire. That was an act of democratic reinvention at the end of the first world war, so there is no reason that we could not reinvent again a century on, as we have in the past.

Mr. Heald : The hon. Gentleman is right that new honours have been added to the overall package over the years, and he has just mentioned one of them. Is not the idea of scrapping all of them and having an order of British excellence, which was the suggestion of the Committee, just politically correct clap-trap?

Dr. Wright : There is only one thing worse than deliberate political correctness, and that is deliberate political incorrectness. There is no reason why we should not think freshly and radically about such matters without being accused of political correctness. Indeed, we were given evidence, which we took strongly on board, by John Major, who was a great advocate of what he wanted to call—as we called it in the report—the order of British excellence. He thought that that was exactly the right kind of organic evolutionary change, retaining the letters but adapting the award into a form that everybody would feel comfortable accepting.

We built on the suggestion, culled the number of awards down to four, and took account of the considerations of whether there should be separate awards for civil servants, concluding that there should not be. We think we have produced a proposal that
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takes the honours system out of the hands of politicians into those of an independent commission and is more sensible about defining the criteria for the receipt of honours and not just having them for people of higher rank or for people who are doing their job. We tried to define the basis of the system, removing the name-changing honours and having an honours commission that would report to Parliament on the characteristics of the honours system that have been raised by hon. Members, such as the people whom it represents.

Stephen Pound : My hon. Friend has been extraordinarily generous in giving way. I should say that when I was offered the Order of Merit, which I accepted with alacrity—it was the Order of Merit, officer class, of the Republic of Poland—I managed to maintain my objectivity.

Has my hon. Friend been attracted by the American system, where there are few national honours? The principal honour is the congressional medal of honour, and the filter is that it has to be approved by Congress. I am reluctant to look to the United States for example in such a way, but has my hon. Friend been attracted to the idea of an honour bestowed by Parliament with a transparent allocation process?

Dr. Wright : It might be that one category of honour could appropriately be arrived at by that route. Perhaps honours for particular purposes, which we could define, would be a creative addition to the honours system. I am not averse to such an idea in principle. Do I think that Parliament should create the honours? No, I do not, for many reasons.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): The report, which is an extremely good one, does retain some nomination rights for Government to the honours commission. Might not the danger be that that would suggest that the system was still about repaying favours and being partisan? If we are to include anybody with a political handle, would it not be better for those processes to be dealt with in a much more pluralistic way, through a Select Committee and Parliament as a whole, rather than through the Government of the day? Is not one of the main complaints that the system is overly party politicised? Is that not what we want to get away from most of all?

Dr. Wright : The distinction is between those who can nominate and those who make awards. It is perfectly proper for Departments to make nominations, because they are often the ones who know best what is going on. The key point is who receives the nomination and who makes the award.

While we were conducting our inquiry the Government set up their own inquiry under Sir Hayden Phillips, who is turning out to be a jack of all trades on such reform. We had a good relationship with Sir Hayden as he was making his report. He produced a report on behalf of the Government, which they later largely accepted, that took on board some of these points. His report said that all we needed to do was have more external people on the awarding committees and more transparency about who they are, and that that would produce greater public confidence in the system.
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In that sense, the Government have responded to some of the issues and put in place their own reforms. My view is that the Government's response was a halfway house. It would have been much better to take a proper, comprehensive look at the whole system, not just to tidy up the edges that are causing difficulty at the time, as a mandarin might do.

Mr. Andrew Turner : The hon. Gentleman is kind in giving way again. His mention of Sir Hayden Phillips brings to mind the suggestion that only dukes should be allowed to chair royal commissions because only they cannot be rewarded for coming up with the result that the Government want.

Is the hon. Gentleman really suggesting that a committee would be more capable of providing an appropriate honours list rather than a list that would find widespread support? Is there not always a danger of committees being too conservative? The hon. Gentleman might dislike this, but Harold Wilson was at least adventurous in the way that he scattered stardust on the honours list. Other Prime Ministers may be so in other ways, but at least we can vote them out. We cannot vote out a committee.

Dr. Wright : One of the points about having a different system is not only to do with the mechanics of choosing the names. The bit that we do not do very well is the bit that gets under the skin of our society: finding the kind of people whom I mentioned at the beginning. The honours system hardly does that at all now, and it certainly does not do it well. We would benefit from a system that more actively took on board the idea of going and finding the people doing the work that we as a society would like to reward, rather than simply taking the names in from the usual transmission belts. That is the point about having a different system.

I bring my remarks to a close by mentioning propriety, which has caused some excitement in recent weeks. Interestingly, the Committee decided several months ago that it wanted to revisit its work on the honours system in relation to propriety. That is, how effective was the machinery at guaranteeing the integrity of the system? The issue relates to the scrutiny committees that were set up at the beginning of the previous century, the work of the commission that has now taken that on board and the way in which the scrutiny committee has been absorbed into the House of Lords appointments commission.

We decided to do that work long before the recent excitement, when things were calm. Since then, of course, there has been all the excitement. The appointments commission has raised queries about names. It seems from the reports in the press—I do not know whether they are true—that it did so the previous year, I think in relation to Conservative nominees, which put all parties on a yellow warning. The commission returned to the issue only this year, more actively querying certain names, because of that history.

One could say that that shows that the system is improving. We have had a political honours scrutiny committee since the early part of the 20th century. As we know from all the evidence, we have also had people appearing to receive honours and peerages because they gave money to political parties and sailing through quite
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serenely. We might therefore take some comfort from the fact that we now have a piece of machinery that is more energetic.

Someone said the other day that there should be a donor's Bench in the House of the Lords. People who sat there could wear special ermine and everything would be above board. We could go down that route, but it would not be the preferred route. It would be much better to try to clean up the system, so that honour did not flow just from money.

The central issue—on which the Committee reported in responding to the Wakeham commission report on the House of Lords—is a second Chamber that has a built-in confusion between being part of the honours system and being a legislative chamber, the second Chamber in Parliament. That confusion causes all the difficulty. People in society are not queuing up to be legislators in the second Chamber of Parliament, but they are queuing up to become Lords. Yet one is unfortunately indissolubly linked to the other.

Mr. Hendrick : Is it not indeed an honour to sit in the House of Commons, and are we not called hon. Members?

Dr. Wright : It is the highest honour in the land to sit in the House of Commons. It should be an honour, as a legislator, to sit in the House of Lords, but we should not confuse an honours system with serving in a Chamber of Parliament. They are different honorific activities.

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Was the hon. Gentleman not amused to re-read the passage in the Government's response to the report that says:

Dr. Wright : That is an interesting point. The argument was that transparency would take care of the issue; that is, because we had transparency—again, we have to give the Government credit for legislating on party funding—that role was not required. That was wrong. We need scrutiny of the higher honours too, not just of peerages.

I end by returning to the 1922 royal commission on the honours system, which said:

That is the case and has been so for a great number of years. The problem contaminates the House of Lords and it contaminates the honours system. It is my contention that something must be done about it. That is why we have to reform the honours system, reform the House of Lords and reform the system of party funding, because they are all indissolubly connected.

Several hon Members rose—

Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair): Order. I remind hon. Members wishing to catch my eye that the three Front-Bench contributions should commence no later than 5 pm.
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3.10 pm

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Tony Wright) on his introduction and his rather selective brief history. In summary, he said that the Liberal Democrats started raising money by selling peerages, that the Conservatives cottoned on and that the Labour Government have taken it up with great gusto. However, I do not want to make political points; I want to talk about a constituency matter. [Interruption.] No, I really do.

In essence, whatever the House does, we will never remove the suspicion that people are awarded peerages because they have given money to a political party. Does the Minister agree that the only solution, the only way in which such suspicions can be entirely removed, is to have a completely elected House of Lords? If we did that, there would be no question of patronage.

Mr. Andrew Turner : Does my hon. Friend not accept that patronage within political parties does not need to be oiled by money but can be oiled by other things such as gender, race, history, or other relationships to the more senior people in that political party?

Mr. Bone : My hon. Friend makes a good point, but I want to keep specifically to the question of honours and cash for political parties. We have reached the stage when we need a fully elected House of Lords.

Mr. Hendrick : What would happen if someone tried to buy a candidacy in a political party? Would the hon. Gentleman allow only those candidates that did not donate anything to the party in question to go forward?

Mr. Bone : I am saying only that we should have an elected House of Lords. We have reached that stage.

I hope that the Minister can answer my next point. I see no problem in someone who gives a large amount of money to an educational institution receiving an honour. The honour could be inscribed "For providing funds to improve education". However, it would be a problem if that person were then made a Member of a House that makes our laws. It is correct that those who give donations for public service should receive honours, but they must be described as such. However, I am not concerned about those who make donations but with people who, in my view, really deserve honours.

I have come across the problem twice in my political career. It first happened when I was in the Welsh valleys. The lady in question had worked for years on behalf of the Conservative party, almost single-handedly flying the flag. She had never wanted to go up the greasy pole and she had no personal ambition. She did it for what she believed in. I am sure that Labour Members know of similar people in their constituencies. I was asked to provide some background information with a view to that lady being given an honour. Unfortunately, she never received one. I would like to see more people like her receive honours.

That brings me to my main point, which is a constituency matter. I shall not mention the name of the person concerned, because that might be counterproductive. My predecessor as the Member for Wellingborough worked hard for someone who had
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done much to improve the lot of children in a very deprived area of Africa. My predecessor had supported an application for an honour, but nothing ever happened. He came to see me, the newly elected Member for Wellingborough, and asked me to support the application and to ascertain what had gone wrong.

