The Honours System

Written evidence submitted by Sir Bob Kerslake, Head of the Civil Service (HS 23)

Please find attached the Government’s contribution to your call for written evidence to inform your Inquiry into the honours system. I look forward to expanding further during the oral session on 22 May.


1. The Government welcomes the opportunity to provide written evidence to the Inquiry, and would like to do so under a number of headings linked to the questions raised in the Inquiry’s Issues and Questions Paper. Its second three-year report, covering 2009-11, has already been submitted, but the Committee may like some updated statistics from the New Year 2012 list: the proportion of honours awarded to women remained at 43%; the proportion of honours awarded to those known to be of an ethnic minority background rose to 11%; and there were 17 refusals, slightly lower than the norm.

2. Some introductory remarks may also be helpful. The Government’s policy remains that the honours system should be entirely based on merit. It is fundamental to the integrity of the system that its processes should be open (while retaining a necessary degree of confidentiality, to protect those under consideration) and fair. Those who are honoured should be people of real achievement, with no sense of entitlement arising simply from holding a particular office: Permanent Secretaries, for example, can no longer expect Knight- or Damehoods as a matter of course. We want to recognise both excellence and selfless voluntary service. The Government is especially keen to broaden the base of those who are honoured (and the reintroduction of the British Empire Medal is helping with this, particularly in encouraging more nominations of those who contribute to the Big Society): it is focusing this year on outreach efforts to encourage more nominations of women, and a number of the honours selection committees are working with Departments to reach out to those sectors which have thus far not been properly represented in the honours lists. We are also looking at how best to use social media to reinforce the message that the honours system is open to everyone. The Committee’s views on how to do even better would be particularly welcome.

Views of the honours system (Qs 1, 2)

3. Between 2007 and 2009, the Honours and Appointments Secretariat commissioned an independent market research company to conduct an awareness and attitudinal survey of public perceptions of the honours system. The results of the three annual surveys are summarised in Attachment 1. The main messages were:

· Awareness of the Honours system was high in 2009 at 81%.

· 71% of people were proud that the UK Honours system exists, an increase from 66% in 2007.

· The number of people agreeing that the Honours system is out-of-date showed a statistically significant reduction from 40% in 2007 to 34% in 2009.

· The majority of people (76%) agreed in 2009 that the UK Honours system is open to all.

· The number of people agreeing that the UK Honours system is a unique method of recognising the achievements of ordinary people rose from 71% in 2007 to 75% in 2009.

· The number of people agreeing that Honours are mainly awarded to people for the service they have given to the country or their community showed a statistically significant improvement from 69% in 2007 to 76% in 2009.

The surveys also highlighted some particular areas for improvement:

· Only 44% of people agreed in 2009 that the honours system is open and fair in the way it operates, although this represented a marked improvement from 39% in 2007.

· 38% of people still believed that celebrities were the most likely to receive an honour.

Depoliticisation of honours (Qs 4, 11, 12)

4. The Issues and Questions Paper rightly points out that many of the changes to the honours system in the last fifteen years have aimed to remove politics from it. But it is less clear that this is also the public’s perception, and it may be that the public’s general view of politicians means that it will never be universally accepted that the honours system is free from political interference. This perception is not helped by the way the media presents the awarding of honours to those who are entirely meritorious in their own right, but who have also made donations to a political party. Such donations do not strengthen a case for an honour in any way, but neither do they preclude a candidate from receiving an award.

5. Sir Paul Ruddock has suggested that the problem could be alleviated by making public the details of the reasons for awarding the most senior honours. We agree that this has merit: there have in fact been some occasions when the purely factual elements of an individual’s citation have been released, with the individual’s agreement. We therefore see some scope for releasing shortened citations for those who receive the highest honours.

6. The creation of a new selection committee for parliamentary and political service further cements the independence of the system. Beginning with the Birthday 2012 honours round, this will consider honours recommendations for those who serve the Westminster Parliament, the Devolved Administrations and the political system more broadly, whether as politicians, officials or party workers (those involved in local government will continue to be considered by the Community, Local and Voluntary Service Honours Committee). The new committee is keen to receive as broad-based a range of nominations as possible, to cover the full range of political and parliamentary activity, including the smaller parties. As with all the other specialist selection committees, it has a majority of independent members.

