The Honours System - Public Administration Committee Contents

2  The purpose and working of the honours system

The history of the honours system

7.  The Government states that:

The British honours system is one of the oldest in the world. It has evolved over 650 years as the country has found alternative means of recognising merit, gallantry and service.[8]

This inquiry has focused on the award of honours outside the gift of the Sovereign, such as the Order of Bath which dates back to 1725 and the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George which was established in 1802. These honours were established to recognise state servants in the UK and across the British Empire, and members of the armed forces. [9]

8.  The wish to recognise the service and achievement of people from all parts of society led King George V to introduce the Order of the British Empire in 1917. The Order of the British Empire introduced two new levels of the order—Officers and Members—which were not part of the Orders previously in existence, in addition to a lower level medal, the British Empire Medal.[10] Further reforms in the 1960s and in 1993 also sought to increase the proportion of non-state servants in the honours system.[11]

9.  Recent Prime Ministers have sought to provide "strategic direction" to the honours system. Tony Blair increased the number of honours awarded to people working in education and the health system, particularly focusing on recognising the work of high-performing head-teachers.[12] More recently, David Cameron "has asked that the vast majority of honours go to individuals who have gone beyond excellence in playing their part to create a Big Society".[13] The Prime Minister has also pressed for greater recognition to be given to philanthropists who have made a sustained commitment to a cause.[14]

How the honours system works

10.  Honours are awarded twice a year, at New Year and to mark The Queen's Birthday in June, in the form of three separate lists: the Prime Minister's List, the Diplomatic Service and Overseas List and the Defence Services List. The Prime Minister's List is by far the largest of the three, with a limit of 1,300 honours in each honours round, with the Diplomatic List and Defence List containing around 85 and 170 names respectively.

11.  The 2004 Phillips Review of the honours system reported that nominations from the public (which the Cabinet Office evidence estimated at some 3,500 annually) accounted for around 45% of those awarded honours in the Prime Minister's List.[15] The remainder of honours recipients were identified by Government departments, each of which have their own systems for identifying suitable candidates for honours and contacting stakeholder organisations for nominations. As an example of the wide net cast for nominations by departments, Sir Hayden Phillips noted that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport requested nominations from some 230 organisations.[16]

12.  The Honours and Appointment Secretariat in the Cabinet Office distributes the nominations received to the eight specialist honours committees, which assess the nominations made in a particular subject area, such as health, the economy or sport.[17]

13.  The recommendations made by the specialist honours committees are then considered by the Main Honours Committee, chaired by Sir Bob Kerslake, the Head of the Civil Service (as required in the statutes of the Order of the British Empire) with the chairs of each of the specialist committees as members, alongside a small number of senior civil servants. The final recommendations are forwarded to the Prime Minister and then to the Queen for approval.[18]

14.  The majority of honours are presented at one of 25 investiture ceremonies held each year by the Queen, or the Prince of Wales on the Queen's behalf. British Empire Medals are awarded by the local Lord Lieutenant, the Queen's representative in the counties, with recipients also invited to a Royal Garden Party.[19] Sir Hayden Phillips described the investiture ceremony as "an important part of the honours process, representing the direct link between the Head of State and the recipient being honoured by his or her country".[20]

What are honours for?

15.  Honours are intended to recognise exceptional service or exceptional achievement.[21] The Association of Lord Lieutenants said that "it is right that the state can recognise valued contributions to our society".[22] John Lidstone, a commentator on the honours system noted that "every country needs to honour by exception people who have done outstanding things in bravery, civilian life or elsewhere".[23]

16.  Lord Aberdeen, the Lord Lieutenant of Aberdeenshire, commented that recipients of honours, particularly those who have been nominated by their peer group, "feel a great sense of pride in the recognition they receive".[24] Dione Verulam, Lord Lieutenant of Hertfordshire, commented that this pride was shared by the wider communities, and charities supported by the recipients.[25] A similar point was illustrated by Dame Janet Trotter, the Lord Lieutenant of Gloucestershire:

I awarded an MBE to an 82 year old last week who was too ill to travel to London/Windsor. 130 members of the local community were present and there was a real sense of individual celebration and community support. This is when the system seems to be recognised as exceptionally worthwhile.[26]

17.  One of the most consistent, and repeated concerns raised in our inquiry was the distribution of honours to people who have not fulfilled the criteria of exceptional service or exceptional achievement, and who are simply "doing the day job". Sir Bob Kerslake stressed that "the Government's policy remains that the honours system should be entirely based on merit", and that honours should not be rewarded simply for "doing the day job".[27] Sir Bob did, however, argue that there are some people who should be recognised in the honours system solely for their day job, as this is merited by their professional achievement, giving the examples of "Nobel prize-winning scientists [or], Oscar-nominated actors" as people who may fall into this category.[28]

18.  The existence of the honours system reflects a wish to recognise and reward the exceptional service and achievement of citizens across the UK. The system has evolved over the last 850 years and it is right that it should continue to do so, to reflect changes in society and respond to public concerns.

8   "Honours", Direct Gov, Back

9   Cabinet Office, Review of the Honours System, July 2004, p 14 Back

10   Ibid. p 14 Back

11   Ibid.  Back

12   Ibid. p 6 Back

13   Ev 54 Back

14   Ibid. Back

15   Q 252, Cabinet Office, Review of the Honours System, July 2004, p 19 Back

16   Cabinet Office, Review of the Honours System, July 2004, p 20 Back

17   "Honours", Direct Gov, Back

18   Q 192 [Richard Tilbrook] Back

19   Cabinet Office, Government re-introduces the British Empire Medal, 29 October 2011, Back

20   Cabinet Office, Review of the Honours System, July 2004, p 25 Back

21   Cabinet Office, Reform of the Honours System, Cm 6479, February 2005, p 3 Back

22   Ev w75 [references to Ev wXX are references to written evidence published in the volume of additional written evidence published on the Committee's website] Back

23   Q 176 Back

24   Ev w9 Back

25   Ev w9 Back

26   Ev w28 Back

27   Ev 50 Back

28   Ibid. Back

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Prepared 29 August 2012