I made inquiries and found that the person in question had been rejected. I could see no reason for the rejection, and I have supported a new application. It transpired that there is a limit to the number of honours awarded each year, and the category in question was limited to 1,000 awards. I find it hard to believe that there were 1,000 people more worthy than my constituent. Will the Minister say whether honours are capped, or are they determined on merit?

If he can, I would appreciate the Minister helping my constituent, who is extremely deserving, has spent years improving conditions for children in Africa, is well known locally and has had national recognition.

3.15 pm

Mr. Michael Wills (North Swindon) (Lab): I begin by congratulating the Committee on an admirable, thorough, first-class report. I agree with most of it; it is constructive and it makes some important proposals for reform of the orders and the process by which such awards are made. I strongly associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Tony Wright) on the need for reform of the House of Lords.

The honours system does matter, partly because the recognition embodied in the awards powerfully motivates those who serve—a significant point made by my hon. Friend—as well as their colleagues. The system also represents what we value as a nation. It is an important component of our national identity. The report reflects the widespread feeling that although the honours system still fulfils that purpose, in some important ways it fails adequately to reflect our national identity as many would wish.

It is not a matter of individual awards, or even the sprinkling of stardust over each list. Ultimately, as my hon. Friend said, each award is subjective, and no matter how committees consider the honours system, that degree of subjectivity will remain. Rather, the question is about the overall balance of awards; what categories of individual receive awards, and why.

One issue goes to the heart of the question; it is fundamental to ensuring that the system properly reflects the values of the nation. It is how far the awards recognise exceptional achievement and exceptional service. If awards are given only in recognition of achievement, they could easily be seen as being little more than the privileged reinforcing their privileges—the great and the good establishing themselves even more firmly in the bastions of power and privilege. I hope that few people would think that such a process reflected something desirable in our national life.

Equally, achievement cannot be excluded as a criterion. I share my hon. Friend's view of Sir David King's remarks to the Committee. It is important that awards should shed lustre on the award as well as dignifying the recipients. Exceptional achievements can clearly help do that. However, in this admirable report
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and more widely, the tendency has been to conflate the honouring of achievement and of service as if they are synonymous. They are not.

Those who have achieved much in their lives may also have given great service to the nation, but it is not axiomatic. The report recognises the widespread dislike of honours being given to people for simply doing their job. However, I am not sure that it follows that a higher proportion of the higher honours should be given for service rather than achievement. When examining any honours list, it is hard to avoid the impression that awards for services rather than achievement are focused on the lower ranks of each order; the knights, the companions and the commanders are concentrated in the traditional ranks of the established classes.

The report includes the evidence of Sir Hayden Phillips, who said:

That is 40 per cent. of all awards. It is often instructive to examine carefully the use of language by civil servants and politicians.

The use of the word "all" drove me to look at the distribution of the higher awards. I read the summer list in 2005, and among the higher honours I counted 147 knighthoods and awards such as commanders and companions for various orders, of which, by my rough and ready analysis, 52 went to Crown servants. In other words, 35 per cent. went to the great and the good. When other categories of the great and the good are added to the equation, the proportion is far higher. That might not be surprising, but that does not make it acceptable.

Any honours system must use a sifting process. There are two stages in the process that might easily work against those who have given exceptional service, but have not achieved eminent status. First, there is a sifting by category and occupation. It is right, in my view, that there should be an attempt to reflect all facets of national life in rewarding achievement. Not to do so would artificially elevate certain activities above others. It is also clear that that will be a subjective judgment, which might shift to reflect changes in national priorities. For example, the Government are focused on education being a priority, and that has led to educationists appearing more prominently in the higher honours. Most people would agree that that change is welcome.

There will always be a tendency to reflect the most visible and powerful categories, not necessarily those who give the most selfless service to the nation. Some 200,000 people in this country work in social services. Those important, often thankless, jobs often require extraordinary dedication, but such workers are often punished and humiliated in the media when they make mistakes. They rarely receive public commendation when they get things right, and their jobs are not well paid. Yet how many social workers do we see in the upper echelons of the honours system every year? Does that imbalance reflect our core national values?

I do not say that businessmen and permanent secretaries should not qualify for such awards—of course they should—but I wonder whether they should receive them so disproportionately in comparison with the caring professions. I am not trying to elevate the
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status of the caring professions above that of business or that of the civil service. All can serve, but there should be a greater equivalence of esteem, and it should be reflected in the honours system.

The second institutional bias in the system against honouring service instead of achievement might flow from the difficulty of identifying recipients. Achievement and status, by definition, thrust themselves forward for recognition. Exceptional service divorced from status will inevitably be harder to identify, but that does not mean that we should not try harder to do so. Of course, that will be a subjective process. I feel humbled every time I see a teacher of children with special needs at work. Their selfless patience and dedication, often in difficult circumstances, can be extraordinary, yet how many of those teachers do we see represented in the higher echelons of the awards every year?

As I said earlier, my personal view is that the system is inherently subjective. If we had a system that genuinely recognised service rather than simply achievement, we would see, every year, among the knights, commanders and companions, not only the businessman but the social worker, and not only the head teacher—to pick up on a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) just made—but the form teacher who has given selfless service over many years. We would see not only the head of a royal college, but the hospital cleaner. If that seems a strange proposition, it is only because the system rewards status more than effort. We can all think of genuinely selfless people who make extraordinary efforts on the part of others, yet whose status in society apparently renders them ineligible for the higher honours. I am talking not about the lower orders, but the higher honours which inherently reflect the value that we place on them in society.

Mr. Andrew Turner : I am a little confused by the hon. Gentleman's elision of status with achievement, as compared with service, because he has compared both status and achievement with service. In my constituency, there is a young lady in her twenties, I believe, from a working-class family in Derbyshire, who was made a dame because she was the fastest woman to sail around the world single-handedly. That is about achievement, not status. Can the hon. Gentleman tease those issues out slightly better?

Mr. Wills : I am happy to try to do so, but we are splitting hairs; it is a matter of semantics. The extraordinary sportswoman to whom the hon. Gentleman refers clearly achieved status as a result of her achievement. That does not mean that it is negligible; it is eminently worth while, and she is obviously eminently deserving of the honour that has been conferred on her. That is not in question. I have made it quite clear that that sort of eminent achievement, which is outstanding and extraordinary, should be honoured. Everybody would agree with that. We must have balance between achievement and service, but that is not always the case. What happens all too often in the upper echelons of the awards—I am not
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talking about the overall system—is that achievement is rewarded more than service for the reasons that I have given.

Mr. Hendrick : While I agree with my hon. Friend's analysis and many of his conclusions, I am concerned about how practicable his suggestions are. I agree with his distinction between achievement and status as against service, but are not there millions of heroes in this country working above and beyond the call of duty to be the type of people he is talking about? Would not it be unfair to many of them if only one or two were recognised rather than all of them?

Mr. Wills : Of course, my hon. Friend is right. That is what I meant when I talked about the difficulty of identifying such recipients. It will be problematic, and I agree that there are probably far more selfless heroes in the country than eminent footballers or rock stars of great established longevity who suddenly become eligible for such honours, or, indeed, permanent secretaries. We must consider this in relation to not only the individuals concerned, but what the system says about the nation. It is about what we honour as a nation; we are sending out a signal that we honour achievement and status more than service. We must find a way around that.

Any system will inevitably be subjective—my hon. Friend is right about that—but so is the current system. Why is one footballer or permanent secretary honoured rather than another?

Mr. Heald : The way in which the Government put it in their response—for once I rather agree with them—is that an individual who receives an award for service should have "gone the extra mile", and that someone who receives an award for achievement should stand out "head and shoulders" above his or her peers. That is rather a good way of summing up what we are looking for.

Mr. Wills : I agree entirely. My point is that both those considerations should be reflected in the upper echelons of the honours system, but they are not. If they were, we would see some of those millions of heroes being made knights, dames, companions and commanders. That would show that we reward and honour service at an equivalent level to achievement. Are we really saying, through the way in which the upper echelons of the system work, that the only people who go that extra mile—to use the hon. Gentleman's definition—are to be found only in the upper echelons of the civil service, in the royal colleges or among head teachers? Absolutely not—none of us believes that, yet the honours system appears to send out that message.

Mr. Hendrick : Suppose that a police sergeant were to be made a knight. Given that there are 43 police forces in England and Wales—I do not know how many there are in Scotland—[Interruption.] Eight in Scotland, I am reliably informed. Suppose that there was one knight in each of the 43 forces, plus the eight in Scotland, does my hon. Friend think that it might devalue a knighthood if so many were given out in one tranche every year?

Mr. Wills : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his contribution, but there is no question of inflating the
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number of honours given out; it is just a question of distributing them differently. I thought that my hon. Friend was going to make a slightly different point—one with which I have sympathy, because it is practical—about how conferring a higher honour on a police sergeant who had gone that extra mile would impact on his position in his police force, and about whether that would undermine the command structure in that force. That would be a practical issue. However, the fact that we think that that is a problem says much about how we think the honours system reinforces existing power structures. It should not be doing that; it belongs to the nation, not to a prevailing power structure. That is the point. It reflects what we value and honour as a nation, and therefore it ought to be separated from power structures.

Of course we should be able to reward achievement, but we should be able to do so at the upper echelons to show that we truly value those people who, in the words quoted by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), go that extra mile. I would like the system to be extended in that way, but that would be enormously difficult to do, and I fear that my plea will go unheeded, because people who have reached the top of their profession expect an honouring in that sort of way. They will find it difficult to accept that people lower down the power structure should be honoured for their extra effort. However, I strongly believe that the system should be extended, because it reflects something important about our nation: the fact that it is one nation, and that we are all citizens, equal in each other's eyes, and should reward those of us who go that extra mile.

3.32 pm

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I am pleased to have this opportunity to comment on our Committee's report. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) on his excellent presentation and on the way in which he chaired the Committee's deliberations.

