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

Appendix 1: Government response

The Government is grateful to the Select Committee for its report into this important subject. It contains some important issues, and the Government has already acted on some of them. It recognises that there have been concerns about the way honours are awarded and forfeited, but believes that these largely arise from misperceptions rather than reality. It believes that some of the changes recommended by the Committee will help to address this. Its response is given below.

Recommendation 1

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.

The Government agrees that the honours system should continue to recognise those who have given exceptional achievement and service: this is the nation's way of saying "thank you". It will doubtless continue to evolve to reflect changes in society, but also needs to remain rooted in the tradition that is part of our nation's history.

Recommendations 2, 8 and 9

Our evidence suggested that the perception that honours are linked to donations to political parties is prevalent. It is a serious concern that many members of the public do not view the honours system as open or fair.

The perception that the honours system is not open to everyone may deter people from nominating deserving candidates for honours. We welcome the outreach work carried out by the Cabinet Office to correct this view, and believe that the changes we have recommended to increase transparency in the honours system will also help to correct this public perception.

The perception that honours can be "bought" is a significant threat to the credibility of the honours system. It has even been reported that it is possible to pay a consultancy firm which claims it can "significantly increase" the chances of obtaining an honour. The brevity of the citations in the honours lists, and the lack of accompanying information to explain why an honour has been awarded, does not help to counter concerns that honours have been awarded as a result of making a donation to political parties. We recommend that longer citations be published for all honours at the level of CBE and above in the 2013 New Year Honours List and all future honours lists.

The Government shares the Committee's concern that some members of the public do not view the honours system as open or fair or believe the honours can be bought, but believes it is important to continue to honour those philanthropists who not only are financially generous but who also demonstrate sustained commitment to their chosen charitable causes. The Cabinet Office, working with other Government Departments and the Honours Selection Committees, has recently stepped up its outreach efforts and will continue to do so in order to increase the openness and transparency of the system. The Committee's suggestion that longer citations should be published for those who achieve the highest honours is a good one, and may well help to dissipate some of these misperceptions. The Government proposes to pilot this at Knight and Dame level in the New Year's Honours List 2013.

Recommendations 3 and 4

The evidence also suggests that the devolved nations, and certain English regions, receive a higher proportion of honours than is proportionate for their population size. This highlights the success of devolved bodies in championing nominations for honours, but also raises the danger of unequal treatment of nominations, depending on where in the UK the nominee is from. The high level of influence of the devolved bodies on the honours system also increases the risk of politicisation of the honours system in these regions.

The different levels of Order of the British Empire reflect the wish to recognise sustained and exceptional achievement and service on a large and a small scale. The inconsistency about how different levels of honours are rewarded, particularly in the devolved nations, adds to a lack of understanding of the honours system. We call on the Cabinet Office to treat work at national level in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as national not regional service or achievement, when considering nominations for honours.

The Committee's analysis is not quite right: of the devolved nations, only Wales and Northern Ireland have done better than their population size would suggest in recent lists, whereas Scotland has been under-represented. It will continue its outreach efforts to those regions that are currently under-represented, especially Scotland, the north of England and the Midlands. Nonetheless, the Government believes that all nominations should be looked at entirely on merit, regardless of their regional origin. It also believes that the highest honours should continue to be reserved for the highest achievers. This is likely to confine most Knight- and Damehoods to those who have had an international or pan-UK impact, while CBEs might be more appropriate for those who have had a national impact limited to England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, though each case will continue to be assessed on its own merits.

Recommendation 5

There remains a lack of transparency about what happens to nominations once submitted, and why it takes so long to consider a nomination. The system is unclear even to the Queen's representatives in the counties, the Lords Lieutenant. The length of time taken to consider nominations, and the lack of clarity about the process and why some nominations are successful, make it harder for members of the public to understand why and how honours are awarded. These concerns are not allayed by the speed at which honours are awarded to celebrities and sports stars. Greater clarity about the chances of success when nominating an individual and how the nomination will be considered would increase public understanding and confidence that the honours system recognises the most deserving individuals in each community.

The Government recognises the Committee's concerns, but also notes that the sheer volume of public correspondence on the honours system - some 9,000 items a year - makes it impossible to provide automatic feedback on every nomination. But feedback will continue to be provided to those who request it. Nominations will continue to be processed as quickly as possible, but the need to conduct robust checks on nominees means that any significant acceleration is unlikely to be possible without compromising the integrity of the system.

