HC Deb 27 October 1966 vol 734 cc1301-5

The following Written Question stood upon the Order Paper:


To ask the Prime Minister if he will now make a statement on the Honours system.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson):

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will now answer Written Question No. 38.

Starting with the New Year Honours List I propose to discontinue the practice of making recommendations concerning honours for political services of the kind which have been a feature for so many years past. Nor do I intend to recommend to Her Majesty that such honours be granted in future. In fact, though in past years many honours were to local party functionaries and to Members of this House, in the past two years most political honours have been related to local authority service.

In future, recommendations in respect of such service—that is local authority service—will be treated in the ordinary way without reference to the political party to which the person recommended belongs; it will be public service which will be recognised, irrespective of party.

I trust that these new arrangements will be welcomed by the House as a desirable and necessary reform of the Honours system.

Mr. Armstrong

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this decision to make further inroads into the patronage system, which has been so over-used by past Administrations—and, indeed, often abused—will give widespread satisfaction, certainly on this side, and throughout the country? But will he look seriously at the social selection written into the present system, where we have awards of M.B.E. and B.E.M. to the lower levels, and other awards and titles to the so-called higher strata?

The Prime Minister

It is our duty to review all aspects of the honours system, and this we shall be doing over a period of time, but I thought it right to bring to an end this system of political honours as we have known it in the past. Very many worthy people of all parties, and no party, give tremendous public service in local government.

I think that it is utterly wrong, whichever party is in power, that for 13 years practically all the recognition of local authority councillors, aldermen and others was because they belonged to one party. I should think that it would be wrong also if, for the next 13 years, they should all be from another party.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the Prime Minister aware that he has dealt a savage partisan blow at Conservative workers in the field? Is he aware that if 15 years of anaesthetic docility on the benches of this House will no longer be rewarded by a knighthood, he is changing the whole course of politics?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. I think that the hon. Gentleman is very wrong and, indeed, monstrously unfair to the Conservatives. It is known that whenever there was a Conservative Honours List he rushed into print with a statement very justly attacking the system they were then operating. Surely, there is a fallacy in what he has now said, because he assumes that they will have any source of patronage for the next 10 years, which, of course, they will not.

Mr. Shinwell

My right hon. Friend has made no reference to the hereditary system. Do I understand that in future there will be no recommendation in that context? And what about the position of sons, the heirs of peers, earls, and the like? In the event of the demise of peers, can we be assured that their sons will not be permitted to take their place in the House of Lords?

The Prime Minister

There has not been, since October, 1964, any recommendation for a hereditary peerage or baronetcy, or any other honour carrying with it hereditary characteristics.

On my right hon. Friend's later and wider points, it was said at Question Time the other day that this affects very profoundly the composition of another House. As I have said on a number of occasions, I think that if the need arose we would be more concerned with the question of the powers in another place than with its composition.

Sir G. Nabarro

Can the Prime Minister say why he made no reference to Privy Councillorships? Is it his intention to continue the proliferation of Privy Councillorships as a sort of political "rooty-gong" to members of his own party who have given little or no service to this House or public service, and simply as a substitution for what my party gave in the form of knighthoods and baronetcies?

The Prime Minister

In answer to that question by one of the more notable proliferees of the 13 years of Conservative rule—not, I think, one of the most docile, certainly—the position is that Privy Councillorships have always been regarded as an honour to Members on more than one side of the House. During the 13 years of Conservative rule it was not unusual for Privy Councillorships to be recommended in respect of those not members of the Government party, and this has continued since. I think that it would be wrong to deal with the Privy Councillorship position, which is well understood in the House, as compared with what I regard as the more unsavoury aspects of the political honours system.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Can my right hon. Friend say whether his announcement means that no more knighthoods will be given to trade union leaders? Is he aware that if this is so it will give great satisfaction to the miners in my constituency?

The Prime Minister

By eliminating one particular and quite large group from regular Honours Lists, the position now is that the basis for selection will be public service, whether national or local, whether in industry, local government, national government or in any other way.

As regards industrial honours, the judgment as between managers, chairmen, directors, trade union leaders and others will be made on the basis of their public service and not on their political party.

Mr. William Hamilton

Is the Prime Minister aware that many of us on this side of the House will be appalled by the characteristic timidity and conservatism of my right hon. Friend's approach to this and other matters—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—other related matters? Can he give an assurance that the Civil Service aspect will be dealt with because, at the moment, all that a top civil servant has to do to get a high honour is to keep his nose clean.

The Prime Minister

There is a lot to be said for keeping noses clean. I was aware that this would not satisfy my hon. Friend in his moves for root and branch reforms, not only of the honours system but other, as he called them, related matters, but in this statement I have set out to deal with one particular important aspect which, I think, will enable the Honours List to be more truly representative in future of all who are carrying out important local government service.

On the question of the Civil Service, as my hon. Friend will know, there have been reductions by our predecessors. I am paying them a tribute about this, which, perhaps, is very rare. Our predecessors who were responsible did, in fact, cut down the number of what were previously regarded as automatic honours in the Civil Service. I think that the results have been seen since then and we have continued it.

As to my conservatism about other matters referred to by my hon. Friend, I hope that he will always regard me as somewhat timid and conservative.

Mr. Speaker

Mr. Pannell.

Mr. C. Pannell

I did not actually rise then, Sir. [Laughter.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. If any hon. or right hon. Member changes his mind, the last thing I would do would be to press him to speak.

Mr. C. Pannell

I did not rise at that stage, because my hon. Friend the Member for West Fife (Mr. William Hamilton) covered a large part of the point I intended to make, but in so far as I have been asked to rise now, may I put it to my right hon. Friend that I thought that on both sides of the House we had considered that political service is probably one of the best forms of voluntary service still known. I hope, therefore, that nobody will be disadvantaged because his or her service has been political service, because political service and public service are very often synonymous. Usually, people make some sacrifice for it. A great many would have rather wished that the Prime Minister had taken all these badges of rank away from the Civil Service before he attacked the elected element.

The Prime Minister

There is no question of attacking either the elected or the official element in local government. As I have said, something like 90 per cent. of the political honours in the last two years have gone for political and public service to men and women who have a very devoted and dedicated voluntary record in local government. The test in the future in relation to anything in the nature of party recommendations will be that they should be judged for their local government records irrespective of party, and, indeed, on a basis which would enable more recognition than has been the case of devoted work by local government officials as well as elected representatives.