HC Deb 30 April 1991 vol 190 cc172-7 3.36 pm
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

I now realise, Mr. Speaker, that this might be a touchy subject.

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to abolish political honours; and for connected purposes. Some argue that the honours system should be abolished altogether—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Obviously a number of my colleagues have no expectation of honours to come, and agree that the honours system should be abolished lock, stock and barrel-—or rather, coronet, garter and gong.

I suspect that such a proposal would not be universally popular in the House or in the country as a whole. Most people seem to agree that a country should maintain an honours system that enables the community to express its gratitude to those who have rendered a signal service. I refer to acts of bravery or heroism involving the saving of life; people who have dedicated their lives to the service of others without expectation of preferment or advantage; and those who have enhanced, beautified, or enriched our lives through their contribution to science, the arts, sport or entertainment.

Society will always want to acknowledge such contributions in some fashion, and an honours system is one way. Of course, one cannot beat decent wages and conditions, but the honours system can be an acceptable way of saying thank you. It pleases the recipient, and does not cost the rest of us an arm and a leg.

Unfortunately, the honours system has always been wholly or partially corrupt. Large numbers of those who regard themselves members of today's so-called nobility are nothing more than latter-day beneficiaries of past political, financial, or sexual favours rendered unto past kings, queens and prime ministers. The mind boggles at that latter category.

One recalls the famous quotation of the Rev. John Ball: When Adam dolve, and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? That puts the entire concept of class and nobility into perspective.

In the modern age, Lloyd George blew the gaff on the whole system by playing the part of the honest crook and openly selling honours. The scandal broke with the publication of the 1922 honours list and resulted in the establishment of the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee in 1924 to ensure that the most obviously corrupt nominees for honours were weeded out.

That task has proved difficult for the Committee, which has enjoyed a rather patchy record since 1924. Notwithstanding all its efforts, a large number of honoured individuals have turned out to be traitors, crooks and miscreants.

At present, the noble Lords Shackleton, Pym and Grimond are doing the laundering, and they have a great problem on their hands. However, my Bill—if it were allowed to be introduced—would replace the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee with a joint Select Committee of both Houses.

The honours system undoubtedly continues to give pleasure to recipients, but there is a growing awareness among the public that the system is fixed and decidedly tacky. Indeed, the honours system might better be described in certain vital respects as the kickback or pay-off system. The time has come to make some fundamental and cleansing changes to the entire system.

Many of today's awards do not fall into the categories that I listed. They are not honours bestowed for conspicuous bravery or service but rather the routine gongs handed out in the civil service and military forces on the less than distinguished basis of Buggins' turn. The honours go according to rank in those services and are allocated in a ratio of honours to post holders.

There is a wide range of honours to choose from, since they consist of five degrees of the peerage; one of baronets; 14 knighthoods or orders comprising 11 different methods of securing a knighthood—28 ranks in all, excluding the two Indian and one Irish order which have now lapsed since independence, which account for another seven ranks, plus 27 medals or decorations.

The entire edifice reeks of snobbery and class division. If the Prime Minister meant what he said about a classless society, he could do a lot worse than start on the honours system and eliminate some of those preposterous awards. We know that there are class divisions galore in the civil service and the armed forces. Routine awarding of honours to those people simply reinforces and reflects that class system.

Honours given to civil servants and senior military officers as a matter of course, accompanying their not insubstantial pay and rations, are not worthy of being described as honours. Thus, the next recommendation in my Bill would be to exclude all civil servants and military personnel from receiving routine honours.

The next category of people who should normally be precluded from receiving honours are politicans—[Interruption.] I expected that to go down a lot worse. Since politicians and civil servants decide who is to be recommended for honours, it is no mere coincidence that so many civil servants and politicians receive honours.

In 1979, the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) revised the practice of awarding party political honours. Those honours are used by party Whips and Prime Ministers as a way to exercise control. Honours are employed as an integral and important part of the patronage system, which is so debilitating of principle and integrity in politics today.

Both the right hon. Member for Finchley and her predecessor, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath), justified their use of party political honours on the basis that political parties were integral to the democratic process. One accepts that, but, that being so, why do we not publicly fund political parties and cease the use of the honours system as a way of rewarding time servers in this House and corporate financiers outside it?

Having said that my Bill would normally preclude honours for Members of Parliament, there must still be room for the appointment of working peers to the House of Lords while it exists in its present form—we saw the announcement that was made today.

I now come to the most venal and cynical use of the honours system—as a way of rewarding business men who give money and newspaper editors who give unstinting support to the Conservative party. That practice represents the selling of honours by any other name.

