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Political Honours

Volume 974: debated on Monday 26 November 1979

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With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about honours for political service.

Work in the service of political parties is at present the one major area of this country's life which is not recognised by the award of honours. I do not believe that this is right. I have accordingly recommended that the forthcoming New Year Honours List and subsequent lists should include a number of awards to members of the parties for their political and public services. Her Majesty the Queen has approved my recommendation.

I do not consider that such awards should be made only to members of the party in power. I have therefore invited the right hon. Gentlemen the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the Liberal Party to submit recommendations for political honours. I am also ready to receive in the same way recommendations from the leaders of the other minority parties.

All recommendations for honours for political and public services will be examined by the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee before they are submitted to the Queen for her approval.

I should also like to announce one other change in the role of the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee. I have asked the committee to examine any names that I add to the recommendations at CBE level and above which are submitted to me through the official honours machinery in respect of services in all fields other than that of political services. The committee has readily agreed to do so. This further extension of the committee's function will, I believe, help to maintain the integrity of the honours system.

I congratulate the Prime Minister on this innocent diversion from some of the more pressing matters of the day. It is, of course, a matter for the Prime Minister of the day, and it is her decision to take, as I properly recognise. As to her proposals, I think that there is general recognition of the value of the service that is given to the political parties by voluntary workers in all the parties, whoever they may be. The Prime Minister will remember that this system was discontinued in 1966 to some extent because of—I do not wish to use too strong a word—abuse of the system in the conferment of knighthoods and baronetcies by previous Tory Chief Whips. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]. Having heard the enthusiasm with which this has been greeted by the aspirants on the Conservative Benches today, it is quite clear that there will be no lack of candidates in the future.

I think that the Prime Minister is moving in the wrong direction. As she is aware, I considered some partial changes, especially in the conferment of awards to civil servants, who are now remunerated on a very different basis from when these awards were first conferred, and also the relationship between the Civil Service, the Diplomatic Service and the Defence Service. Because there were more pressing problems, and for another reason, I decided then not to take any action on that limited aspect of the matter. I regret that the right hon. Lady is introducing this partial change—I shall, therefore, not be making any nominations—but I put it to her that now that she is making this change, which she is entitled to do, it should be coupled with a general review of the honours system as it now stands, in relation to both the distribution of awards between various groups and the method of selection.

I am glad that the right hon. Lady will submit certain names to the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee. In fact, that was done when the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) reintroduced the system in 1970. I think that he did exactly the same thing, except for the CBEs. I seriously suggest—this was in my mind when I decided not to make partial changes—that we in this country are too status-conscious anyway. I think that there is a good case for making the conferment of awards more valuable, by making them more restrictive rather than easier to come by by generalising and extending them. That is the proposal that I make to the right hon. Lady.

I regret that the right hon. Gentleman will not make any recommendations. It is a pity to leave all these matters to Resignation Honours Lists. I think that it will help a number of people in the political parties who give absolutely vital service to democracy. It will help them feel that they, too, could be recommended for the regular honours lists. However, that is a matter for the right hon. Gentleman and his party.

I am aware that the right hon. Gentleman instituted some kind of inquiry into the numbers for Crown servants but, as he pointed out, he decided not to do anything further about it. I do not think that there is any need to have a general review of the honours system. I believe that by announcing that political honours will be reinstated and by making certain that they go to the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee we will protect the integrity of the system.

Is the right hon. Lady aware that in our view it does not make any sense at all to give honours for outstanding public services to every group in this country except servants to our democracy? For that reason, the change that she has announced is obviously sensible. Will she not close her mind to the possibility of a review, because surely these awards are meant to be for outstanding service and not routine place service of the kind that has been used in the past. Does she accept that Governments since 1966 have abused the system ostensibly by not having political honours but none the less finding other ways of distributing them? Surely that brings the system even more into disrepute. Will she give an undertaking that this will not be used to dangle knighthoods in front of her revolting Back Benchers?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for indicating that he will take part in the political honours system. I confirm that the name of anyone whom I recommend outside the political honours system for other services would have to go to the Scrutiny Committee, which I believe is absolutely right. However, I do not see any need to have a general review of the honours system. Of course, that does not preclude minor changes from time to time.

Does my right hon. Friend include the conferment of membership of the Privy Council among those honours of CBE status or greater? If so, and when they are not for ministerial office, could they be examined by the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee as well?

No. Membership of the Privy Council is not included. That is regarded as a wholly separate honour, which does not go before the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee. In view of its status, I think that that is right.

As a continuation of this counter-revolution process, and in response to pressure from her own Back Benchers, will the right hon. Lady consider reintroducing hereditary peerages?

I do not wholly exclude the possibility, but I think that it would have to be for something of very great distinction.

As a non-revolting Back Bencher, is my right hon. Friend aware that her half-considered promise about the creation of new hereditary peers will cause widespread satisfaction throughout the whole country, remembering that the English love a lord?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her offer to receive recommendations from other minority parties, but I inform her that I have no intention of taking up that offer, now or at any time in the future. In view of the strained loyalties among hon. Members on the Government Benches over the removal of transport for schoolchildren, industrial redundancies, the mortgage rate, and so on, would the Prime Minister tell the House whether this scheme has been cooked up as a bribe to keep those hon. Members in line?

Does not our democracy depend entirely upon those people who, regardless of party, work for the local parties in the constituencies? Does it not require voluntary effort, and is it not entirely constructive of my right hon. Friend to say that those who do such work should not be ineligible for benefits and honours?

I entirely accept my hon. Friend's view. Democracy could not work without the work that those people do, and I think, therefore, that they should be eligible for honours.

Is the Prime Minister aware that there is a widespread view that patronage is one of the great cancers of our society and that the granting of honours corrupts, or can corrupt, those who are given them as well as those who are tempted by the hope of receiving them or are actually receiving them? Is the right hon. Lady aware that there is also a widespread view that some dignified way of recognising public service would be better than a system that entrenches social divisions and makes this country the laughing stock of the rest of the world?

The right hon. Gentleman will not be surprised if I disagree with him. I believe that this is a dignified way of recognising a great deal of public service, and I hope that the safeguards that I have built in will preserve its integrity.

One recognises at least the consistency of the view of the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn). Will my right hon. Friend give some attention to the real situation, which is that their Lordships, particularly hereditary peers, are far less likely to have political debts than are hon. Members of this House who may have to face reselection? On that basis, will my right hon. Friend give serious consideration—as she has just indicated she may—to reintroducing the hereditary principle?

I stand by the reply that I gave, but I do not rule out the possibility of hereditary peerages. However, I think that it would require some very great distinction and service to this country. Life peerages, of course, are also submitted to the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee.

Is the right hon. Lady aware that some of us think that political honours—in fact, all honours—are a load of rubbish, and that the only honour that some of us want is when the working-class people whom we represent say "He did the best job he could on our behalf"?

The fact remains that people of all parties have been very ready to receive honours, even though not given at the time of regular honours lists. I do not believe that the time has come to abolish them or to review the system. I propose to continue with the system with the modification I have announced today.

Would my right hon. Friend consider discussing with the Leader of the Opposition his reaction to her statement? I am certain that I am not unique, in that in Conservative constituencies many Conservative Members of Parliament are approached by members of Labour Party organisations asking for recognition for people who have given great service to the Labour Party in the constituency. They are just as worthy of recognition as is anybody else.

In so far as those requests are for political honours, of course, we can do nothing about them, but in so far as they are requests for recognition for very distinguished public, charitable, or other service, they will be considered in the usual way. I confirm that such requests do come from all sides of the House.