Distribution of honours (Qs 5, 6)

7. We doubt whether there will ever be an honours system that satisfies everyone. One of the most frequent criticisms is that honours are given to people who are simply "doing their job". In fact, by far the majority are given to those who are engaged in some form of voluntary work, and the re-introduction of the British Empire Medal is cementing this still further. The selection committees are particularly concerned to recognise those who have gone beyond their jobs and who put something back into society or their profession. This is particularly the case for candidates on the State Committee’s list, and a determination to reward only the truly deserving means that that Committee has not used its full allocation of honours in the Birthday 2012 round. The overall balance of honours between committees will be looked at again soon in the forthcoming Quinquennial Review. The views of PASC will be a useful input.

8. Nonetheless, we believe there are some individuals who are so pre-eminent in their profession that recognition through the honours system is merited, even if their job is all that they do. Nobel prize-winning scientists, Oscar-nominated actors, multi-medal winning Olympians, internationally-acclaimed musicians are just some examples that might fall into this category. But as a general rule, the selection committees are looking for something more.

9. In previous years, successful Olympic and Paralympic athletes have been treated as a special case (each nomination was judged on its merits, but all Olympic gold medallists at Beijing received at least an MBE). Given the move away from automaticity in other fields, this no longer seems right. The Sports Committee has therefore identified four factors that will need to be taken into account when considering the case for honours for those who do well at London 2012. A summary of its conclusions may be found at Attachment 2.

10. The only remaining area where honours are automatic is the conferring of Knighthoods or Damehoods on High Court Judges on appointment. The rationale for this arrangement is that the independence of the judiciary is critical and must be preserved. If automaticity were to end, so that honours were granted to some judges for the quality of their judicial work, and not others, that could lead to accusations of ‘honours from Government in return for the right judgements’, no matter how transparent the process. The reform of the honours system to the current independent, apolitical process has reduced the weight of this argument, but the issue remains sensitive, touching as it does on the relationship between Government and the judiciary. An independent view from PASC would therefore be very welcome. Possible options might include creating a new selection committee composed of judges (or judges and some non-judges) to determine honours for judicial service, with its own quota of honours to allocate; or to extend such a committee’s remit even further to cover all aspects of Law and Order currently handled by the Community, Voluntary and Local Service Committee, including police and prisons as well as judges.

British Empire Medal (Q9)

11. The Committee may like to know that in the current (Birthday 2012) honours round, the selection committees have considered over 400 nominations for the British Empire Medal; about three-quarters of these were handled by the Community, Voluntary and Local Service Committee.

Philanthropy (Q10)

12. The Committee may find it useful to have the Terms of Reference for the Philanthropy Committee – see Attachment 3.

Forfeiture (Qs 13,14)

13. When PASC and Sir Hayden Phillips conducted their reviews of the honours system in 2004, they did not include forfeiture arrangements within the scope of their work. We have therefore conducted an internal review, in consultation with some of the independent chairs of the selection committees and with the current members of the Forfeiture Committee. Its conclusions may be found at Attachment 4.

14. There have been a number of forfeitures since the PASC last took evidence on the honours system. Fred Goodwin’s case had the highest public profile. We cannot comment in detail on that, beyond what has been already been made public, for the usual important reasons of confidentiality. But it is worth stressing that the over-riding criterion – that of bringing the honours system into disrepute - used by the Forfeiture Committee in all these cases has not changed for many years (the history of this is given in Attachment 4) and was duly applied in Goodwin’s case too.

Attachment 1: Public perceptions of the honours system 2007-2009 – key findings

Awareness of the Honours System

Wave 1 (2007)


Wave 3 (2008)


Wave 4 (2009)


Of those aware of the UK Honours System, the following percentages of people ‘agree strongly’ and ‘agree slightly’ with the statements:

The UK Honours system is out-of-date and should be replaced by a scheme more suited to the UK as it is today

Wave 1 (2007)


Wave 3 (2008)


Wave 4 (2009)


The UK Honours system is currently open to all. Everyone, from any background, can receive an award

Wave 1 (2007)


Wave 3 (2008)


Wave 4 (2009)


The UK Honours system is open and fair in the way that it is operated

Wave 1 (2007)


Wave 3 (2008)


Wave 4 (2009)


The UK Honours system is a unique method of recognising the achievements of ordinary people

