Select Committee on Public Administration Second Report

3  Honours and peerages

19. The events which have become known as the 'cash for honours' affair actually concerned the award of peerages. A peerage is more than just an honour. A peerage does of course convey an honorific title on the person to whom it is awarded, but it also bestows a seat in the House of Lords, and a vote on proposed legislation (albeit in a revising chamber). While any sale of honours is deplorable because it devalues the honours system as a whole, and hence all deserving recipients of honours, it is nonetheless less constitutionally significant than the sale of peerages. The sale of peerages is the sale of seats in Parliament.

20. The lessons to be learned from the alleged sale of peerages in 2005 can only be understood in the context in which the events happened. Central to that context is the whole system for the giving of honours and the award of peerages.

The Honours system

21. Between 2000 and 3000 honours are awarded annually, usually at New Year and on the Queen's Official Birthday in June.[24] A small number of awards (such as those in the Orders of the Garter and the Thistle) are in the personal gift of the Queen, but the great majority are recommended to the Queen through three lists. The Diplomatic Service and Overseas list is submitted by the Foreign Secretary and contains about 150 names. The Defence Services list is submitted by the Secretary of State for Defence and has some 200 names. The remainder, providing the largest part of the overall total of national honours, make up what is known as the Prime Minister's list.

22. Our predecessor committee conducted a comprehensive review of the honours system in 2004.[25] Several changes were made to the machinery for allocating honours following this report and the concurrent review commissioned by the Government and led by Sir Hayden Phillips.[26] The revised system for creating the Prime Minister's list is now centred on eight specialist Honours Committees such as those for Arts and Media, Sport, or Science and Technology. Each committee comprises a non-civil service chair and a majority of non-civil service members, all selected after open advertisement. There are also Permanent Secretaries and other civil servants on the specialist committees, depending on the subject matter. These committees examine the merits of all candidates put forward, and from these the committees select candidates for recommendation to a Main Honours Committee.

23. The selections are then referred to the Main Honours Committee, which is made up of the eight Chairs of the specialist committees and four senior Permanent Secretaries including the Cabinet Secretary, who chairs it. The Main Committee reviews the work of the specialist Committees, reassesses any sensitive or controversial recommendations or omissions and seeks to ensure that the balance between the various sectors is satisfactory. The Chair of the Main Committee then submits a list to the Prime Minister along with a personal report. The deliberations of these Committees are confidential, although on occasion there have been leaks to the media of documents relating to the selection of candidates. The Prime Minister subsequently makes recommendations to the Queen. Broadly similar processes are followed for the creation of the Diplomatic Service and Overseas list and the Defence Services list.

24. The three lists submitted by the Prime Minister, Defence Secretary and Foreign Secretary are composed partly of names generated by Government departments themselves through their networks of public bodies and other contacts, and partly of those who have been nominated directly by the public. The present public nomination system dates from 1993, when the then Prime Minister John Major concluded that "the means of nomination for honours should be more widely known and more open".[27] There is a standard nomination form, setting out the type of information which is required to assess candidates. Some criteria for judging candidates for awards are now published, although these are necessarily value judgements, and some generic examples of what might be necessary for each award are also available online.[28]


25. The Prime Minister and his office play a significant theoretical part in the production of the list that bears his name. It passes through Downing Street's hands before it goes to Buckingham Palace, and the Prime Minister can add and subtract names at that stage. The Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Defence have parallel responsibilities for their own, much smaller lists. The Prime Minister has traditionally also had two opportunities to make personal nominations for honours without going through selection committees: a "dissolution list", published when Parliament is dissolved, and a "resignation list" published when he or she leaves office.

26. The Political Honours Scrutiny Committee was set up in the 1920s in order to scrutinise any candidates put forward by the Prime Minister personally through any of these mechanisms, and to decide if there was anything in the past history or character of the individual which rendered him or her unsuitable for an award. Its only concern was with propriety; it did not comment on the merits of an award. Following our predecessor Committee's recommendation,[29] the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee was abolished in 2005. The majority of its functions had already been transferred to the House of Lords Appointments Commission (discussed below at paragraphs 31-33).

27. Faced with unfolding controversy, Rt Hon Tony Blair, the then Prime Minister, announced on 23 March 2006 that he would no longer make any additions or subtractions from the list of names produced by the independent Honours Committees.[30] The effect of this undertaking has been to take politics and patronage out of the honours system. Our predecessor Committee had sought the same outcome when it called for the creation of a new Honours Commission, to replace the honours selection committees and to take on the remaining functions of ministers and of the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee in the honours system.[31] The current Prime Minister, Rt Hon Gordon Brown MP, has confirmed that he and the Foreign and Defence Secretaries will follow this precedent:

    In March 2006, the Prime Minister's predecessor made a statement in which he committed neither to add to nor subtract from the final list of names recommended to him by the Main Honours Committee. The Prime Minister restates this commitment and the Secretaries of State for Foreign Affairs and Defence will do likewise.[32]

28. However, in the same announcement in which he removed himself from the honours system, Mr Blair made clear that the system for appointing working peers would remain unchanged pending the second stage of House of Lords reform. It is this system, and not the honours system, which was at the centre of the affair which is misleadingly referred to as "cash for honours".

Appointments to the House of Lords

29. Currently, there are a number of ways into the House of Lords. Members include 92 remaining hereditary peers, bishops and Law Lords. The great majority, however, are life peers. Formally, all life peers are appointed by the same mechanism: the Queen appoints them on the advice and recommendation of the Prime Minister. In practice there are a number of routes to being nominated by the Prime Minister as a life peer, including a small number appointed as ministers, an even smaller number of former public servants (10 in any one Parliament), and a smaller number still of former Speakers of the House of Commons. Prime Ministers have also traditionally allocated peerages as part of their resignation honours lists, usually to fellow politicians, political advisors or others who have supported them, and their dissolution honours lists, when peerages can be given to Members from all parties who are leaving the House of Commons.