The report is very good, but it is a consensus report and does not necessarily reflect every view of every member of the Committee, so I want to raise one or two points. First, I take issue with the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), who speaks for the Conservatives. He asked why we do not just keep everything. There is a serious problem in Britain, in that we have not addressed equality. Some of the revolutionary societies that emerged from the 18th century, such as France and America, thought equality very important. If some of my political forebears, the Levellers, had been victorious within the Cromwellian armies, our society might be much more equal and egalitarian now, but unfortunately we did not win, and some of what existed before the English revolution carried on afterwards and was perhaps reinforced to some extent.

The report is absolutely right to suggest getting rid of all the honours, and having a simple, three-tier, single honour. That would parallel the légion d'honneur in France, which is a much more simplified system, and which has a feel of an equal society about it. Our system reflects our still hierarchical and unequal society. It is extraordinary. I have talked to colleagues from the continent of Europe whose countries have had
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revolutions, defeats in war, economic problems and all sorts of tribulations that we have not experienced. We have preserved in aspic all the structures of the past that they have got rid of. The current honours system needs, if not to be got rid of entirely, then radical reform, as we suggest in the report. It would be healthy for our society to consider things in a much more egalitarian way.

My concerns are about the involvement of politicians in the honours system. My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) and other hon. Members rightly mentioned that. I suggested during the Committee's deliberations that we should remove the power of the political realm entirely from the honours system; it should be completely separate, with no involvement whatever by the Prime Minister in particular, and by the political powers in general. One simple way to achieve that would be to abolish the House of Lords. I have always been an abolitionist, although I have reluctantly had to concede that there will not be abolition now.

Some years ago, I went along to a so-called policy forum—our party has them, but the Conservatives do not, or perhaps they do; I do not know. The subject was reform of the House of Lords. Instead of us having rigorous debates and democratic votes, the subject was chosen for us. We went along to a meeting, and a chair came from outside—we did not know where he came from; he certainly was not elected. He was imposed. Someone suggested that abolition of the House of Lords should be among the things to discuss, but the chair said absolutely not, and that that was not on the agenda. Someone suggested that we ought to have a daring vote, just to test the water on abolition, but the vote was ruled out of order, and we were told we would have no vote. I was puzzled by that; I wanted one. Anyway, it seemed appropriate not to have a vote, given that we were talking about unelected politicians.

Abolition would be one way forward, and it would certainly remove the Prime Minister's power to appoint peers. If any appointments of that kind are to continue, they should be removed entirely from the political sphere. My view is that we ought to have a wholly elected House of Lords—a Senate or upper House, as we might call it. The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) suggested the same thing.

I was slightly concerned about another point made by our Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase. He said that things are much better now than they were. Well, relativism only goes so far. Things may be better than they were, but they are still not as they should be. I should like to see the whole system entirely cleaned up. There may be a bit less corruption, political fiddling and patronage than there was, but that is not good enough. We have got to get rid of the system entirely. I want the concentration of power in our country—the centre of power is in Downing street—to be dissolved and spread more evenly through the political system.

Mr. Hendrick : Will my hon. Friend answer the question that the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) would not answer? If there were another elected Chamber, what would prevent people from paying to become political candidates in a political
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party, in order to gain a seat there? If that were stopped, the only valid candidates would be those who did not donate any money to that political party.

Kelvin Hopkins : Those are matters for political parties. A political party that had such obvious corruption within it would hopefully suffer at the polls as a result. I would certainly want my party, at least, to be a genuinely democratic party where the members select their candidates in a free and democratic fashion.

Mr. Bone : On that point, surely one could say that political parties could take money to allow people to become candidates for the House of Commons, but the hon. Gentleman's point applies: the public would throw that party out very quickly.

Kelvin Hopkins : Things are not perfect, and I would like considerable improvements in all parties, including mine, but I will not go into that, because that would be going wide of today's subject.

Mr. Hendrick : All political parties have a membership fee and rely on finance in order to carry out their day-to-day business. Surely a judgment needs to be made about how much is considered bribery, how much a membership fee, and how much a valid, non-prejudicial donation.

Kelvin Hopkins : When I first stood for selection in my party, we were not permitted to mention money at all. We could not even refer to support from organisations that might donate money, because that could influence the selection. The selection had to be based on one's political worth, and that is absolutely right. That is the way it should be.

I would like to touch on the issue of stardust. I am not persuaded that we should give awards that are seen to be media-friendly in order to gain a bit of credibility, perhaps, in certain areas of the sporting world or whatever. An independent commission should choose people for an honour—for a légion d'honneur, a CBE or an OBE—using recommendations from friends and whatever. It should not be seen to be saying, "Ah yes, we have got to liven things up a bit with a few pop stars and footballers." If such celebrities have done wonderful things for Britain such as making great donations or bringing great honour to the country, they can be considered along with other people.

However, in a sense, most people who are that famous, wealthy and powerful have had their reward. I want no more reward than I have had already. As others have said, being a Member of Parliament is the greatest honour, and it is bestowed not by somebody up there sprinkling stardust, but by voters who vote for us because they think us worthy of their support and of representing them. I am not keen on the idea of stardust either.

I turn to another aspect of the report. Professor Peter Hennessy talked about the honours system being "the lubricant" of the state. I was unhappy with that. In many ways, Professor Hennessy is admirable—he made some superb contributions to our deliberations and is extremely entertaining—but I did not agree with him on that. I was more persuaded by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Jon Snow, who talked about the potential for corruption in politics and were absolutely right.
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I would like to see the abolition of any kind of politics in the honours system and, in conclusion, I shall quote a great man. When I started my political activity, I used to go to meetings in Arthur Henderson hall, our local Labour party hall. That was a long time ago, and I never thought that I would one day read out Arthur Henderson's words in Parliament. Here, he discusses politics, money and honours:

That was written 84 years ago, and it rings well today. I certainly support Arthur Henderson.

3.42 pm

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): It has been a great pleasure to listen to the debate, Mr. O'Hara. On purpose, I did not seek to catch your eye earlier because I wanted to hear the points made by those who were described quietly as "the usual suspects" just before the debate began. I cannot say to whom those words referred.

For the most part, the report is good. However, one or two points are fundamentally bad and detract from its overall value, and I intend to refer to those. From where did the Committee get its information? It is an honour to be asked to give evidence to a Select Committee, and none of those who gave evidence—including my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke)—could be described as normal. So where did the information come from?

I recognise that there was lots of written evidence as well, and I do not know all those who gave it, but the list on page 68 is made up almost entirely of the great and the good. I accept that a fair sprinkling of politicians are perhaps not quite as great or good as the rest of the great and the good who gave evidence. However, it is hardly surprising that the Committee came to the conclusion that politicians—even the Prime Minister—are not the right people to hand out honours, but that the great and the good are. As I said in an intervention, the Prime Minister can be sacked—by Labour Members at the moment, or by the public later.

One thing that worries me is the conservative—with a small c, obviously—nature of the great and the good in this country. As I said, I think it highly unlikely that in 1966 or 1967, or whenever it was, the great and the good would have risked giving the MBE to the Beatles. However, Harold Wilson did that. He described it as sprinkling a bit of stardust. Perhaps that was foolish,
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but it was not the only foolish form of words he chose to use in his time. He said, "These people have achieved something and we believe that it should be recognised, not through money, but through the formal recognition of the state."

The award did more than add stardust to the list; it naturalised—that is the best word I can think of—the youth subculture of the 1960s and brought it into the wider culture of the state and the establishment. The knighthoods given to Tom Jones and Mick Jagger—belatedly, I admit—did the same. They brought them into the imperium, if you like. Those knights were no longer rebels against the establishment, but part of it.

I say in particular to the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) that one of the great virtues of the British honours system is that those who would be rebels can usually be brought in. That is why there has not been a successful revolution in this country since 1688. It is greatly to our benefit and good fortune as a nation that our systems evolve rather than being thrown up in the air, with a great deal of bloodshed, to land who knows where.

Mr. Wills rose—

Kelvin Hopkins rose—

Mr. Turner : The hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) wants to intervene. However, I referred to the hon. Member for Luton, North and shall give way to him first.

Kelvin Hopkins : The hon. Gentleman's analysis is incorrect. We have not had revolutions in Britain because, in time, Governments have bowed to the will of the people and created a more civilised society. We have, particularly in the 20th century, been less repressive or oppressive than some other societies. After the second world war, a magnificent Labour Government created the welfare state and redistributed income and wealth as never before. That is why we have not had revolutions—Governments have given way, sensibly, to the demands of the people.

Mr. Turner : A combination of things is involved, including elements of co-option, naturalisation and good rule from both major parties for 100 years.

Mr. Wills : I am curious about the hon. Gentleman's argument. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins), I balk at it; I have a different understanding of history. The hon. Gentleman was describing what many analysts would say is the approach of the Government of China at the moment—co-opting every possible rebellious and talented individual into the system as an alternative to democratic reforms. Is he endorsing that process?

Mr. Turner : I have insufficient knowledge of the workings of the Chinese Government, who are considerably more repressive than most Governments in the west.

Simon Hughes : Last year, we saw for the first time the names of the chairs of the eight sub-committees that recommend honours. What comment does the hon. Gentleman have on them? I shall quote from the list:
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There is not a single unhonoured person among them. It strikes me that those who get into the system ensure that it runs comfortably for them.

Mr. Turner : I do not deny that. I do not think the system perfect, but I question whether the new system proposed in the report would be any better.

Dr. Wright : I am slightly puzzled by the hon. Gentleman's remarks. He said that he thinks all the people who gave evidence to us are in some way abnormal, which I thought curious when I studied the list again. Leaving that aside, if he were to read the report, he would see what we explicitly said:

We point out how such a situation can be prevented.

