The Honours System - Public Administration Committee Contents

4  The reintroduction of the British Empire Medal, and the term "Empire"

69.  In October 2011, the Prime Minister announced the reintroduction of the British Empire Medal (BEM) for between 270 to 300 "local volunteers who make a real difference to their communities" in each honours round. The award of the BEM had been discontinued by the then Prime Minister, Sir John Major, in 1993. Sir John said that the distinction between the award of a Member of the British Empire and a BEM had become "increasingly tenuous [and could] no longer be sustained".[113]

70.  Several Lords Lieutenant supported the reintroduction of the BEM and the intention to recognise contributions that are not of a level that would normally receive an MBE.[114] Colonel Martin Amlot, a Deputy Lieutenant of Merseyside, commented that the withdrawal of the BEM in 1993 was "well intentioned but ill-advised" and "resulted in large numbers of members of the community being disenfranchised".[115] Mr Clark, the Lord Lieutenant of Renfrewshire, described the reintroduction of the BEM as the "best part" of the honours system in recent time, and called for more than the current limit of 300 to be distributed in each honours round.[116]

71.  The reintroduction of the BEM prompted a wider discussion on the use of the word "Empire" in the honours system. We heard mixed evidence suggesting that the word was outdated. Alistair Darling told us:

We do not have one [an empire]. In some way we are in a difficult position. We are making someone a Commander of the British Empire and we are in no position to offer him such a command.[117]

George Reid, the Lord Lieutenant of Clackmannanshire, argued that the use of the word "Empire" was "inappropriate to a post-imperial UK", and cited the experience of a local resident in his lieutenancy, whose family came from a former colony of the British Empire who had said he would not be able to accept an honour "named after a system his family had fought to abolish".[118]

72.  Lord Jones argued that the word "Empire" posed problems for British businessmen abroad:

You go round the world and somebody says, "So and so is with you. He's a CBE. What does that stand for?" The moment you say the word "Empire" you wish you did not have to. At one end you get the opium wars; at another you get some battle for independence. All over it smacks of arrogance.[119]

73.  Sir John Parker, the Chair of the Economy Honours Committee, provided a contrasting view, suggesting that in parts of the world, such as China, the history and traditions behind the British honours system added to its value. He argued that

We should not throw tradition over in talking about the words "OBE", because there is a value in these historic orders and awards.[120]

The Director General for Honours in the Welsh Government, Bernard Galton argued that the negative connotations of the word empire were balanced out by those who felt the term reflected the history of the order.[121]

74.  The evidence we received was that only one or two people in the 2012 Birthday Honours round rejected an honour because of the word "Empire".[122] Graham Smith of the pressure group Republic argued, however, that even if just a minority would not accept an honour because of the word "Empire", it would be grounds enough to change it.[123]

75.  We took evidence on a possible replacement for the term "Empire". Both Sir Garth Morrison and Mr Briggs told us they would welcome in principle the use of a different term, such as "excellence" to replace the word "Empire", as recommended by the Public Administration Select Committee in the previous Parliament.[124] Lord Jones recommended keeping the initials of the three orders MBE, OBE and CBE, but altering the title. He thought that the word British should be retained but the other words changed to highlight a more direct link to the monarch, emphasising that the gift is from the Queen, and not the Government.[125] Sir James Cropper, the Lord Lieutenant of Cumbria suggested changing the title of the Order to "The Queen's Order for Service" or "The Queen's Commonwealth Order".[126] The Duchess of Northumberland, the Lord Lieutenant of Northumberland, suggested renaming the BEM the "'British Citizen Medal".[127]

76.  Richard Tilbrook, the Head of the Honours Secretariat in the Cabinet Office sought to place the title of the Order in context, noting that the Order of the British Empire was founded during a time of Empire in 1917.[128] He also explained that there was a significant obstacle to changing the name of the order:

When the order was established, the statutes made it very clear and the Queen's grandfather said it was to be "known forever thereafter" as the Order of the British Empire and "by no other designation". What that means in practice is, if you want to change the name of the order, you have to close the order and start a new one.[129]

Mr Tilbrook added that he thought it would be an "odd" time to close the Order of the British Empire, as the country celebrates the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and the upcoming centenary of the Order of the British Empire in 2017.[130]

77.  The reintroduction of the British Empire Medal allows for greater recognition of hundreds of people across the country who devote great time to their communities. Whilst we welcome this, the title of the honour was disliked by some witnesses, because of the connotations of the word "Empire". We recognise that the title may need to change in the future, but recognise that this is not as straightforward as it would first appear: the name of the Order of the British Empire is enshrined in statute and cannot simply be changed: the Order itself would have to be closed. This would require fresh statutes. In recognition of the existing Order's proud history and of the service and bravery of its members, we do not recommend any changes ahead of the Order's centenary in 2017.

113   HC Deb, 4 March 1993, col 454 Back

114   Q 15, ev w4, ev w5 Back

115   Ev w11 Back

116   Ev w5 Back

117   Q 111 Back

118   Ev w17 Back

119   Q 112 Back

120   Q 289 Back

121   Ev w32 Back

122   Q 249 Back

123   Qq 179, 190 Back

124   Qq 18-19 Back

125   Q 113 Back

126   Ev w22 Back

127   Ev w24 Back

128   Q 271 Back

129   Q 271 Back

130   Ibid. Back

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Prepared 29 August 2012