Skip to main content

Order of the Companions of Honour

Volume 745: debated on Thursday 6 June 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have plans to increase the membership of the Order of the Companions of Honour.

My Lords, the Order of the Companions of Honour is restricted to a membership of 65 plus the Sovereign. There are no plans to increase the membership of the order, which currently carries a number of vacancies.

My Lords, in thanking my noble friend for his reply, I should perhaps make a declaration of non-interest to assure the House that I do not seek to suggest that I should be admitted to this great order. However, since there are no fewer than 24 vacancies, it is rather tempting to propose the names of admired friends—men and women from all parts of the House—although at the moment I would be slightly reluctant to include anyone from the government Front Bench, even my noble friend, for the following reason. Does he agree that anyone looking at the composition of the order today might well think that it is designed primarily for politicians, who constitute no less than half the current membership—21 out of 41? They are, of course, all most worthy recipients, but should not the order reflect more fully the glorious era of British culture and sport in which we are living? Why has no poet been appointed since 1993, no writer since 1999 and no musician since 2000, to help fill the 24 vacancies? As for sport, should not more of its stars be appointed to join its one current representative—my noble friend Lord Coe?

My Lords, the Order of the Companions of Honour is only one of the orders of honour in the British honours system. Service to the state is, after all, one of the central principles under which the various orders have been created. Politicians who belong to the Order of the Companions of Honour have all provided considerable service to the state. Indeed, 16 of them are Members of this House. However, as the noble Lord has also noted, there are a number of people who have made considerable contributions in the fields of music, theatre, fiction writing, history, science and elsewhere. I am happy to say that David Hockney, with his very close connection with Saltaire, is also a member.

My Lords, talking of honour and recognition, I am sure the Minister is aware that, 69 years ago today, some 6,800 warships, auxiliaries and merchant ships landed British, American and Canadian forces in Normandy, and that 5,500 of those ships were British. I have to say we are not quite in that position today. Four years before—some 73 years ago this week—Operation Dynamo finished, in which we had expected to manage to withdraw some 80,000 troops of the beaten British Army from Europe, but ended up taking out more than a third of a million. In the context of honour and recognition, I am sure that the noble Lord would like to give the thanks of the House for all those people who were involved in those two operations.

My Lords, that is a little wide of the mark. It is appropriate to pull the subject back towards the Question by saying that the Order of the Bath has a particularly strong military connection, as the noble Lord well knows. Every time I give a tour of the Abbey, which I do from time to time as a former chorister, I remark that one sees the military banners up in Henry VII’s chapel.

What proportion of the Companions of Honour are women? Is the noble Lord satisfied that the highest honours which can be awarded, including the Order of Merit, satisfactorily represent the contribution of women to the achievements of this country?

That is an extremely good question. We are very conscious of the imbalance in gender terms of almost all the orders and honours which are awarded. Only four of the 41 members of the Order of the Companions of Honour are women. However, nearly half the honours awarded in the latest New Year Honours List—47%—were awarded to women, although the majority of those were at what one has to call the lower levels of honours, not the higher. That, of course, partly reflects the continuing imbalance in society and the economy. Since John Major’s changes in 1993, it is open to all British citizens to nominate people for honours. There were 3,000 nominations last year. I encourage everyone to think very actively who else, particularly among distinguished women, might be nominated for orders.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that there is to be a debate later in this Session about making Alan Turing a non-criminal. Despite the fact that he made an enormous contribution to this country’s future, would his criminal conviction, as things stand, prevent him being made a Companion of Honour?

My Lords, my briefing assured me that honours were not to be withdrawn from people who have died, and I think that the awarding of honours to people who have died would also be outwith the honours system as it is currently understood. However, we would all strongly agree that Alan Turing suffered quite appalling discrimination. Both my parents-in-law worked with the noble Baroness at Bletchley Park.

My Lords, does not the nature of this Question indicate the scale of the disconnect between the people of this country and the politicians?

Not entirely. The honours list in recent years has included an ever larger number of people who provide public service, often without reward, at the lower levels. I processed up the Abbey on Tuesday morning behind a lollipop lady who was there because we were demonstrating different forms of public service to the country. I am happy to say that the number of teachers, including head teachers, who receive awards has been increasing in recent years. Eight head teachers received senior honours in the latest honours list.

Amartya Sen, I have to say. The issue of ethnic balance is also one of which the various honours committees are extremely well aware. I think 6% of those in the latest honours list were members of ethnic minorities. We are conscious that we have to look actively at that issue. Again I would say to everyone here and to all those whom noble Lords know outside, we encourage public nominations. Perhaps I may also add, as someone who lives in Yorkshire, the English regions are underrepresented. If you live in London, Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales, you have a better chance of being honoured than if you live in Yorkshire or the north-east.