Mr. Turner : The road to hell is paved with good intentions. I am sure that the Committee's intentions are perfect, but no committee in the world will not eventually be taken over by the great and the good, at whatever level. The great thing about the Prime Minister and politicians taking responsibility for these things is that they can be sacked. Sooner or later, the public usually sack them.

I shall move on from the composition of the list of witnesses. The excursion that I would most describe as a waste of time that rather devalued the report relates to the Order of the British Empire. The excursion was silly and it devalued the argument. Of course, some people object to the British empire, which was, on balance, a huge force for good in the world. However, people also object to saints and organised religion—some might even object to garters. I do not understand why the Committee feels there is a need to change the name of an order, when its function is to remain substantially the same.

I understand why people jib a little at the Order of St. Michael and St. George, but it has changed significantly over time from having its previous function to having its current status as an award for foreign affairs. The Order of the Bath has changed significantly over time. We have a range of different orders and they have different histories. I am sure some will fall into disuse, as the Most Exalted Order of the Star of India and the Imperial Order of the Crown of India did in the previous century.

Other orders appear to be dormant and are resurrected. In the most recent case, Sir John Major resurrected the baronetcy, which we all thought extinct but which had merely gone into dormancy. For the benefit of Labour Members, particularly the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), although he is no longer in his place, a baronetcy does not entitle one to a seat in the House of Lords. The suggestion that merely by changing the name of an order we are doing anything other than tinkering at the edges is silly.

Kelvin Hopkins : I am puzzled by the idea of the British empire being a force for good in the world. About a
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third of my constituents come from countries that fought hard for their independence and did not see the British empire as being benign in any sense. In fact, such people were often oppressed by it. Let us consider areas such as Iraq. The mischief that the British empire caused there is still affecting us today.

Mr. Turner : Well, clearly we did not do so much mischief that such people did not want to come to this country. Let us reflect on Africa: other places that were parts of the British empire are thankfully governed rather better, but most African former colonies are governed far worse than when they were part of the British empire.

I think that I have covered the point about the Order of the British Empire.

Dr. Wright : The hon. Gentleman must take on board the powerful evidence that the Committee received from Sir John Major on that issue. He explained why he no longer held the view that he previously did. He used to believe in what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but he has changed his mind, saying

He now thinks that a new order of British excellence is the way to proceed. He said:

I would have thought that was a good Conservative principle.

Mr. Turner : First, we are not talking about minimum change. Minimum change is no change.

Simon Hughes : That is not change.

Mr. Turner : I am sure I could devise a more minimal change than changing one word in the order's title. Secondly, the proposed title is grey, although that is a matter of opinion, as is whether the title is appropriate and whether one individual or another should be a given a particular honour.

I accept that this is subjective, but I read that the order of British excellence was thought to be a better title than the order of Britain—I cannot remember which paragraph that claim was made in. I do not see the order of British excellence, which I think is grey in the extreme, as being any great improvement on the order of Britain, which was apparently rejected. Sir John Major has been right and wrong about a number of things. Sometimes he has changed his mind and become more right, and sometimes he has done so and become less right.

Mr. Hendrick : When the hon. Gentleman makes reference to the description "grey", I am unsure whether he is referring to the OBE or to his former Conservative colleague.

I was not particularly sensitive about the nomenclature proposed or whether it was any better or worse than using the word "empire". However, when I heard the hon. Gentleman's description of what he felt about that word and why he felt it should remain, and
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his view of the empire, my mind might have been changed. We might need to bring things up to speed in the 21st century.

Mr. Turner : I am pleased that I can have such influence.

Kelvin Hopkins : I shall make a simple point. We can see a conservative point to keeping the same letters—there is continuity with the past. People who have received the OBE, CBE or MBE would not feel affronted that their awards were disappearing and others would feel that they were getting the same letters after their name. Most people in my constituency who get such awards think that they get them from the Queen, our Head of State. Irrespective of what one thinks about the monarchy, when they collect their award at the palace, that is what makes their day.

Mr. Turner : I have no dispute with that fact. Such people get their awards from the Queen—from the Crown—not from the Prime Minister.

I find something else extraordinary. This is not in the report, but it is implicit in this debate that being knighted somehow makes someone a more important person. One just has to read Alan Clark's diaries to realise that it is not a title or a name that makes one a gentleman. I think that the phrase he used to describe someone whom he clearly did not think of as a gentleman, my noble Friend Lord Heseltine, was that he "bought his own furniture". I am sorry to say that I never knew Alan Clark, but I am sure he would have thought even worse of people who bought their own peerage.

I am not advocating any change to the arrangement of titles. I appreciate the point made by the hon. Member for North Swindon about the distinction between achievement, and service and status. I am proud that Dame Ellen MacArthur received the award that she did as a result of her extraordinary achievement. I do not think that people should receive awards merely for the status that they have achieved. It is sadly implicit in some of the awards given to permanent secretaries that they got them because of the status they achieved, although there is achievement in achieving such exalted status.

It is difficult to understand how it would be possible to measure service on a scale—even service that goes the extra mile—in the same way as we can measure achievement on a scale. We can measure achievement; we can see whether something is the best. However, it is very hard to measure the service of someone who has, for example, run out-of-school clubs for 25 years in a rural primary school. That is clearly service, although it is clearly additional service, but how can it be measured on a scale? For that reason, we should appreciate the token nature of the award—I am sure recipients appreciate that—and we should also recognise that not everyone can receive the award.

There is no equality; let us get away from the idea that there can ever be any equality in honours. There is no entitlement to honours, there should be no expectation of honours and, certainly, there can be no equality of
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honours, but there is the chance of recognition at a higher level than the local level. It would, of course, be better if more people contributed locally by putting names forward to those who make the decisions—whoever they should be—about the award of honours.

Simon Hughes : I realise that this is a controversial proposal to come from those on the Liberal Democrat Benches, but presumably the hon. Gentleman would not justify, in this modern century, the fact that the wife of a man who gets a title—a knighthood, for example—immediately gets a title, whereas if a woman gets a title there is no reciprocal arrangement? Surely, the person to be honoured should receive the title, but other people in the family should not automatically be honoured just because they happen to be hitched to somebody?

Mr. Turner : Legally, such people do not get a title; they get an honorific. The title of the wife of a knight or baronet—or, indeed, of a peer—is not legal; it is honorary. The fact that the husband of somebody who is honoured does not get a title is merely a matter of custom in this country. However, even if that were not the case, I would not see any need to fiddle around with this matter—it would be fiddling for no purpose.

I have a brief final point to make about the spread of honours. There is a metropolitan bias in the distribution of honours, and the further up the honours tree we go, the greater the bias becomes. I do not wish to delve too deeply into peerages, because reform of the House of Lords is not a matter for this debate. However, it is of concern to me that almost half the peerages—it might be more—granted since 1997 have gone to people who live in London. That is an extraordinary, ridiculous and unjustifiable bias.

I believe that the figure might be 40 per cent., but the fact that those people are involved in the legislature makes this an even worse bias. Sadly, it is reflected in the higher levels of honours throughout the system. That shows the failure of the establishment to co-opt people in other regions as successfully as it does people in the south-east. I wish it would make an effort in that regard, and encouraging nominations is the best way to do it.

4.3 pm

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): A lot of ground has been covered, so I shall be brief.

The Committee's report was published in 2004—two years ago. We said:

Of course, nowadays it is impossible to pick up a newspaper without reading some lurid allegation about the honours system—honours for sale, and so forth.

Let me say at the outset that I believe that the state should honour citizens who merit that. We set out in our report six principles for an effective honours system. The first of them is excellence;

Who would disagree with that? The second principle is integrity;

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We all agree with that. The third is transparency;

The next principle is dignity;

The fifth principle is clarity;

Finally, there should be fairness;

We formulated those principles after taking evidence from a number of eminent people, and after acquiring a huge amount of written evidence, which is published in a separate volume. We got a lot of coverage. I truly believed that, with a Labour Government with a radical agenda, the honours system might be radically changed.

Alas, that was not to be the case. Many of our report's recommendations were rejected. We called for the ending of honours going to people just for holding a particular post—for example, to senior civil servants such as permanent secretaries. That was rejected. We called for the end of the Order of the British Empire. That was rejected. We have heard about the conversion of the former Prime Minister, Sir John Major, but there were also other people who felt the same way about the idea that we should still award people with the Order of the British Empire in this day and age, when that empire no longer exists apart from half a dozen or a dozen islands scattered around the world. It was simply felt that that was something that should be changed.

Benjamin Zephaniah is one of a number of people who refused an award. He declined to become an Officer of the Order of the British Empire; he stated—I wish I could say this in rap, but I cannot, and Members would laugh at me if I tried—that he believed it stood for colonial brutality and slavery. That is Benjamin Zephaniah's view. We felt that this could be updated. We felt that the initials could be kept; that is minimum change, which is the kind of change the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) likes. We felt we could keep the initials and just substitute "excellence" for "empire". We also recommended the phasing out of name-changing titles—the dames and the knights. The Government rejected that. It was rejected as too radical.

I believe—I have always believed—that we in Britain live in a very hierarchical society. When I intervened earlier on my Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), I do not know if I said something that I did not mean to say, so let me say what I wanted to say again; I said that it is inconceivable that a teacher—not a head teacher, but a teacher—should be made a Dame of the British Empire. I just do not think that that would happen.

Simon Hughes : I think that has happened a few times; I think that three head teachers have become dames.

Mr. Prentice : I am not talking about head teachers. That shows the confusion; it is on the record now. What I am saying is that it is inconceivable that a teacher should become a dame, or that a police constable or sergeant should become a knight. How ridiculous is that?

