HC Deb 10 November 1970 vol 806 cc205-11
The Prime Minister (Mr. Edward Heath)

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

It is my view that the services of those who work for political parties, thus contributing towards the functioning of our democratic system, should not be excluded from recognition by the Sovereign. Nor, if there are to be honours for political and public services, do I consider that they should be confined only to members of the party in power.

I have therefore made a recommendation to the Queen, which Her Majesty has approved, that the forthcoming New Year Honours List, and future lists should include a number of awards for political and public services to members of political parties.

I have also invited the right hon. Gentlemen the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the Liberal Party to agree in principle to make recommendations for such honours, which I can then submit for the Queen's approval together with my own recommendations.

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

Mr. Harold Wilson

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware from the contacts that we have had that I feel, as he clearly does, that such a decision must be a decision for the Prime Minister of the day. Having said that, he will know equally that I very much regret the decision he has announced this afternoon reversing, as it did, a decision that I took in 1966 to end these honours and for good reasons which were explained to the House at the time.

With regard to recommendations for honours for Members of the House of Commons, is the Prime Minister aware that there will be some feeling that it can have some effect on the workings of the House and that we may want to debate this issue, a fact of which I have given him notice.

With regard to both those honours and party servants of different parties throughout the country, again the Prime Minister will know our views and will not be surprised to know that I reject his invitation to suggest names to him.

Finally, as the right hon. Gentleman will recall that when I ended this system of political recommendations for that particular citation I increased the number of local government honours, irrespective of political affiliations, to be chosen by an impartial method, about which the right hon. Gentleman will know, will he give an assurance that these will continue and that there will be no diminution in the number of honours recommended for local government service.

The Prime Minister

I respect the right of the right hon. Gentleman when he was Prime Minister to take the decision he did, and I think that he respects the one that I have just announced to the House.

I have never understood why those who give voluntary or paid service to political parties to enable and help our political system to function, as they undoubtedly do, should be the only group that are excluded from recognition by the Sovereign for the work which they do.

On the other hand, I myself felt—this is a decision for which I take responsibility, and it is a new decision—that, as our political system depends on all parties helping to make it function, it was right that, if there are to be political honours and honours for public service of this kind, the opportunity should be given to members and workers in all political parties.

As for local government, the same system will continue. There will be recognition of those who give their work in local government service. I cannot give an undertaking that exactly the same numbers will prevail. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the number in different categories in the list changes from time to time and there is a system for dealing with this. Broadly, that system will remain.

Mr. Harold Wilson

As the number was increased correspondingly with the reduction in political honours when political honours were abolished, will the Prime Minister give an assurance that, although there may be fluctuations of half a dozen or so from list to list, he will not cut down as a matter of practice the numbers given for local authority service just because he is inflating the list by restoring political honours?

The Prime Minister

I do not regard this as an inflation of the list. I regard this as including those who work for political parties as being just as eligible for consideration as other citizens.

As to the questions of numbers in local government, of course public service in local government should be recognised, and will be recognised, but I have always believed that it is not right to use this as a guise for recognising political work because such people take part in local government. Therefore, as to numbers, we shall have to balance this up, but there will be full recognition of local government service.

Mr. Tapsell

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in addition to the announcement he has just made, which I believe will be widely welcomed, the London evening newspapers also report that he is recommending to the Queen that there should be no further creations of hereditary honours other than for members of the Royal Family? Before my right hon. Friend makes any such recommendation, will he bear in mind that, if he were to do so, it would seriously invalidate the position of all holders of hereditary titles in the House of Lords?

The Prime Minister

I have not made a general recommendation of that kind to Her Majesty. On the other hand, I do not accept the conclusion in my hon. Friend's remarks. I would not be proposing in fact to recommend hereditary honours in the normal course of events but, on the other hand, I do not absolutely exclude the possibility.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the Prime Minister aware that many of us who recognise the value of work, particularly outside the House of Commons, by people in all political parties as a means of keeping our democratic system alive, none the less supported the decision of the Labour Government to abolish political honours in 1966? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we did so because we felt that the system had been abused in that honours were bestowed only on the party which happened to be the Government of the day and we had reached the stage that 15 years of senility and docility in the House were almost automatically rewarded by a knighthood?

Is the Prime Minister, finally, aware that, if this is to be on the basis that it is a sparing exercise which transcends all political parties and is not to be on a hereditary basis, it would be wholly wrong to exclude from recognition those who make this contribution to our political life?

The Prime Minister

I think that the last part of the right hon. Gentleman's question is the important part. I have myself stated that I do not believe that it is right to exclude those citizens who take part in political work from the honours list. I hope that in that we are in agreement.