Wave 1 (2007)


Wave 3 (2008)


Wave 4 (2009)


Honours are mainly awarded to people who deserve them for the service they have given to the country or their community

Wave 1 (2007)


Wave 3 (2008)


Wave 4 (2009)


I would feel very proud if I were to be nominated for a UK Honour

Wave 1 (2007)


Wave 3 (2008)


Wave 4 (2009)


I am proud that the UK Honours system exists

Wave 1 (2007)


Wave 3 (2008)


Wave 4 (2009)


Attachment 2: Sport Committee’s conclusions on Olympic Honours

Honours Policy

Policy is that honours are awarded for:-

· Service

· Achievement

There should be no automatic honours, except those currently awarded to High Court Judges on appointment.

In most walks of life - businesses, the arts, local communities etc - policy has developed in recent years. Candidates must do more than their "day job".

Sporting Awards

Current practice has been for sports people to be honoured when:-

· they are about to/have retired after a long career. It has not always been thought necessary that they should be giving anything back;

· they have achieved a significant victory such as a Gold medal at the Olympics or become world champions (eg. motor racing). Achievement has often been the sole criterion;

· they have captained a winning team in major international contests/been an important player in the winning team.


This gives rise to a number of anomalies and unsatisfactory outcomes, for example:-

· people have been honoured without ‘giving back’ either in the community, or in the development of their sport;

· people have got MBEs for an achievement which they then repeat;

· charges of automaticity;

· ‘fast tracked’ honours for people who have achieved an instant success/record.

Elements of a New Approach

In line with the policy applied across the other independent selection Committees, there should be no ‘automatic’ honours.

All selections should continue to be made entirely on merit taking into account the following four factors when assessing sporting nominations:

1. Sporting achievement/excellence.

· Taking into account the level of competition (be it within field, or when considered against historical achievement);

2. Length of Service.

· Taking into account career achievements and duration (this might lead to a silver medallist who has competed at the highest level over a long period getting an award, when an 18 year old winning gold at first competition might not);

3. Service to sport or the wider community.

· ‘Giving back’. In line with the Prime Minister’s strategic objectives, taking into account how the candidate has used their profile for the benefit of the wider community, and/or the development of sport.

· Taking into account participation numbers.

4. Any Honours currently held.

· The first three factors should be applied especially rigorously to nominations for further awards, particularly where performance has been repeated eg a gold medallist in the same discipline in subsequent Olympic Games might merit an upgrade not four years later but later in their career.

· This could also help to achieve parity between the Olympics and Paralympics, as single gold medallists at the Beijing Paralympics did not receive honours.

We would make it clear that these are not absolute criteria and the Sport Committee would continue to exercise its judgement when making final selections.

Benefits of this New Approach for the Olympics and Paralympics

Applying these four factors to all sporting awards would facilitate parity of approach to awards for Olympians and Paralympians that could deliver equitable proportions of awards for the Olympics and Paralympics without using an automatic formula that delivered an award for every gold medal.

It would also allow the Sport Committee to continue to honour Olympians and Paralympians as recognition is merited for career achievements and performance in other events etc. In particular, awards made at BD12 in advance of the Olympics and Paralympics could be used to demonstrate the new approach in practice.

· For example, recent awards have been made to Jessica ENNIS and Phillips IDOWU at BD11 and the Paralympians, Ann CUTCLIFFE at NY11 and Nyree LEWIS at BD09.

Attachment 3: Terms of Reference of the Philanthropy Committee


The Prime Minister provides the key strategic direction to the UK honours system. He has particularly asked that the vast majority of honours go to individuals who have gone beyond excellence in playing their part to create a Big Society. He has also asked that greater prominence be given to philanthropists who are making a difference to the Big Society through a sustained personal engagement. He wants the Honours Committees to give more consideration to how our top sports stars, actors, business people etc are also using their prominence and profile for the greater good in giving back to society in any number of ways. The Philanthropy Committee has been established to ensure that such people are properly recognised and do not "slip through the net".

Scope of the Committee

In the light of this strategic guidance, it is likely that the majority of candidates for honours will be engaged in some form of philanthropic activity. The Philanthropy Committee is not expected to review them all. It should focus instead on those who, in addition to sustained personal commitment to a charitable cause or voluntary endeavour, have also contributed a gift or gifts of significant monetary value. In each honours round, the Honours and Appointments Secretariat will provide a list of such candidates for the Philanthropy Committee to consider, comprising both those who have been recommended for honours by one or more of the specialist Honours Committees and those who have not.