Kelvin Hopkins : There is an interesting example that confirms that point. In the television programme "A
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Touch of Frost", Frost has won the George medal, and he hides it in his desk for fear of embarrassing his seniors. Is that not typically British?

Mr. Prentice : Indeed. I have made this point, and it is not an eccentric position for a usual suspect.

I have an article by Andrew Adonis, who has been a recipient of patronage—am I allowed to say that, Mr. O'Hara? He is now Lord Adonis. He calls for the abolition of name-changing titles:

However, that recommendation just disappeared into a big black hole. We still have the knights and the dames. Within the space of a few years, people would get used to the idea of having an honours system without name-changing titles. When Professor Cannadine gave evidence before us, he said that an honours system without titles would not be unworkable. In our report, he said:

Getting rid of titles is no big deal. Other Commonwealth countries have got rid of name-changing titles, and why cannot a radical Labour Government do something like that? But it is not going to happen. The idea was rejected.

Another recommendation that we made was for an independent honours commission—rejected out of hand. The Government accepted some of our recommendations. We recommended that citizens who were honoured by the state could wear a little lapel pin. It is good that the Government accepted that recommendation.

We talked about categories: first, the people who accept honours, and, secondly, the people who refuse honours. There is actually a third category: the people who accept honours but do not describe themselves according to that honour. The classic example is Simon Jenkins, the celebrated columnist, who does not allude in print to the fact that he is a knight.

I want to spend a minute or two on those who refuse honours. This information is in our report. The Channel 4 broadcaster Jon Snow refused an honour. He is against name-changing honours. The Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown returned her MBE, and she openly talked about how honours could be secured. It is a fact of life that many people would give their eye teeth for an honour. When the former Prime Minister came before us, he told us that when he was Prime Minister, he was

That was the former Prime Minister being shocked.

There are people who have refused honours, such as the actress Vanessa Redgrave. Albert Finney, David Hockney the artist, Aldous Huxley the celebrated author, James Meade the economist, and Richard Lambert the former editor of the Financial Times, all reportedly refused an honour.

Mr. Hendrick : When I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), I made
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the point about refusing an honour. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) believe that an honour should be refused because an individual disagrees with the way in which it was awarded? Or does not he think, as I do, that many honours are refused either to gain publicity or to look anti-establishment, or just because people wish to be remembered for not accepting an honour, rather than remembered not as well for accepting an honour?

Mr. Prentice : My Friend must learn to think better of people. As I understand it, Vanessa Redgrave did not go public in saying that she had refused an honour.

Mr. Hendrick : She certainly would not now. My hon. Friend has done it for her.

Mr. Prentice : It was a leak from somewhere in the system. It is in the public domain.

Kelvin Hopkins : On the same point, Michael Foot, Jack Jones and others refused peerages on principle, because they did not believe in a second Chamber. They did not believe in a House of Lords, and they stuck by their belief and demonstrated it by refusing peerages when they could have had them easily.

Mr. Prentice : The simple point that I am trying to make is that if we had an honours system that followed the six principles set down in our report, I suspect that few people would reject it. I am just surmising; there is no way of knowing. It is because the present system is so opaque and there is no clarity about who should be preferred over someone else that many people think it is—I hesitate to use the word—corrupt, with a small c, and do not want anything to do with it.

We have made reference already to the hereditary baronetcy that John Major conferred on Sir Denis Thatcher. However, what has the recipient of that patronage, Mark Thatcher—just looking at the six principles, Mr. O'Hara, because I see you frowning at me—

Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair): Order. Absolutely not. Not this time.

Mr. Prentice : What has Mark Thatcher done? Well, we know what he has done; we read about it in the papers all the time. But what has he done to warrant that honour?

I want to touch on the question of propriety that was alluded to by my Friend the Member for Cannock Chase who chairs the Committee. A historian of great renown took us way back to the early years of the previous century, but the Committee on Standards in Public Life also had something to say about it. As it happens, we had the chair, Sir—Sir!—Alistair Graham, before the Committee only this morning. When the Committee on Standards in Public Life published its fifth report in 1998, it said:

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People should not be shocked; the Committee was just stating the obvious. What has happened over recent years, however, is quite breathtaking. There are people who say that the sale of honours is now almost brazen. When Simon Jenkins came before our Committee, I asked him whether he thought honours were for sale, and he said that that he thought they were. Tom King is a Privy Councillor and former Secretary of State for Defence, with a long and distinguished career in government and in the Conservative party. I asked him whether he thought that honours were for sale, and he thought they were.

Many people believe that honours are being traded in the marketplace. We have on the statute book the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925, which was introduced in response to Lloyd George's sale of honours. The Prime Minister was asked only a couple of months ago, in January, whether he believed that the 1925 Act should be reviewed or reformed, and he said that he did not believe so. There has been one conviction—in 1933. Only one conviction.

Now we are in a quite unprecedented situation whereby the police have initiated an inquiry to see whether any actions have been taken that contravene the provisions of the Act. It is totally unprecedented. Members of the Public Administration Committee have already met, in camera, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Yates, who is in charge of the investigation. We will see him again next month.

I asked the Prime Minister a question at Prime Minister's questions in February. That was after the revelations in The Sunday Times when Mr. Smith was caught by that newspaper's sting. Believing that the reporters might be potential sponsors of city academies, he told them that if they sponsored a few academies, they could get a knighthood, and that if they sponsored a lot of academies, they could get a peerage. Mr. Smith was arrested, but he pleads his innocence and the police are no doubt investigating all that.

I asked the Prime Minister in the House of Commons Chamber why it is—

Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair): Order. I think that it should be pointed out that no charges were laid.

Mr. Prentice : I understand. This matter is not sub judice. There are no charges; I will make that absolutely clear. I think that I said Mr. Smith was arrested. If I said that he was charged, I withdraw that, because it is not the case.

I asked the Prime Minister why so many people outside the House believe that it is possible to get an honour for sponsoring a city academy. Then I asked whether that was because six people have been honoured already. The Prime Minister, instead of replying to the question, said that I should visit a city academy and see the good things that happen in city academies.

We know from The Observer on 16 April that a direct link is now admitted between the sponsoring of city academies and the awarding of a peerage. That admission has not been contradicted or withdrawn by No. 10 and there has been no clarification, so as far as
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I am concerned, until I hear to the contrary it stands. The headline is "No 10 admits link between school donors and peerages". The strapline underneath is "Blair wanted greater political support in House of Lords for his controversial education policy". The article quotes an unnamed senior Downing street source:

It is not right that people should be ennobled because they support a particular policy objective of the Government of the day. That is separate from supporting a wider public good. The mere fact that someone supports a city academy is not sufficient reason to put them in the House of Lords so that they can argue the case in the House of Lords as to why city academies are a good thing.

When I was reflecting on that, I thought, "If the new Blair doctrine stands, what happens when there is a change of Government?" I know that it is not Conservative party policy at the moment, but let us imagine that a future Conservative Government wanted to encourage the growth in grammar schools and were looking for wealthy people to endow new grammar schools. Let us imagine that that Conservative Government made it clear that people endowing new grammar schools would be in line for an honour. There would be uproar among Labour Members.

What about the private sector moving into the NHS? The Government have a policy objective that up to 15 per cent. of the NHS should be handed over to the private sector for delivery. Would it be right for honours to be awarded in those circumstances? I do not think so. There are questions to be asked and answers to be given. I do not want people dancing around the issue as though it does not matter; they should be clear and up front about all these things.

I want to finish on a point that takes me back to what my Friend the Member for Cannock Chase said; it is in the report as well. We need to separate out the awarding of honours from membership of the legislature. It is corrupt—again, with a small c—that people can end up here, legislating for the nation, making the laws of the nation, because they have been elevated as a result of being regarded as people who deserve an honour. That is one reason why I am very much in favour of a small, directly elected House of Lords. That was not the position of the Select Committee. I changed my position in order that consensus could be achieved on the Committee, but I believe that an elected House of Lords is the direction of travel. As a result of all the controversy and everything that is now spilling out, we are on track for an elected House of Lords.

The last time we debated the issue, the Prime Minister famously torpedoed the Leader of the House, the late Robin Cook, by saying, in the week of the vote, that he was in favour of an appointed House of Lords and against an elected House of Lords. He has now changed his position.

The report is good and well worth reading. It took us a long time to put it together but, two years later, the recommendations are still ones that the Government should follow.
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4.26 pm

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): I came here this afternoon to make a specific point but, having listened to the debate, I would like to make one or two general observations before I do so. The first point was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) in the opening speech. Inevitably, the debate on the honours system is linked to two other debates taking place at the same time: the debate on House of Lords reform and the debate on party funding. There can be no doubt that individuals' views on those two issues inform and determine to a certain extent their attitudes to the honours system and how it should be used. Obviously, if there were a fully elected House of Lords, the issue of nominations for peerages and political interference in peerages would go away.

Mr. Andrew Turner : In his closing words the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) suggested that there should not be a link that gives people who are honoured a place in the legislature, and the hon. Gentleman has just made a similar suggestion. Does he accept that the problem is more that the Prime Minister wants to put people in the legislature and, as a side issue, they have to accept an honour? That is how the process works as far as the money and the legislature are concerned. There may be people who are prepared to pay for an honour, but would not be willing to sit in the legislature.

Mr. Bailey : I am not sure that I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. The point that I am trying to get across is that if the House of Lords question were resolved, one of the issues about reform of the honours system would go away. Questions that have arisen in the debate about the role of those who fund parties and party policies might well also be resolved as a result of concluding that debate.

