The Honours System: Further Report with the Government Response to the Committee's Second Report of Session 2012-13 - Public Administration Committee Contents

1  The Honours System: Further Report

1. We reported to the House on The Honours System in our Second Report of Session 2010-12, published on 29 August 2012 as HC 19. We received the Government Response to that Report on 29 October 2012. That Response is printed as an appendix to this Report.

2. In our Report we set out the reforms we considered necessary to increase public confidence that honours are awarded to the most deserving recipients and that the honours system is open and fair to all. We argued that it should be easier to understand why and how honours are awarded, and that there should be no political influence on this process. We recommended the introduction of an Independent Honours Commission to select recipients for awards, and an Independent Forfeiture Committee to consider cases in which honours should be revoked. We called for clear and expanded criteria for both the award and forfeiture of honours, and recommended that no honour should be awarded simply for "doing the day job".[1]

3. We are disappointed with the Government's Response to our Report. In particular, we are worried by the Government's statement that concerns about the award and forfeiture of honours "largely arise from misperceptions rather than reality".[2] We remain of the position that "it is a serious concern that many members of the public do not view the honours system as open or fair", as revealed by the Cabinet Office's own polling on this matter.[3] In dismissing these concerns the Government has neither addressed the basis for these concerns nor sought to justify the political influence over the honours system and the lack of transparency in the award of honours. In addition, none of our independent witnesses would accept the Government's statement that "It is a long time since honours have been awarded to those who "just do their job"". If the Government believes that certain positions and responsibilities intrinsically merit the award of honours, it would be much more straightforward to say that.[4]

4. The Government's Response rejected our recommendation of an Independent Honours Commission, free from political influence, and argued that reforms to the honours system "introduced in 2005 have already introduced all the benefits of independence that would be created by the establishment of a Commission, making it hard to justify the additional costs that would be involved".[5] We do not find this argument convincing. Since the publication of our Report, we have received numerous letters from the public expressing concerns about the honours system, reinforcing our original conclusion that the benefits from the Government's 2005 reforms have been "marginal".[6]

5. Our Report also expressed concerns about the establishment of the Parliamentary and Political Service Honours Committee. We were informed about its establishment by a letter from the Prime Minister in March 2012, and understood that the Committee was established to consider candidates for honours from the Members and staff of the Westminster Parliament and devolved legislatures, and "the staff of bodies which report to them, such as the National Audit Office, and the Ombudsman, and Party workers".[7] We expressed our concern at the rushed presidential manner in which this new Committee had been established, apparently without any evidence of a need for it. We recommended that the membership of the Committee be elected by MPs and that it should not include the Chief Whips of the three main parties.[8]

6. We reject the Government's assertion that consultation of the Chief Whips of the three main parties regarding the Prime Minister's intentions to establish this new Committee amounts to consultation of Parliament, and remain of the view that the membership of the Chief Whips of the three main parties on the Parliamentary and Political Service Honours Committee opens the Committee to the charge of political manipulation in the interest of party leaders. The credibility of such a consultation is not assisted by the fact that the three consultees were subsequently appointed to the Committee in question. In view of this, for the Government to argue that the election of members of the Parliamentary and Political Service Honours Committee by MPs would constitute politicisation is absurd. The Government's unwarranted dismissal of our recommendations in respect of this new Honours Committee further undermines our confidence that the Committee should have been established at all.

7. Subsequent to the publication of our Report we were surprised by the Prime Minister's decision to bypass the Committee he had so recently established in order to award honours to five ministers who had lost their jobs in the Government's September 2012 reshuffle (correspondence between the Prime Minister and PASC on this matter is at appendix 2). Such a move does indeed constitute politicisation of the honours system and flies in the face of the stated position of the Government, as expressed only weeks earlier in oral evidence by Sir Bob Kerslake, the Head of the Civil Service. Without questioning the public service of those selected, by the Prime Minister, to receive honours at the end of their ministerial career, we are concerned that awarding honours in such a manner will further reduce public confidence in the honours system. Again, if the Government supports such political control of the award of honours in certain circumstances, it should be prepared to justify that.

8. Since the publication of our Report, there have been numerous calls for the forfeiture of the honours awarded to various public figures. We believe that this pressure results from the Government's decision to ask the Honours Forfeiture Committee to consider the case of Fred Goodwin, the former Chief Executive of Royal Bank of Scotland, and the subsequent recommendation of that Committee that Mr Goodwin's knighthood should be cancelled and annulled. Despite the Government's insistence that Mr Goodwin was an exceptional case, it appears that media attention may have become a factor in determining whether the Honours Forfeiture Committee considers an individual's case. We believe the acceptance of our recommendation for an independent Honours Forfeiture Committee would increase transparency to the forfeiture process, and restore credibility to the honours system.

1   Public Administration Select Committee, Second Report of Session 2012-13, The Honours System, HC 19, paras 39, 68, 106, 117, 118, 119 Back

2   Appendix 1 Back

3   Public Administration Select Committee, The Honours System, para 20 Back

4   Appendix 1, Public Administration Select Committee, The Honours System, para 36  Back

5   Appendix 1 Back

6   Public Administration Select Committee, The Honours System, para 68 Back

7   Ibid. para 87 Back

8   Ibid. paras 84, 88 Back

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Prepared 23 November 2012