Purpose of the Committee

The Philanthropy Committee’s functions will be:

- to review the levels of award proposed for philanthropists by the specialist Honours Committees;

- to consider whether any additional candidates should be recommended for honours;

- to propose to the Main Honours Committee any additions or changes in level of award.

The Philanthropy Committee will not itself have an allocation of honours for distribution, but it may want to recommend additional candidates to compete for any honours that might be available in the "pool".

Criteria for making recommendations

Simply making a philanthropic gift does not qualify a candidate for an award: honours cannot be bought. Some or all of the following characteristics [1] also need to be evidenced in the citation:

- a sustained commitment to the body or bodies in receipt of the gift, and a thoughtful approach to such support, normally over a period of five years at least. Short term gifts which create financial problems for others are clearly unhelpful. A contribution of time, as well as money, is required for consideration for an honour.

- where a very large donation has been made, perhaps for a key project, no award should be made until there is evidence of success – eg a building has been completed or the project is running well.

- the activities supported should be meritorious, being well-selected and successfully meeting publicly recognised needs.

- there would normally be a low-key approach to giving – or at least giving which is not self-evidently designed to enhance the public prestige of the giver or to publicise his or her business interests.

- the source of the gift must be legitimate and not derived from activities which might bring the honours system into disrepute.

Governance and Membership

The Philanthropy Committee is a sub-committee of the Main Honours Committee. It is chaired by the Chair of State Committee. Its membership comprises the Chairs of those specialist Honours Committees (usually Arts and Media, Economy and CVLS) which have considered philanthropists for honours as defined above; a representative from Number 10 also attends. The Honours and Appointments Secretariat in the Cabinet Office provides administrative support and policy advice.

Attachment 4: Review of Forfeiture Policy and Processes

Summary of Recommendations

I. The Forfeiture Committee should have a majority of independent members. It should comprise the Head of the Civil Service; the Treasury Solicitor; the chair of the specialist committee which recommended the honour to be forfeited; and two other specialist committee chairs who have no association with the case(s) under consideration. The Head of the Civil Service should remain Chair (paras 11-12).

II. The Committee should use "bringing the honours system into disrepute" as its over-arching criterion and consider forfeitures on a case-by-case basis (para 16).

III. The Committee should be prepared to accept written representations from the individual at risk of forfeiting an honour before it makes its final recommendation (para 17).

IV. In all other respects, the Committee should continue with present policies and practice (para 10).


1. The honours system was reformed in 2005, following a wide-ranging review led by Sir Hayden Phillips. That reform created the independent honours selection committees we have today. But the Phillips review omitted to cover the policy and processes for forfeiting honours, which were last considered by a working party chaired by Sir Charles Cunningham in 1963. This paper is intended to fill that gap.

2. Both the Phillips and Cunningham reviews were confined to honours which feature in the New Year and Birthday Honours lists: the Companion of Honour; the Order of the Bath; the Order of St Michael and St George; the Order of the British Empire; and Knights Bachelor. They did not review those Orders of Chivalry for which awards are in the personal gift of the Sovereign, nor gallantry awards or other military medals. This review covers the same ground.

3. Peerages, baronetcies and privy counsellorships are outside the honours system and similarly are not covered by this review. The Cunningham review concluded that any forfeiture cases in those categories should be handled on an ad hoc basis: the surrender of peerages and baronetcies requires an Act of Parliament; privy counsellors who are convicted of a criminal offence are removed from the Privy Council by an Order in Council, unless they choose to resign.

Current policy and processes

4. The proposals put forward by the Cunningham review were implemented in full and, with some minor tweaks, are still in place today (see Annex). The key elements of the current system are:

· All proposals for forfeiture of an honour are considered by the Forfeiture Committee. This is a standing sub-committee of the Main Honours Selection Committee. It is chaired by the Head of the Civil Service and its membership comprises the Cabinet Secretary; the Permanent Secretaries of the Home Office and Scottish Executive; and the Treasury Solicitor. The Head of the Honours and Appointments Secretariat acts as Secretary.