It is unfortunate that people with strong views—perhaps completely legitimate views in the other two debates from the one in which we are taking part today—use language that could sully and undermine the honours system. I have heard today words such as "patronage" and "corruption", and inevitably when such words are used—I accept that they are used more in the media than in this Chamber—there is a danger that the thousands of people throughout the country who have earned honours for meritorious service will feel that their own contribution is demeaned.

Kelvin Hopkins : It is not the accusation of corruption that demeans the honours list but the fact that people may be given honours for making vast payments.

Mr. Bailey : That is entering into another debate. The point that I was coming to is that I see no problem with a system in which people are nominated for honours by a political machine. That brings me to another point. If political organisations have the right to nominate people, the ultimate selection should be made transparently by an independent body. To a certain extent we have moved towards that and in the debate so far that point has not been given sufficient recognition. We are in danger of ending up in a position in which we as politicians demean our own profession and
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contribution to the community by saying that people may be nominated for almost any other service in any other profession but not if they are politicians.

The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) made a legitimate point about a Conservative party worker who had made a lifetime contribution. We should recognise that politics, for all its failures, is an honourable profession and that there is nothing underhand, corrupt or illegitimate in nominating someone for contributing to the political and democratic structure in society. It is a good profession and is recognised throughout the world. People play a role and there should be an avenue by which they can be honoured without accusations of patronage or corruption. There should be a process within the honours system that recognises and legitimises that and is protected from the wild accusations that appear in the media and are sometimes made by people with good motives who misinterpret the position.

Kelvin Hopkins : I profoundly disagree with what my hon. Friend is saying. People are not fooled; they know what is happening and they read about it in the newspapers every day. The simple process of taking the awarding of honours out of the political system would solve that problem once and for all. That is what we are suggesting.

Mr. Bailey : I listened to my hon. Friend's speech, but did not intervene because I profoundly disagree with him.

Mr. Hendrick : I agree with the thrust of my hon. Friend's argument and that of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) who said that politicians may be sacked, because the public can throw them out. The so-called great and good—or independents—often have their own agenda and are accountable to no one. I am not encouraged by the so-called independents to whom one or two of my hon. Friends have referred. I have heard today's debate from the beginning and I believe that one or two of my colleagues would be reluctant to make some of the statements that have been made here today if they were outside the House without parliamentary privilege. The way in which they made them was sometimes irresponsible.

Mr. Bailey : I agree with the thrust of what my hon. Friend said, but I am not sure that I would have made exactly the same observations.

In general, when upholding the honours system, its fairness, integrity and so on, we must be careful not to demean our place in our community and democratic structure or to devalue the contribution that many of us make.

An interesting thought occurred to me when we talked about people being honoured for charitable work. Given the way in which the honours system aspires to reflect positive values in society, most people would say that that is good. The debate about a tangential issue—party funding—has referred to political parties becoming charities, so would financial contributions to them provide a democratic and
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legitimate basis for honouring people under the honours system? All sorts of conundrums could be thrown up and we could have a long debate on that, but my central point is that there is nothing wrong with the involvement of politics in the honours system so long as it is transparent and the final selection is made by a body of people who are not party political.

Dr. Tony Wright : I find myself in agreement with much of what my hon. Friend says. Surely the point—there is no conundrum about it—is that political service is a good thing and we should value it. Giving financial support to political parties is a good thing and we should value it. What we should not have is a system under which people can buy themselves an honour by giving money to a political party. There is no conundrum about that.

Mr. Bailey : The point that I was making is that an independent body that is divorced from the political process should determine whether someone should receive an honour. There should be a legitimate political nominating process but the selection process should be independent. Presumably an independent panel would not make such a selection on party political grounds or because of a contribution made to a party political organisation. I do not think we disagree substantially on that, but I may not have made myself clear.

There is a gap in the report, although under the terms of reference it might not have been thought appropriate to consider it. It was recognised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley), who has now left the Chamber. There is an inability in the present honours system to recognise the contribution made by people who are now dead. The rationale for the honours system is that it is based on community values, and my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase said in the opening speech that honours are important symbols of what is valued in public life. He also said that it was legitimate for a Government to use the honours system to promote certain values in the community. I believe that that, in essence, is what my hon. Friend was saying. Honours may reflect the values of society, but they also promote them, because they uphold those who exemplify such values as things to be followed and to inspire others. I believe that a number of people who are now dead should be honoured, because they would fulfil that purpose.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North mentioned R.J. Mitchell, who designed the Spitfire. I too have someone in mind: a person from West Bromwich who exemplifies the sort of qualities that should be recognised publicly and have been recognised by other countries. Hon. Members present might have signed an early-day motion that I tabled approximately one year ago to honour Madeleine Carroll. For the benefit of younger Members, including the Minister, I should explain that Madeleine Carroll was a film actress. She was born in 1906, and this year is the 100th anniversary of her birth. She grew up in West Bromwich, the daughter of a French teacher in the local grammar school. She was one of the first female graduates of Birmingham university and was therefore a pioneer in female education. She taught French in local schools, then decided to become a film actress. She starred in the first version of "The Thirty-Nine Steps" as
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the lead opposite Robert Donat, in "Secret Agent", Alfred Hitchcock's follow-up film in 1936, and in many other films. She was Bob Hope's favourite blonde.

In 1941, Madeleine's sister was killed by a bomb in London during the blitz. Thereafter, she devoted her life to working for the Red Cross in field hospitals in France and Italy, and subsequently for the United Nations as a spokesperson, supporter and propagandist on behalf of UNICEF. If anybody wants to read an inspiring speech, I suggest that they read her contribution when, in 1949, she became the first ever female to speak at the international conference of the Rotarians. She spoke about UNICEF and the work that she was doing with children and refugees, many of them severely damaged as a consequence of the war.

Madeleine's contribution was recognised by the French with the légion d'honneur and by the Americans with the medal of freedom. I wrote to the Cabinet Office to ask that she be granted an honour and was told that posthumous awards could not be made. She exemplified the very qualities that we have spoken about today for underpinning the honours system: excellence—she was a world-class, iconic actress of her day; sacrifice—she experienced at first hand the horrors in field hospitals during the second world war; and service to others—she took up a cause that was hugely important but totally unrecognised in the immediate aftermath of the war. Surely the Minister will recognise that such a contribution should be acknowledged and that there should be within the honours system the flexibility to be proactive in singling out people who have made a huge and genuine contribution and who are inspirational figures.

Unusually for me, I shall refer to Lord Hurd's evidence to the Select Committee. The report stated:

This honour would strike a chord with local and regional loyalties, as those qualities that I mentioned are essential to enabling deprived urban communities such as those that I represent to give young people values to uphold, recognise, follow and be inspired by. I ask the Minister, please, to look at that issue. I hope that Madeleine's contribution can be truly recognised and that her role in inspiring young people in areas such as mine will live on in their aspirations.

4.45 pm

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): I am pleased to be able to contribute to this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) and the Public Administration Committee on the report. During the time that it was being put together, I was successful, after three attempts, in securing a debate on the honours system in January 2004. When I first applied before the Christmas recess in 2003, I was told by the Table Office that questions on the honours system were answered by the Prime Minister and that, because my right hon. Friend
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does not respond to Adjournment debates, it was not possible to have such a debate. Thankfully, that difficulty was overcome, and I am delighted that we have a fully competent Minister here today who can respond to this debate.

I share the anxiety about an apparent lack of clarity and openness in the honours system, and, like many other Members of the House and the wider public, I have some concern about those living in our communities who richly deserve the wider recognition that the honours system could bring, but who have never been honoured.

I pointed out in my previous debate that in December 2003 The Sunday Times ran an article on a secret document leaked by a Whitehall whistleblower. Apparently, the minutes of the main honours committee revealed

I asked at the time, and I believe that The Sunday Times should also have asked, whether the system had ever been different under successive Governments.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) mentioned 1966, or 1967, and the fact that an award was given to the Beatles. I wish to remind hon. Members that awards for purely party political services were discontinued in 1966, but the policy was reversed in the premierships of Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher, and Sir John Major continued the policy of awarding political honours.

It would be wrong for me to say that no attempts have been made to address the problems in the system. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase went as far back as Lloyd George, and this afternoon we heard all the sorry tales about the honours system. History is marked with such situations. If anything has remained the same, it must surely be the anxiety and uncertainty about the system.

The 2001 review by Sir Richard Wilson considered how the nomination system had developed during the 1990s. A dedicated nominations unit was established and a standard nomination form produced. Perhaps one issue on which Sir John Major and I will agree is that the system needs to involve more ordinary members of the public, which would thereby

In fact, if there is a common theme on which the majority of people would agree, it must surely be the   need to bring the honours system far closer to the people.

In recent years, there has been a fairly significant shift in the percentage of awards to those who dedicate so much time to voluntary work. In the 1994 birthday honours, only one in three awards was given for voluntary service. Thankfully, the figure rose to much nearer the 50 per cent. mark during the next 10 to 12 years, but, if I am absolutely honest, I would much prefer it to increase even more. I would like awards to those dedicated, local people who work in their
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communities to move closer to the 75 or 80 per cent. mark. If we were honest about having a reputable honours system in this country, that would happen.

Kelvin Hopkins : One suggestion I made to the Committee was that all the honours ought to be for ordinary, unrecognised people, not the famous, the powerful and people of status.

Mr. Brown : I agree with my hon. Friend, at least partially. I am sure that we can all recount tales of those working in our communities, whether they work with carers organisations or young children, or whether they are from wealthy or deprived backgrounds, or are disabled. People might have put in many long hours of work for 20, 30 or 40 years, bringing smiles to people's faces and providing community facilities that otherwise would not exist. We have heard such examples this afternoon.

The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) raised the important point that no one seems to know what happens once an application or nomination is made. It seems to go into some sort of black hole, and sometimes it comes out in a positive manner. If it is refused, no one ever knows why, and that has to stop. People need to know where a nomination is in the current system.

