Every honours list throws up some controversy or other, such as whether a knighthood is linked to a political donation (a media favourite) or can be interpreted as some kind of political favour. Despite this, the Public Administration Select Committee took evidence which suggests that the honours system is broadly popular (81 per cent) and trusted by the public (71 per cent). This does not mean that the honours system is politically uncontroversial, with some MPs regarding it as corrupt and class-based, with others regarding the relationship with the Queen and the Empire Order as distinctly British and something to defend. (The present prime minister just restored the British Empire Medal.) Select Committees work best when there is consensus. Chairing a select committee with disparate views presents challenges!
The main thrust of our report is that more should be done to shore up the perceived and actual independence of the honours system, and to dispel the idea that certain jobs and professions always get gongs. We also strongly support the idea that more honours should be distributed to those who serve their local communities above and beyond what would be expected of the vast majority of citizens. There should be longer citations for the award of honours, so it is not left to the press to speculate as to the ‘real reason’ someone got a K. We repeat the recommendation made by PASC in the last Parliament that the prime minister’s strategic oversight of the honours system should be replaced by a permanent ‘honours commission’ and an end to the so-called ‘prime ministers’ list’. (There should be nothing of the sort.) We support a stronger role for Lords Lieutenant in the counties and cities, who complained to us that they make recommendations in good faith that too often seem to be ignored without explanation; and honours bestowed in their area to people they have never heard of and (implicitly) would not themselves have recommended.
We also expressed unhappiness that PASC was not consulted about the new Parliamentary and Political Service Honours Committee with its own quota of honours. We recommend that the three commons Chief Whips be removed from this committee, that is members should be elected by the House of Commons, and that political and parliamentary honours should be considered on their merits without a quota.
Transparency and independence should also apply to the Forfeiture Committee, which rose to such fame when it stripped Fred Goodwin of his Knighthood. Never again should people be able to claim that such an important committee has carried out ‘village green justice’ as one of our witnesses described it. There should be clear and published criteria for forfeiture, an objective process, evidence for and against and in public, chaired by an independent figure such as a retired High Court judge.
The biggest frustration with the honours system is the way that worthy people seem to be permanently overlooked, in favour of the usual suspects. If the politicians were more removed from the system, it could only strengthen public confidence.
Bernard Jenkin is chair of the Public Administration Select Committee, which published its report into the honours system today.Tags: Honours, UK politics