· Cases are generally brought to the attention of the Committee by the Department which made the original nomination. Such cases are usually dealt with by correspondence, though some may require a meeting of the Committee. The subject of the forfeiture proposal is not given the opportunity to make representations to the Committee.

· If the Committee agrees that forfeiture is justified, the Chair makes a recommendation to the Prime Minister, who in turn submits that recommendation to the Sovereign for approval.

· The forfeiture is then announced in the London Gazette, after the individual concerned has been given prior notice.

5. The criteria for forfeiture have evolved slightly over time. In a discussion of the Order of the British Empire in 1936, Sir Warren Fisher (the first Head of the Home Civil Service) said:

"The view we have taken is that appointments [to the Order] should usually be cancelled on conviction by a competent Court of an offence for which there had been a sentence to a term of imprisonment of something more than a nominal period, or a substantial fine has been imposed, and the offence has involved moral turpitude. Most of the cancellations have been for embezzlement, theft or some such other offence."

6. The Cunningham review tightened this to imprisonment for three months or more, and proposed that forfeiture should follow only if one of the following criteria was also satisfied:

"(a) the offence involves disloyalty to the State; or

(b) the offence was committed by a civil servant and involves a serious dereliction of duty; or

(c) the offence involves such disgraceful conduct that public opinion would be likely to consider it wrong for the offender to hold a public symbol of Royal favour."

However Cunningham also noted that:

"Forfeiture may sometimes be justified by special considerations. One instance of what we have in mind is the case of an employee of a Government department whose offence, though it may be treated leniently by the criminal Court, is nevertheless a grave one, having regard to departmental standards – for example, the theft of postal packets or the taking of a bribe. We accordingly think it right that departments should be free to submit for consideration on their merits cases in which there seem to be special reasons justifying forfeiture, even though they do not fall within the criteria set out [above]."

7. In 1994 John Major gave a wider definition in a written answer to the House of Commons:

"Cancellation is considered in cases where retention of the appointment or award would bring the honours system into disrepute. There are no set guidelines for cancellations, which are considered on a case-by-case basis."

This was confirmed in a parliamentary answer given by Gordon Brown in early 2009.

8. The criterion of "bringing the honours system into disrepute" has been used both before and since. This was elaborated at a meeting of the Forfeiture Committee in late 2009. That meeting concluded that forfeiture was appropriate if an individual had brought the honours system into disrepute, as evidenced by having been:

- found guilty by the Courts of a criminal offence and sentenced to a term of imprisonment of three months or more; or

- censured/struck off etc by the relevant professional or other Regulatory Authority for action or inaction which was directly relevant to the granting of the honour.

9. In early 2012, the Committee noted that forfeiture was not restricted to these two criteria: if there was other compelling evidence that an individual had brought the honours system into disrepute, then it was open to the Committee to consider such cases as well.

Proposals for reform

10. Where no proposals are made, I recommend that the Committee continues with its present practice.


11. The current membership of the Committee is out of line with the principles established by the Phillips review, which concluded (and the Government accepted) that the specialist selection committees should contain a majority of non-Civil Service experts in order to guarantee the committees’ independence from political interference. If the same principles were to apply to the Forfeiture Committee, then a possible membership would be: the Head of the Civil Service; the Treasury Solicitor; the chair of the specialist committee which recommended the honour to be forfeited; and two other specialist committee chairs who have no association with the case(s) under consideration. If the Cabinet Secretary were also to attend, we would need to include one more specialist committee chair. I recommend that there should be a majority of independent members.

12. Given the gravity of the issues discussed by the Committee, and given that the Committee’s recommendations are submitted directly to the Prime Minister, it is appropriate for the Chair of the Main Honours Committee also to be Chair of the Forfeiture Committee. I therefore recommend that the Head of the Civil Service remains Chair. An alternative option would be for the chair to be taken by one of the chairs of the specialist honours committees, who would then submit the Forfeiture Committee’s recommendations to the Prime Minister via the Main Honours Committee, but this seems unnecessarily bureaucratic and could cause significant delay.