Recommendation 6

We believe that no-one should be honoured for simply "doing the day job", no matter what that job is. In particular, honours should not be awarded to civil servants or businessmen unless it can be demonstrated that there has been service above and beyond the call of duty. Instead honours should only be awarded for exceptional service to the community or exceptional achievement above and beyond that required in employment. This would result in a far higher proportion of honours being awarded to people who devote their time to their local community, instead of politicians, civil servants, and celebrities. There should be no special privileges or quotas for groups of society or certain professions: the honours system should be fair and open to all. Sir Bob Kerslake's insistence that there are no automatic honours for senior public servants is not reflected in the number of honours that have been awarded to civil servants and public sector workers in recent honours lists. Indeed, one such recent example of an apparently automatic honour was the knighthood received by Sir Jeremy Heywood the day before he took up the role of Cabinet Secretary; Lord O'Donnell had no less than four honours as a result of his Civil Service career.

The Government wishes to stress again that there are no longer any automatic honours for anyone, with the sole exception of High Court Judges on appointment. It is a long time since honours have been awarded to those who "just do their job". The full citations make that clear, drawing particular attention to additional voluntary work or activities that go beyond an individual's defined role. It is, though, right to continue to reward those whose achievements have been exceptional, whatever their field - and that might include those who make it to the very top of the Civil Service (though not many of today's Permanent Secretaries hold Knight- or Damehoods). But in the vast majority of cases, the honours committees are looking for something extra. The balance of honours between those who are focussed on community and voluntary service and those who are in paid employment will be reconsidered as part of the Quinquennial Review of Honours this autumn.

Recommendation 7

It is distasteful and damaging for people who already command vast personal remuneration packages for doing their job, to also be honoured for simply being at the helm of large companies. This must stop. All who get honours must be judged on whether they have done things above and beyond their normal duty, shown extraordinary leadership and shown extraordinary service to the community.

The proposal to eliminate honours for those who are "simply at the helm of large companies" under-estimates their achievements. The Government believes that honours should continue to be awarded on the basis of merit, and that the scale of a nominee's remuneration should be immaterial.

Recommendation 10

It is right that the commitment of philanthropists who donate large sums of money to charities over a sustained period of time should be recognised in the honours system, if this is accompanied with a sustained donation of time and energy. Honours should also be awarded to recognise the contribution of those who donate time but not money to their local communities.

The Government agrees: this is already current practice.

Recommendation 11

The Lords Lieutenant, the Queen's representatives in the counties, link the monarch and the recipients of honours. Their local knowledge could be crucial in ensuring that the most deserving people in each and every community are suitably recognised in the honours system. It is disappointing that the current method of considering nominations for honours, particularly for candidates in Scotland, has not utilised this opportunity fully. We recommend that each Lord Lieutenant has the opportunity to consider and comment on all nominations for an honour within his or her lieutenancy.

The Government greatly values the role Lord-Lieutenants play in the honours system: they often have an unparalleled local knowledge of those who reside within their Lieutenancy. The Cabinet Office already consults them extensively on the merit of nominees which fall within its purview, while the Scottish Government's Honours Secretariat has begun an outreach programme to Scottish Lord-Lieutenants; consideration is being given as to how to increase their input further. Government Departments and the Devolved Administrations will be encouraged to make more effective use of the Lord-Lieutenants, but it should be recognised that consulting Lord-Lieutenants on all nominations would almost certainly slow down the honours selection process.

Recommendation 12

The honours system should be free of political influence. We recommend the removal of the Prime Minister's role in providing strategic direction for the honours system, and the renaming of the "Prime Minister's List". Instead the Government should establish an Independent Honours Commission to oversee the honours system. In 2005 the then Government rejected the recommendation of our predecessor Committee to introduce such a commission, arguing that such an overhaul of the system was not necessary, as plans to reform the membership of the honours committees would improve accountability and transparency in the system. Seven years on, such improvements have been marginal. The creation of an Independent Honours Commission would restore the character and integrity of the honours system.

The Government is not convinced that the arguments for such a body have strengthened since they were last considered in 2004. The reforms 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: it is not true to say that the improvements introduced over the last seven years have been "marginal". It also does not propose to rename the Prime Minister's List. To do so would be odd while the Foreign and Defence Secretaries continue to retain their own Lists and the impact would in any case be minimal: most members of the public think in terms of the New Year and Birthday Lists, not which Minister has submitted names to the Palace for approval . The Prime Minister's strategic direction will remain an important part of the process: it is worth remembering that its current emphasis is very much in line with the Committee's proposals, to honour those engaged in voluntary work. Scottish Ministers play no part in the honours process.

Recommendation 13

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.

The Government agrees with the Committee's conclusions. The Order of the British Empire has a distinguished history. The re-introduction of the British Empire Medal in particular is allowing many of those who perform outstanding voluntary service at a very local level to receive the recognition they truly deserve.

