The honours system

Your opinion at the start - stage 1/6

Four significant reforms to the honours system have been proposed by a House of Commons Select Committee. These are: 1- end automatic awards 2- end titles 3- rename the Order of the British Empire as the Order of British Excellence 4- reduce the number of Orders and levels. Should we adopt them?

In 2004, the UK's House of Commons Select Committee on Public Administration proposed four significant reforms to the honours system. The Committee thought they formed a package.

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Author: Paul Eustice; reviewer: Perry Walker

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The reforms

In 2004, the UK's House of Commons Select Committee on Public Administration proposed four significant reforms to the honours system. The Committee thought they formed a package. They are as follows:

1. End automatic awards. At the moment, a particular public sector worker position leads to an honour for the person appointed. For example, some ambassadors are given knighthoods shortly after they take up their posts. So are some permanent secretaries (the senior civil servant in each government department).

2. End titles

3. Rename the Order of the British Empire as the Order of British Excellence

4. Reduce the number of Orders and levels/acronyms. The Committee’s proposal was to reduce the number of Orders outside the personal gift of the Queen from five to two. The total number of levels/acronyms should go from 15 to 4. The remaining Orders and levels would be:

  • Companion of Honour (CH)
  • Companion of the Order of British Excellence (CBE)
  • Officer of Order of British Excellence (OBE)
  • Member of Order of British Excellence (MBE)

We're not covering abolition

This topic is not for you if you think the honours system should be abolished. In order to keep it simple, we are giving readers a choice between keeping the honours system as it is and reforming it, by introducing the four reforms listed above.

Which awards are covered?

Wefollow the Select Committee report in not considering either awards for gallantry or those in the personal gift of the Queen. That means we are not considering the Orders of the Garter, the Thistle or Merit, nor the Royal Victorian Order.

This leaves four Orders: the Bath; St Michael and St George; the British Empire; and the Companion of Honour. There is also the status of Knights Batchelor for people called Sir or Dame. Between them, these produce 15 levels or acronyms. One example is KCMG, which in full stands for Knight Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George.

How the honours system works (ref 5)

Honours Unit

This unit considers all nominations for honours from the public, government departments, interest groups and business.

Special Committees

They approve nominations and levels of awards in the fields of local public service, medicine, science and technology, business, the arts, sport, state servants and management or trade union practice.

Main Honours Committee

Chaired by the head of the Home Civil Service. It checks to ensure a high standard and balance by region and interest.

Prime Minister

May add or remove names

Honours Scrutiny Committee

Supposed to vet all political awards.

The Queen

As "The Fount of all Honour" gives final approval. Official announcement in The London Gazette.

About 3,000 honours are awarded annually, at New Year and on the Queen’s Official Birthday in June.

The purpose and principles of an honours system

Below is the Select Committee’s view

The purpose of an honours system: honours are important symbols of what is valued in national life.

The principles of an effective honours system:

  • excellence—it should reward outstanding and exceptional service or achievement, at all levels
  • integrity—it should not be, or be seen to be, corrupt
  • transparency—it should be as open as possible, consistent with the need for confidentiality as to individual decisions
  • dignity—awards should be widely accepted as worthy
  • clarity—it should be easy for the public to understand why awards are made
  • fairness—it should not favour, or appear to favour, any one group

References

1 - Wilson Review of the Honours system, 2001.

Note that the House of Common LibrarySN/PC/02832(2 February 2012Oonagh Gay)

http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons/lib/research/briefings/snpc-02832.pdf

summarises several reviews of the honours system with full references.

2 - Public Administration - Fifth Report published by the House of Commons 7 July 2004.

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200304/cmselect/cmpubadm/212/21202.htm

3 - http://www.francisbennion.com/pdfs/fb/2000/2000-050-rooted-in-dishonour.pdf

4 - The Independent newspaper Thursday, 27 November 2003 http://web.archive.org/web/20100616162002/http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/benjamin-zephaniah-declines-an-obe-in-protest-against-colonialism-737107.html

5 - https://www.gov.uk/honours

6 - The House of Commons Select Committee on Public Administration 2004. report, “A Matter of Honour”: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200304/cmselect/cmpubadm/212/212.pdf

7 - The government’s response to ref 6 http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20090118230434/http:/www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/media/190754/cm6479honours_reform.pdf

8 - http://britain-watch.co.uk/2012/06/honours-and-the-trade-deficit/