Criteria for forfeiture

13. The evolution of the criteria for forfeiture as described in paras 5-9 above suggests a tension between the wide over-arching criterion of "bringing the honours system into disrepute", which gives the Committee the maximum leeway in considering individuals on a case-by-case basis; and the narrower, specific criteria such as those recorded in para 8, which present only a very small legal risk in the event of a challenge to a Committee decision.  The courts are likely to be wary of straying into the territory of the Committee’s deliberations, but might be tempted in the face of a hard case based on an unfair process.  If the Committee were to adopt more or wider criteria for assessing the question of disrepute, the more likely it would be that its processes would eventually come under the scrutiny of the courts. In particular, if it were to move to more subjective criteria, it would need to have some method of establishing the relevant facts. In certain circumstances, fairness might mean it had to invite the views of the person against whom forfeiture was proposed.  

14. Perhaps greater than the risk of legal challenge would be the precedent created by moving from objective criteria to a more subjective test. Simply "bringing the honours system into disrepute" might capture many who have been honoured but who have since (or indeed previously) behaved disgracefully but not criminally.

15. A further issue is that the criterion of considering forfeiture if an individual has been censured or struck off by their professional body fails to capture those who might be judged guilty of misconduct but who are not members of any such body – many civil servants, for example.

16. It therefore seems right to continue to have a combination of:

· an over-arching criterion of bringing the honours system into disrepute as a result of the individual’s actions;

· the more specific under-pinning criteria described in para 8, which provide examples of how the system may have been brought into disrepute. It would be open to the Committee to add to these, on the basis of cases successfully brought before it (for example, a civil servant might not be a member of a professional body, but might nevertheless have brought the honours system into disrepute as a result of an action which led to disciplinary proceedings), to ensure equality of treatment for others who might fall into a similar category. If any of these more specific criteria are met, that would then automatically trigger consideration of forfeiture; and

· the freedom to consider any other case where it might reasonably be argued that an individual has brought the honours system into disrepute.

I recommend that the Committee should continue to use "bringing the honours system into disrepute" as its over-arching criterion and to consider forfeitures on a case-by-case basis.


17. The appointment of a majority of independent members should help to allay concerns about the fairness of the process, particularly in cases where the more specific criteria have not been met. However, in cases where the specific criteria do not apply or where the issues are open to interpretation, an additional safeguard would be to allow written representation before a final decision is made. This is the practice adopted by the Order of St John, which allows individuals up to 28 days to make representations before a forfeiture decision is taken. I recommend that the Committee should in future be prepared to accept written representations before it makes its final recommendation.

Head of the Honours and Appointments Secretariat

February 2012



1. Our main recommendations relate to Knighthoods and lower honours granted in respect of services in civil life. There should be no distinction of practice as between Knighthoods and lower honours.

2. We think that forfeiture should be considered in all cases where conviction of an offence is followed by a substantial sentence of imprisonment – we suggest three months or more. In such cases we think that forfeiture should, as a general rule, be recommended if and only if one or other of the following criteria is also satisfied:

(a) the offence involves disloyalty to the State; or

(b) the offence was committed by a civil servant and involves a serious dereliction of duty; or

(c) the offence involves such disgraceful conduct that public opinion would be likely to consider it wrong for the offender to hold a public symbol of Royal favour.

Departments should bring to notice other cases where there seem to be special reasons justifying forfeiture or about which they would like advice.

3. The honours to which the above recommendations apply without qualification are the Companion of Honour; the Order of the Bath; the Order of St Michael and St George; the Order of the British Empire; Knights Bachelor; the Imperial Service Medal; and the Civil Defence Long Service Medal.

4. The Home Office and the Scottish Home and Health Department should consult chief officers of police with a view to obtaining reports of relevant convictions. A standing sub-committee of the Main Honours Selection Committee should consider all names brought to its notice and should consult sponsoring departments.

5. Exceptions to the above recommendations are given in respect of:

(a) honours awarded by The Queen otherwise than on the recommendation of a Minister;

(b) civil gallantry awards;

(c) police and fire service awards;

(d) other civil medals.

6. Our recommendations, if adopted, should be communicated to the Service departments so that they may consider modifying their practice.

7. Our recommendations only relate to honours held by citizens of the United Kingdom. Our recommendations have been brought to the notice of the Foreign Office, the Commonwealth Relations Office and the Colonial Office.

April 2012

[1] These are drawn from Annex 5 to the 2004 Review of the Honours System by Sir Hayden Phillips

Prepared 20th June 2012