The report brought up a number of points. I notice that my predecessor—Lord Monro of Langholm, formerly Sir Hector Monro—felt that the role of the lord lieutenant should be more significant:

He went on to say that he

I do not disagree that lords lieutenant know more about local affairs than civil servants, but none of us knows absolutely everything about our communities.

I hesitate to add support to my predecessor's recommendation; in fact, I voice my objections to what he says. I have spent 20 years—11 as a councillor and nine as a Member of Parliament—working in local communities. I know a lot of people. I have had good working relationships with lords lieutenant, but I am not convinced that we should put more emphasis on their views in the selection of people who receive awards through the honours system.

Much was made of Benjamin Zephaniah's refusal of the OBE in 2003, which was mentioned this afternoon. It became clear that refusals are not uncommon. I mentioned earlier that an average of 2 per cent. of nominations are refused on a fairly regular basis. It has become clear that the process of selection for successful nominations needs much greater local involvement. I am keen to see local panels established to assist in the process, perhaps moving thereafter to a committee of senior standing—to use a loose term.

Many relevant points have been made this afternoon about our honours system, the second Chamber in the Palace of Westminster and how we should fund political
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parties in the future. Some people will say that those are three separate issues, but others will say that all are intertwined. I believe that they are, but in 2006, we need to move towards resolving each of the three issues.

As I did in 2004, I want to make it clear that my congratulations go to all the recipients of honours over all these years. I know that some people are in the system for far longer than others. Some of our sportsmen and women and celebrities—whether they are in the field of art, film, television or whatever—seem to be able to jump through the system far quicker. I have no regrets about that, and I congratulate everyone who has received an honour. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) talked about six principles. He and I might disagree on those—I might have six different principles—but they come down to two things: openness and accountability.

I close by again congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase on this report. I am slightly disappointed that the Government have not responded more favourably. I agree with Sir John Major about the need to dispense with the "British empire" element, and I am wholly behind the idea of an order of British excellence. We live in a modern society; we should be treating and rewarding people in a modern way.

References have been made to the British empire. It has a history, of which we in this country can be proud, but it has also had some dark days, which bring offence not only to those in far-flung places, but to some of us in the UK. We need to move towards British excellence rather than British empire.

4.56 pm

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I am happy to take part in this debate. I am also happy to say that I have never previously taken part in a debate on this subject in the 23 years I have been a Member of Parliament. That may reflect the fact that it is a fairly esoteric subject in comparison with the mainstream issues affecting our constituents every day. It is not something that people come to our surgeries about. I say in passing that one thing that has been unsaid, but probably implied, is that those who ask for honours the most are the people least qualified to receive them. Such people certainly exist.

This debate testifies to the benefit of the Select Committee system. I sense that, in this Parliament, we are moving away, as others have done, from the plenary, general debate as a way of holding Government to account, and towards the Select Committee system as an ever-more strongly effective way of doing so. I welcome the fact that the organisational structure of Government is becoming clearer. The Cabinet Office is a slightly anomalous Department and has had a slightly anomalous recent life, although that is no fault of the Minister. In future Government reshuffles I hope that some logic is applied to departmental order, instead of just to accommodating people anywhere. The Department for Constitutional Affairs is the logical place to deal with the issue of honouring people, if civic society is to be well organised.

Although the subject may not be a central issue of British life, it commands a lot of interest for reasons of which everyone present is aware. I would like to subscribe to the common theme everyone has
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enunciated, which is that there are three core issues before us. As the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) made clear, it has taken two years for this report to gestate into a current political issue in the wider polity. There are three linked issues: reform of the honours system, reform of the House of Lords and reform of party political funding. They are absolutely interlinked, and I am glad that they are all on the agenda.

If there is a judgment to be made of whether people support the Select Committee proposals or those of Sir Hayden Phillips, I am clearly in favour of the Select Committee's recommendations. Its radical approach is the right one. It is not the Minister's fault, but I am disappointed that the Government have given such a lukewarm response to it. I sincerely hope that the Minister will be positive about the fact that we need a significant move forward to get the honours system right for the new century. That does not mean that we do not recognise the value of those who have been honoured in the past, or the past honours system.

There is no inconsistency in saying that it might have been appropriate for someone to receive the Order of the British Empire in 1920 or 1950, but that it is not appropriate in 2006. That does not devalue what people have received; it means valuing what people are now, in a modern society. I hope that that is clearly understood. Whatever we might think of the way that honours have been given in the past, just because there is a proposal that there should not be automatic honours for certain people in the services or for people in certain diplomatic missions—and there should not be—that does not mean that some who got those honours in the past were not deserving of them for doing a specifically good job in the services or the diplomatic service. I am not nervous about saying that we should move on. In my book, it does not collectively undermine the people who have been honoured in the past. That should not be an argument against change.

We have got into a terrible muddle constitutionally. People should not be put into a legislative House of Parliament as an honour, but to legislate. That is the only justification for being there, and getting there is itself an honour, and I hope that we will reach a conclusion. We will have the debate about the reform of the House of Lords. I have always had a clear view that it should be predominately elected, although I think that there might be space for nominated people, for obvious reasons, in a non-partisan way. People should not be put in the House of Lords as an honour; they should be there to take part in the legislature of a modern British constitution. In that case, it probably should not be called the House of Lords, but the senate, the second chamber or the upper House. There are plenty of perfectly modern phrases that could be used to describe it.

The options are an honours commission, a set of committees and sub-committees that are chaired by people with honours, however eminent they are, and the lords lieutenant doing their job. I have met a few lords lieutenant in my time. They may be good and honourable people, but I have never had the impression
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that they are representative of the common people. They seem to be of a particular background and type, by and large.

Kelvin Hopkins : Very rich.

Simon Hughes : No. For example, the lord lieutenant for Greater London is Lord Imbert, the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner. He is a relatively unusual lord lieutenant in terms of background and pedigree, and is well respected throughout Greater London. By and large the lords lieutenant are not necessarily the people who would be most capable of knowing what was going on and who were the right people to be involved.

I support the idea of an honours commission to which people can make nominations, including political parties and the rest. We can discuss how it will be formulated. I agree that it should not be a quango, so that we end up with all sorts of people who are already eminent.

There is a truth in what the late Anthony Sampson said both in his original "Anatomy of Britain" and in his last book, written just before he died. If one looks for where the power lies in Britain, one discovers it in a small number of places with a small number of people, disproportionately concentrated on London and the south-east and among those who know the others who have power and influence. We have an opportunity to break out of that circle and to honour the people in our communities.

The hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) is right. Honours are more valuable and important in local and regional communities for people who are respected from the bottom up, rather than those who are spotted as valuable from the top down. Such credit is given, on occasion. Gary Stannett, a guy in my constituency, got an MBE for his youth work integrating disaffected kids who are difficult with really good kids, and making sure that we have a much more effective way of dealing with antisocial behaviour. He is about 30, and has done valuable work. He would never have dreamt for a moment that he would have ended up with an honour for that, but just did that work from the time he left school.

There are some difficult issues about how to get the balance right. I share the view about volunteers who carry out community service, as other hon. Members have mentioned. Some public servants should be honoured for going above and beyond their call of duty. Of course, people should not get an honour just for doing their job, but if they do their job particularly well or excel, that is justification—whether they are a teacher, a school keeper, a head teacher, a school governor or anybody else. The community beat police officer who had never wanted to be promoted would be another example.

We should not bestow additional honours on those of us who are honoured by getting through the democratic political process. Councillors, Members of Parliament Members of the Scottish Parliament, and so on, are honoured by virtue of their posts. There should not be additional honours for having got there in the first place. Those people have plenty of rewards and I hope that we are clear about that.
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People in the public sector who perform over and above the call of duty should be honoured; so should many in the voluntary sector. Those in the private sector who do more than line their own pockets and make profits, but who contribute as innovative entrepreneurs should of course be honoured. People in the political sector who are not elected should also be honoured. I can think of people who have worked for political causes—cross-party, no party or party causes—who deserve to be honoured. They are the sort of people whom we all know, who have never sought elected office but have worked for no reward for political causes, voluntarily flying the flag—I am not trying to be partisan, but for the Tories, for instance—for years in an area where their party has been little represented. Many people ought to be rewarded for such contributions to public life and for ensuring that democracy works. They should not be excluded.

I want to make one other plea. Team awards, such as the Queen's awards for industry, are often not recognised as being of the same merit. The Queen's awards are about the only recognition of that kind. I nominated a local charity, XLP in Southwark, for a Queen's award for the voluntary sector, which it got. XLP was hugely deserving of the award and was pleased. Such an award does not offer a financial benefit, but I hope that we might award corporate awards to sports teams, other teams, the voluntary sector and business, as well as personal awards. There seems to be scope for those.

I have a clear view on the question of OBEs: we ought to make the proposed change. The order of British excellence seems a simple and easy way forward, and a comfortable transition. If we could unite around that, that would be helpful. I like the idea of extending the Companion of Honour and getting rid of all the knighthoods. It is a little like the middle ages still to be giving people knighthoods. Let us pause to think for a minute about knights and dames—it is like a cross between Robin Hood and the pantomime. I am not disparaging people who have those honours, as that was what was available at the time, but we ought to move on and have a more modern system.

I made the point earlier that if somebody who is married is made a knight, their other half gets a handle. That does not work the other way around, which seems bizarre, ridiculous, sexist and old-fashioned. There ought to be more attention to diversity. It is getting better. The commission would need to be diverse, and it should be particularly attentive to diversity. I am talking about diversity in terms not only of gender, ethnicity and religion but of geography. That is important. There has to be an attempt to ensure that the honours system reflects the fantastic diversity of this country and its traditions, as well of all four countries of the United Kingdom and their traditions.