30. However, most entrants to the House of Lords come through one of two mechanisms—they are either appointed by the House of Lords Appointments Commission as non-political "working peers", or they are appointed as political "working peers" by their respective political party.


31. The House of Lords Appointments Commission (HoLAC) was established by Tony Blair as Prime Minister in May 2000. Its role is to recommend individuals to the Queen for appointment as non-party-political peers and to vet for propriety party nominations for peerages, as well as some nominees for higher honours. It is an advisory non-departmental public body sponsored by the Cabinet Office. The Commission has six members—three from the three largest political parties, and three who are non-partisan, including the Chairman, Lord Stevenson of Coddenham, who is a crossbench (non-partisan) peer. The Commission is supported by a small office which forms part of the Independent Offices Management Unit of the Cabinet Office.

32. Lord Hurd of Westwell, the Conservative member of HoLAC, told us that the bulk of the Commission's work is devoted to appointing crossbench peers.[33] The Prime Minister informs the Commission of the number of nominations sought for non-party-political peers, and he then puts forward the Commission's recommendations to the Queen. He will not intervene except in the most exceptional cases (such as a danger to the security of the realm). The Commission therefore has the freedom to choose nominees from almost any walk of life. The two most recent appointments were Professor Haleh Afshar, the founder and Chair of the Muslim Women's Network, and Sir Nicholas Stern, the economist who led the 2007 review of the economics of climate change. Both were appointed on 18 October 2007.

33. The controversies of 2005, however, surrounded the Appointments Commission's other role—the vetting for propriety of party nominees as working peers. The Commission explains its own role in this way:

    The Commission plays no part in assessing the suitability of those nominated by the political parties, which is a matter for the parties themselves. Its role is simply to advise the Prime Minister if it has any concerns about the propriety of a nominee.

    The Commission takes the view that in this context, propriety means: first, the individual should be in good standing in the community in general and with particular regard to the public regulatory authorities; and second, the individual should be a credible nominee. The Commission's main criterion in assessing this is whether the appointment would enhance rather than diminish the workings and the reputation of the House of Lords itself and the appointments system generally.[34]

This remit is similar to that of the former Political Honours Scrutiny Committee with regard to honours—and indeed, HoLAC now fulfils this role with regard to certain higher honours as well as with regard to working peers. The difficulties arising from this remit are discussed at Chapter 6.

34. The processes for nominating political "working peers" to be vetted by the Appointments Commission are entirely internal matters for the political parties themselves. The three largest parties use three different processes to choose their nominees.

Honours and peerages: a comparison

35. In most respects, the systems for allocating honours and peerages are very different. This is entirely appropriate—an honour is a reflection of past achievement, whereas a peerage ought to be an appointment for future service. The fact that most working peers are chosen by political parties may not be widely understood, but it is central to the workings of a nominated House that parties are involved in the selection of legislators who serve as representatives of the parties.

36. However, some similarities between the two processes are harder to justify. One example of similarity is that citations are not published, whether they are for honours or for peerages. Our predecessor Committee called for the publication of citations for honours in 2004, in the interests of transparency—a call which the Government rejected:

37. Even if these arguments are accepted for honours, we do not believe they are valid for peerages. A peerage is not a prize; and nominees should not be surprised by the award. Nor is there any need for the same time pressures that apply to devising an honours list. As peers, successful applicants will be public figures with visible responsibilities. It does not seem inappropriate that the public should be informed why parties are putting forward certain individuals to carry out those responsibilities, nor that candidates should have their credentials discussed in public before their seat in the legislature is secured.

38. A further similarity between the processes for allocating honours and peerages is that they are both governed by the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925. The adequacy of this Act specifically in relation to preventing the sale of peerages is discussed at Chapter 4.


39. A peerage is more than an honour. An honour is a reflection of past achievement, whereas a peerage ought to be an appointment for future service. The procedures for appointing peers have grown organically out of the procedures for allocating honours, but it is time that a clean break was made. There is no reason for any surviving overlap between the two processes.

40. The honours system itself is much improved in its independence since our predecessors' report in 2004. Some of this results from the new processes recommended by Sir Hayden Phillips' review, but the more important development may be the last Prime Minister's commitment not to put his own names forward, a commitment maintained by the current Prime Minister. It is our view that this commitment should be binding on all future Prime Ministers.

41. We have nothing further to add to the recommendations on changes to the honours system in our interim report. The Government understandably awaited this report before responding, but we expect a response to those recommendations now.

24   The exceptions to this are the "resignation" and "dissolution" lists, explained at paragraph 25. Back

25   Public Administration Select Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2003-04, A Matter of Honour: Reforming the Honours System, HC 212  Back

26   Cabinet Office, Review of the Honours System, July 2004 Back

27   HC Deb, 4 March 1993, col 455 Back

28 Back

29   Public Administration Select Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2003-04, A Matter of Honour: Reforming the Honours System, HC 212, para 173 Back

30   HC Deb, 23 March 2006, col 34WS Back

31   Public Administration Select Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2003-04, A Matter of Honour: Reforming the Honours System, HC 212, paras 168-173  Back

32   Ministry of Justice, The Governance of Britain, Cm 7170, July 2007, para 85 Back

33   Q 179 Back

34 Back

35   Cabinet Office, Reform of the Honours System, Cm 6479, February 2005, p 8 Back

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Prepared 18 December 2007