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Honours System

Volume 796: debated on Tuesday 26 March 2019


Asked by

My Lords, the honours system is independent of the Government. In recent years, significant progress has been made to ensure that the system is more open and representative, but there is always more that can be done. A number of changes have been made over the past year to review the operation of the system. That work is continuing.

I thank my noble friend the Minister for his Answer, but in 1917 the introduction of a system to recognise service to your country that included the word “Empire” was appropriate—it is not so today. For this reason, many people, often from within the black and minority ethnic community, refuse to accept—or even to apply on behalf of others for—an honour. Can my noble friend the Minister please outline whether consideration could be given to the introduction of an additional honour to the existing system that does not include the word “Empire”, so that all parties can be satisfied that those who have a conscientious objection for good reason can accept an honour that might be the Order of British Excellence—keeping the same letters—but so that the existing system could be respected as well?

I agree with my noble friend that we should do more to ensure that those from ethnic minority communities who have made a significant contribution to society should see their achievements get public recognition, and we should remove any obstacles in that path. In 2016, 6% of the New Year Honours went to those from black and ethnic minority communities. In the New Year Honours this year it was 12%, and we are averaging around 10%, but none the less more can be done. There are relatively few refusals of honours; the latest figure I have seen is around 2%. The reasons for refusal are not given, but I understand that it is very rare for a refusal to be on the grounds that my noble friend suggested. On her final point, that would require a new order of chivalry. The structure of the honours system is a matter for the monarch; this is well above my pay grade and, indeed, my rank.

My Lords, given that there are good grounds for renaming the Order of the British Empire now that we no longer have a British Empire, does the Minister accept that the range of acceptable titles is presumably rather large, since two of our most distinguished orders of chivalry are named after the garter and the bath?

I understand that the order cannot be renamed. The statute makes it quite clear that it must be known by that name and no other, so we would have to close it and start another. In response to the general issue that has been raised, it is noteworthy that 10 Commonwealth countries, many of them in the Caribbean, continue to nominate people for Orders of the British Empire and other ranks, so I am not sure that the reservations expressed by my noble friend are necessarily widely shared.

My Lords, while accepting the point about not using the term “Empire”, I put a further comment to the Minister. Does he accept that one of the criticisms is that there is a hierarchy of honours and that the top honours go to senior people in this country who get them because of their jobs, whereas at the bottom of the scale are the most worthy people who do voluntary work for fellow members of their community? Is it not those people, who work for nothing for their community, who ought to be given pride of place in our honours system?

I agree: no one should get an honour simply for carrying out the job they are paid to do. As I said right at the beginning, the operation of the honours system is independent of government; there is a Main Honours Committee and nine or 10 sub-committees below it, with civil servants and Members of your Lordships’ House on them. I am sure they will take on board the comments made by the noble Lord that there should be a fairer distribution of the ranks of Orders of the British Empire between those who at the moment are the main beneficiaries and others who perhaps get some of the lower orders.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that our now Commonwealth allies are part of our proud heritage and shared great hardship on our behalf? Decisions of this sort should not be taken in isolation as, more than ever, we need to stand shoulder to shoulder.

I agree with the noble Viscount. As I said a few moments ago, the order remains in use in other countries: Antigua, the Bahamas, Belize, Grenada and many other countries continue to nominate. Any change would have implications for those Commonwealth countries.

Why are so many places left unfilled in the Order of the Companions of Honour, which is particularly well suited to recognising conspicuous service in the worlds of arts and culture?

As a beneficiary of the Order of the Companions of Honour myself, I understand the reservations. If my noble friend looks at the some 60 recipients of the Companionship of Honour, he will find that there is a fairly broad representation. We had a photograph taken a year ago to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the installation of the Companions of Honour. I found myself standing next to one of the smallest actresses I have ever come across, and it looks very odd in the picture.

My Lords, I am not sure that the Minister’s Answer to the original Question from the noble Baroness was entirely convincing. There is careful screening to check whether somebody might be willing to consider accepting an honour before an application is ever made. That is done by talking to their family, their friends and others involved with them. Therefore, the figure of 2% refusals is entirely unconvincing, and there needs to be a much more careful analysis of what is going on behind the Question in order to deal with the real issue, as is recognised by the questions asked by the House.

I take seriously the point made by the right reverend Prelate. People do give reasons for turning down honours; those reasons are not made public. In the letter which my right honourable friend the Prime Minister wrote to my noble friend last year, when this issue was raised, she said that it was “rare” for an honour to be turned down for this reason. But we will try to dig further, in the light of the comments of the right reverend Prelate, and see to what extent this is a real disincentive.

My Lords, the New Year Honours List of 1969 contained a life peerage for Sir Learie Constantine, who took his seat in this House 50 years ago today. On the House of Lords website, there is a very fetching photograph of the bust of Lord Constantine, with the Lord Speaker and the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin. Lord Constantine’s bust, borrowed from the National Portrait Gallery, is in the Royal Gallery from today. Will the Minister encourage all Members of your Lordships’ House to attend the event on 1 May, when this iconic figure will be celebrated in a seminar and lecture in the Robing Room? There, Members can pay their own tribute to the first Afro-Caribbean Member of your Lordships’ House.

I entirely endorse what the noble Lord has said. As he was speaking, I could see noble Lords writing in their diaries the date he referred to.