Recommendation 14

The Government acted on recommendations of our predecessor committee to open up the membership of the honours sub-committees through the public appointments system. The honours committees, however, remain composed of an establishment elite. We recommend that the Cabinet Office, or the new Honours Commission, sets out how it will broaden the range of people who take up roles as independent members of the honours committees.

The Government agrees that all vacancies on the honours selection committees should continue to be publicly advertised. It is also keen to broaden the membership, and a number of vacancies have recently been advertised. A wide range of applications is always welcome, but it will remain important that the membership should include those who have achieved distinction in their fields.

Recommendation 15

We regret that the Parliamentary and Political Service Honours Committee was established without Parliament being consulted. Acting in such a manner will only serve to reduce public confidence in the honours system.

The Government rejects this criticism. All three main parties were consulted before the Committee was created, and Parliament was informed by a Written Ministerial Statement. Future vacancies for independent members will be publicly advertised, in line with the practice on the other honours selection committees. They will remain in the majority.

Recommendation 16

We view the membership of the Chief Whips of the three main parties on the Parliamentary and Political Service Honours Committee as inappropriate. The members of this committee should be elected by members of the House of Commons.

The Government does not believe that the role of the Chief Whips of the three main Parties is inappropriate. This is a significant step forward from the days when only the Chief Whip of the governing Party was consulted. The Government represents the minor Parties, who might be entirely unrepresented if the political members of the Political and Parliamentary Service Committee were elected. Such elections would also risk politicising the work of the Committee, a development that the Government is keen to prevent.

Recommendation 17

We recommend that there should be no set allocation of honours for the Parliamentary and Political Service Honours Committee. Instead, it should be clear that each recommendation made by the Committee is considered on its merits, in competition with the other nominations in the honours system.

The Government does not accept this recommendation. As with all the honours selection committees, the number of honours allocated to the Political and Parliamentary Service Honours Committee is a guideline, not a fixed quota - and all the committees need some form of guideline. This is demonstrated by the fact that the Committee did not use all honours allocated to it in the Birthday 2012 list. Its allocation will nonetheless be reviewed in the Quinquennial Review this autumn.

Recommendations 18, 19 and 20

The media storm around Fred Goodwin's knighthood was one of the reasons why his case was considered by the Forfeiture Committee, and why the decision was made to cancel and annul his knighthood. Mr Goodwin's actions did not meet the previously defined criteria for forfeiture and calls for his knighthood to be stripped had been rejected by the previous Government. The fact that the criteria for forfeiture were so obscure and narrow was unfortunate. There should be a clear and expanded criteria for the forfeiture of an honour, one of which should be damage to the industry or sector that the individual was originally deemed to have served so exceptionally.

The Government's review of the Forfeiture Committee has not addressed the subjective nature of the criterion for forfeiture of "bringing the honours system into disrepute". The rules on the forfeiture of honours should set out specifically what kinds of action and behaviour would be considered to bring the honours system into disrepute. The failure to make clear the circumstances in which an honour might be forfeited brings into question the credibility of the entire honours system.

We recommend that decisions on the forfeiture of honours are placed in independent hands, away from political influence. The Government should establish an independent Honours Forfeiture Committee which should:

a)  be chaired by an independent figure, such as a retired high court judge;

b)  act on evidence, according to clear and expanded criteria, free of political or media influence;

c)  consider representations from the individual who was the subject of the case; and

d)  hear evidence and proceedings in public; as befits British justice. In the case of Fred Goodwin, the confidentiality of the discussions of the Forfeiture Committee merely served to protect those behind the decision and did not prevent Mr Goodwin being subjected to "trial by media".

The Government does not accept the assertion that Mr Goodwin's actions did not meet the previously agreed criteria for forfeiture: the over-riding criterion has always been the one of "bringing the honours system into disrepute", and the evidence available to the Forfeiture Committee had changed since the case was considered under the previous Government. The Government believes that this over-riding criterion is important and should be retained, but that the more specific criteria which underpin it should continue to be used and added to, drawing on the experience of the cases that come before the Committee. The Select Committee's suggestion of adding "damage to the industry or sector that the individual was originally deemed to have served exceptionally" to these under-pinning criteria is helpful. However the Government does not favour further significant change to forfeiture policy and practice until the reforms introduced earlier this year have had a chance to bed down. These included introducing a majority of independent members; the use of additional under-pinning criteria; and a willingness to accept written representations. It does not believe that public show-trials which would serve to shame further the individuals concerned are appropriate to the dignity of the honours system.

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Prepared 23 November 2012