Mr. Costain

Can my right hon. Friend explain to the House what appears to be a difference between the view expressed by the Leader of the Opposition today and the views he expressed in the Dissolution Honours List.

The Prime Minister

I think that the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition has taken full responsibility for the recommendations in the Dissolution Honours List, because I as Prime Minister accepted the list exactly as it was and passed it on to the Queen as a recommendation for honours.

Mr. Michael Foot

Does the Prime Minister appreciate that the country will understand that, instead of dealing with awkward subjects like rising prices or strikes, the Prime Minister has now applied his mind as a former Tory Chief Whip to a subject he really understands; and, in view of the possibilities of prospective corruption on his side of the House—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—such as Tory Prime Ministers have exercised over the generations, will he give an undertaking to the House that before he proceeds with this action, which specifically affects the House of Commons, he will arrange for a debate on the subject so that Members can give their views?

The Prime Minister

As for a debate, if the Leader of the Opposition wishes to arrange that through the usual channels and use the facilities open to the Opposition no doubt he will choose to do so.

The country outside will note that the hon. Gentleman, having been thoroughly clobbered for his support of unofficial strikers, has now on this subject descended to the gutter in order to make unjustified accusations of corruption which he could not possibly substantiate for one moment, and he should withdraw.

Mr. Foot

If the right hon. Gentleman—

Hon. Members


Mr. Foot

In order to—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I have said already that indignation and irritation do not help.

Mr. Foot

To assist in substantiating the case that I have put, would the Prime Minister care to publish in the OFFICIAL REPORT the names of all the Conservative Members of Parliament who were given knighthoods during the period when he was the Tory Chief Whip?

The Prime Minister

They are all available in the London Gazette. The hon. Gentleman need not be disturbed. His own Leader has refused to put forward nominations, and I can assure him that he is in no danger of having a nomination from me.

Mr. Kilfedder

Leaving aside the anguish of the Opposition, may I ask the Prime Minister to consider ending recommendations for hereditary honours, and to accept that this would be one dramatic way of showing the people of this country that we must reshape Britain for the 1970s?

The Prime Minister

I have already told the House, in answer to a supplementary question, that I was not proposing, in the normal way, to make recommendations to Her Majesty about hereditary honours. But I also said that I did not absolutely exclude the possibility, which is exactly the position that was taken by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition, for reasons which he knows full well and with which I agreed.

Mr. William Hamilton

Does not the Prime Minister think that it is a reflection on his Government's priorities that he should come to the House at 3.30 and make a special announcement on such an absurdly trifling irrelevance in the country's present difficulties? Whilst I appreciate the need for him to protect himself by extending patronage, may I ask him to give an undertaking that he will not give anybody on this side or anybody in our party outside the opportunity to grace themselves with these gongs, patronage, medals and things, and that if any on this side dare to accept they will be expelled from the party?

The Prime Minister

If the matter is so irrelevant, it is strange that the hon. Gentleman should have put down so many Questions on the matter.

Mr. Harold Wilson

The right hon. Gentleman just now, I think, called in aid a decision which he attributed to me relating to hereditary honours. I think that it is a little unusual to do that. Am I right in thinking that he was referring to a point raised earlier by one of his hon. Friends to make an exception in respect of members of the Royal Family? If that is to what the right hon. Gentleman was referring, all right. But if he has anything else in mind concerning hereditary honours, will he tell us?

The Prime Minister

I was referring to that, and it was a statement of fact.

Mrs. Sally Oppenheim

Will the Prime Minister tell us which party has kicked more hon. Members upstairs: the party on this side of the House or the party opposite?

Hon. Members


The Prime Minister

I will gladly look up the figures for the two parties. The achievement of the right hon. Gentleman, when Prime Minister, was quite remarkable in the creation of peerages generally.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this was done only when our numbers in the Lords were too low?—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—Is the right hon. Gentleman aware, if he thinks that is very funny, that the first invitation to me to do this came from his right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, when he moved from another place into this House, who expressed his concern that there were not enough Labour peers there to keep the job of the House of Lords going and generously invited me to recommend six names to him for that purpose. The initiative came from the party opposite.

The Prime Minister

I recognise that—and no doubt it proved to be a continuing need.

Mr. Ross

Does the Prime Minister appreciate that there is danger in this reversion of bringing the whole honours system into disrepute? Does he recall that prior to 1964 we had reached the position of calling the Government side on the Scottish Grand Committee the "knight shift"?

The Prime Minister

That example of the right hon. Gentleman's particular sense of humour had not escaped me in the past. I do not accept that this will lead to abuse. I believe that politics, whether in this House or outside, is an honourable calling and ought not to be excluded from recognition by the Sovereign.