The last point that the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway made is absolutely true. People nominate people, fill in forms and expend a lot of effort. Sometimes they approach MPs and ask whether we will nominate someone, and we do so. Nothing more is heard. As far as I know, that has not changed. Whichever system we use the answer might be no, but somebody should get a courteous letter telling them that
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their nomination has been considered and that although the person might be very worthy nothing can be done with the nomination at the moment, as well as advising them to feel free to nominate somebody in future. At the moment, it is a sad end to an effort to recommend other people. Such changes would be worth while.

I thank the Minister for listening. I hope that he will go away and talk to his colleagues and even to the Prime Minister. I hope that he will say, "Prime Minister, as part of your legacy, you are going to do all these things. You are going to reform the House of Lords, reform party political funding and sort out the public services, which would be wonderful. But let's also get the honours system sorted. Be bold, be brave, be radical and we will end up with a good honours system that is robust and fit for the new century."

5.9 pm

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): I congratulate the Committee on its report. We are indebted to it for such a detailed piece of work, but, as the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) said, it is a shame that it has taken from its publication in July 2004 until now for us to debate it.

Quite a lot has happened since the report was published. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the recent scandal—or at least public concern—over cash for peerages. The police are investigating the matter, so it is perhaps not for me to go into the detail. However, what has appeared in the media has alarmed the public, so it is right that we should also consider the issue in the context of Lords reform and reform of party political funding.

I agree with the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) that we should have a second Chamber, upper House or whatever one wants to call it with a substantially elected element. I also agree that there is a role for some appointment, but substantial election would help with the package of issues that we are discussing.

The Conservative taskforce, which my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) is chairing, is looking at a range of constitutional issues, including those three. My remarks will be coloured somewhat by the fact that he might make recommendations that we shall want to consider as seriously as we do those that the Committee has made.

The Committee's report is good on how one might want to improve the procedures, and the Government have gone some way in meeting its points, but the disappointing thing, which received some publicity at the time, is the controversial idea of ending appointments to the Order of the British Empire and phasing out knighthoods and damehoods, and replacing them with an order of British excellence. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) was my party's spokesman on the subject at the time. He described the proposal as a lot of trendy nonsense and a recipe for a "bland and boring" system.

It is right to have proper procedures and to get away from political nominations, but to deny our history and to pretend that we are a young country with new ideas and that we have to forge a new constitution, which seems to be the politically correct idea behind the proposals, is a lot of nonsense. We are an ancient
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country and we have a lot of ancient traditions. People like honours, so why be a party pooper? The Committee has got that wrong—subject, of course, to what our taskforce says.

The Government have done well in their response, saying that the Order of the British Empire continues to play a well-understood and, in terms of numbers, predominant role in the honours system. They point out that 120,000 people have one and say:

The Government alighted on the common sense of the situation, and I am glad that they decided to opt for continuity and tradition rather than radical upheaval. I also agree with their conclusion on knighthoods, which they are right to say play a

We have had a good debate today, and the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) made about people who have made a lengthy contribution to political parties locally was well taken. A lady in my constituency who has worked for the Conservative party her whole life has been awarded an OBE. In terms of encouraging people to participate in politics and make a difference, it is good to set such people up as role models and say, "Here's somebody who has devoted their life to a cause they believe in. They've tried to make a difference and this is something that is good for our nation." Of course, that applies equally to other parties.

I do not want us not to honour people in the political field, but I agree with my hon. Friend that the foot soldier who goes the extra mile should be recognised. [Interruption.] I hear a comment, sotto voce, about that also being true in Scotland, and I agree. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) also set out some important principles, and some excellent points have been made from all parts of the Chamber.

It is right that we should take a more proactive approach to seeking out those who merit an award. There is probably an element of truth in the point about metropolitan elites, so if we can move to a process that finds the people in the region or locality who genuinely deserve to be rewarded, we should. It is fair to say that John Major, who has been mentioned, started that process. He was committed to trying to spread the honours and to encouraging awards for people who had made a notable contribution locally.

The Prime Minister's announcement in March that he would give up the right to nominate people for honours—the so-called Prime Minister's list—is to be welcomed. That is also something that the Committee recommended. We support the Prime Minister's decision, although wonder why he chose that moment—perhaps it was just convenient for him. Members of the Committee will be aware that other changes have been made. I do not want to go through them all, but the Government have moved somewhat.

What should the principles be? The first principle must be that honours should be based solely on merit. As has been said, they should not simply be a reward for long service. The Government said that, for long service, the question should be whether a person has gone the
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extra mile and, for achievement, whether they stand head and shoulders above their peers. That is a good way of putting it, and it is also a point that John Major has always made. In his 1992 review, he was keen that merit should be the touchstone. There has been a considerable increase in the honours awarded for voluntary work since then, and the proportion of state servants in the list has fallen from 20 to 15 per cent. over that period. John Major can be proud of having started that process, but there is a lot more to do.

Secondly, the system must be free from any corruption, or even the appearance that there might be an element of corruption. I hope that we can do more on that.

5.18 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

5.33 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Heald : Someone who donates to a political party should not be debarred or disqualified from receiving honours, but should merit the honour in their own right.

The Committee was rightly particularly strong on the question of maximum transparency in the system, and I have paid tribute to John Major's work in that field. Honours play a key part in our national life. They provide colour and embody some of our best traditions as a nation. I agree with the Committee that there is a case for improving the procedures that underlie the system for nominations, and for adding awards from time to time, but I hope that the Committee will accept that its more extreme proposal is, perhaps, best forgotten. We will see what it says in its latest report.

Finally, I should mention the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme, which has united the nation and helped young people. The scheme, which provides an example of the best parts of the honours system, is 50 years old this year.

5.34 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Cabinet Office (Mr. Jim Murphy) : I am delighted to have this opportunity to respond to the debate, which has been remarkable in its tone. That is probably down to the way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) introduced it; he helped to influence its tone and content. I do not think that it is controversial to say that, at times, it has been more of a conversation than a debate, which is not a bad thing.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) without whose perseverance I would not have the honour of responding to today's debate on behalf of the Prime Minister. I think that we all congratulate him on that.

We are short of time in our deliberations this evening, but I, like other hon. Members, want to pay tribute to one outstanding individual in my constituency: the Rev. Ernest Levy, MBE. In the nine years that I have been in Parliament, my proudest moment was hearing that he was to be honoured, because I nominated him. The reason why I nominated him—more than once—was that he survived seven concentration camps and then
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dedicated his entire life in Scotland to encouraging reconciliation and promoting dialogue between people of the Jewish, Christian, Muslim and other faiths. He has visited hundreds of schools throughout Scotland, and continues to do so. His case is one of the many fantastic examples of an honour being rightly awarded.

I turn to the issues raised today. If any hon. Member feels that I have not responded to all of the local points that they made, I will happily write to them, if encouraged to do so, with more substantial and specific responses. The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr.   Bone) asked about a constituency matter. I confirm that the list submitted to Her Majesty is limited to 1,000 names per annum. That is the established upper limit on names that can be submitted. By custom and practice, Her Majesty takes a personal interest in literally every one of those nominations, so that is considered to be the appropriate number to enable such   genuine involvement and engagement from Her Majesty.

The hon. Gentleman quite rightly did not mention the name of his constituent, but requested that I should take some interest in the case. This is quite a difficult issue, in that some hon. Members say that we should have more political involvement and some that we should have less. It is therefore difficult for me to promise to fast-track any application, because that would be inappropriate. If the hon. Gentleman wants to identify the individual concerned to me outside of our deliberations, I will certainly ensure that all the relevant processes are followed appropriately. That is the right thing to do.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), who is no longer present—I know that he cannot be with us—raised a point that was followed up by other hon. Members. He asked whether awards should be for service or achievement. A related issue in which I am most interested and have taken a keen interest is the way in which that affects the gender balance, or imbalance, in our awards system. If awards are given simply for achievement or position in a society in which, despite substantial progress in recent decades, position and power are still disproportionately allocated between men and women—if we reward simply status and people who have held official positions—the system will have an in-built bias towards men. However, there has been some important progress in that regard in recent years, as we have increased the emphasis on awarding honours to those who work in public services and the voluntary sector.
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An important point that many have picked up on is the need to award the higher honours to those who work locally but who act as examples nationally. That is the distinction that the Government draw; we are talking about local action from which people can draw national inspiration. For example, 49 teachers were on the new year honours list of 2006. Hon. Members have spoken about head teachers; only one has been made a dame. Some 20 per cent. of honours go to those in the health service and education, and almost 40 per cent. of awards go to those working in local services and the charitable and voluntary sectors.

5.39 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

5.49 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Murphy : With your agreement, Mr. O'Hara, and with the understanding of hon. Members and the Chairman of the Select Committee, I shall make some brief comments and then write to everyone who attended, entering into specific points and responding to practicalities.

I have two quick points to make before I finish. We were asked about diversity. A Cabinet Office leaflet encouraging take-up has been distributed to post offices and libraries across the United Kingdom. It makes the point about diversity and is about making the system more accessible. I do not believe that it is in our post office here in the House of Commons, and I am not sure whether it is in our Library; that is a gap, and we will make sure that that is put right as a consequence of today's debate, and that that publicity is there.

Finally, I thank hon. Members for their attendance and their thoughtful contributions. I particularly thank the Select Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway, to whom I referred earlier. Today's debate is part of a general evolution of the system of honours and of the political process, and our debate and the Select Committee report is part of that. Centuries of evolution, and recent decades of progressive change, can and should continue. We have heard the possible agenda for that future reform and evolution today. With that, I thank you for your perseverance this afternoon, Mr. O'Hara.

Question put and agreed to.

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