I asked the Labour Research Department—an independent body which is not connected to the Labour party—to collate the money provided by big business to the Tory party since 1979, with the honours received by the chairmen and managing directors of those same companies. I refer only to peerages and knighthoods, and where the company was mentioned in the citation. The statistics show that over £12 million was received by the Tory party from those companies. In return, their chairmen and managing directors received a total of 75 peerages and knighthoods. It works out at a going rate of around £160,000 an honour, a sum which would have pleased Maundy Gregory, Lloyd George's hawker of titles, but which is unlikely to enhance the integrity of the honours system today. My Bill would preclude anyone at board or executive level from accepting an honour if their company has made a donation to a political party, whether Conservative, Liberal Democrat or Labour, so I am being wholly impartial.

The Bill would also exclude working journalists from receiving honours. The recent honouring of the editors of the Daily Express a and the Daily Star by the last Prime Minister was revolting. It was obviously their pay-off for being loyal Tory hacks. Democracy needs impartial and objective media. No self-respecting journalist should ever accept a party political honour. Politicians using the honours system to buy the media is even more dangerous than selling peerages on a street corner.

In short, the honours system has been hijacked by the party political machines, particularly that of the Tory party which shamelessly exploits the system for its own base purposes. If we are to retain an honours system, it should be based on criteria that are publicly known and approved of. It should be restricted to those persons whose services to the community are acknowledged by common consent to be worthy of reward. Excluding time-serving civil servants, politicians, brass hats, Tory business men and hack journalists would be widely welcomed in the country. I seek the leave of the House to introduce my Bill and begin the cleansing process.

3.46 pm
Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)


Mr. Speaker

Is the hon. Gentleman seeking to oppose the Bill?

Mr. Taylor

Yes, I want to oppose it.

Sir Nicholas Fairbairn (Perth and Kinross)


Mr. Taylor

I hope that the House—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) has the right to oppose the Bill.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

What possible point of order can arise on my having called the hon. Member for Southend, East to oppose this ten-minute Bill?

Mr. Canavan

My point of order, Mr. Speaker, is quite admissible. Does not a knight take precedence over a mere commoner?

Mr. Speaker

As the House knows, I need give no reasons for my decision.

Mr. Taylor

After that typical cross comment, I appeal to the House to reject this absurd Bill. I ought to say straight away that I have no personal interest whatsoever in it. Even if the Prime Minister were to offer me a political honour, my wife would stop me taking it because she is more of a democrat than I.

I want to make it abundantly clear that at this stage we must not abolish political honours. By so doing, we should abolish about the only remaining power of a British Prime Minister. Nothing would be worse for the status and morale of our revered Prime Minister and those who may follow him if we took away the one thing that he can do himself.

I shall give three examples. First, this morning in the Court of Appeal, our Sunday trading laws were effectively wrecked, on the basis of an application by some stores which said that our laws were contrary to the treaty of Rome. They won their case. Even if the Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister, the Liberals and all the other political parties want Sunday trading laws, we cannot have them. The decision has been made to dump them, because of the treaty of Rome.

Secondly, we are now all talking about lotteries. We used to be opposed to lotteries, but now we find that Ministers are suddenly thinking that they are a great idea. We have to ask ourselves why. The only reason is that a case is being pursued through the courts by German lottery salesmen who say that it is illegal for us under the treaty of Rome to stop lottery tickets being sold. We know that, and the power has already gone.

Thirdly, there is the potato crisps issue. Surely, if one issue should still be for the House of Commons and the Prime Minister to decide, it is what potato crisps we can produce in Britain. This week, not because the European Parliament or our Parliament wanted it, but simply because Mr. Bangemann had had a bad breakfast, he said that certain potato crisps could not be produced in Britain.

Our glorious Prime Ministers used to make treaties and laws, and Members of Parliament thought they had some meaningful role to play in making laws, spending money and keeping control of it, so for goodness' sake let us retain for our Prime Minister the only effective power that Jacques Delors is willing to let him have—the award of political honours. Let those who want them have them, and let the Prime Minister sit down at his breakfast table and say, "Who will I give this to and who will I give that to?" Quite frankly, there is precious little that a Prime Minister can do. The House should reject the Bill, save the Prime Minister's freedom and integrity and at least let him have something still to do.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 19 ( Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business):

The House divided: Ayes 122, Noes 90.

Division No. 131] (3.50 pm
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley, N.) Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Allen, Graham Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)
Archer, Rt Hon Peter Boyes, Roland
Ashton, Joe Bradley, Keith
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Bray, Dr Jeremy
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE) Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)
Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich) Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)
Barron, Kevin Buckley, George J.
Battle, John Caborn, Richard
Beckett, Margaret Callaghan, Jim
Beith, A. J. Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Canavan, Dennis McNamara, Kevin
Cartwright, John Madden, Max
Clark, Dr David (S Shields) Mahon, Mrs Alice
Clelland, David Marek, Dr John
Cohen, Harry Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Cryer, Bob Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Cunliffe, Lawrence Martin, Michael J. (Springburn)
Dalyell, Tarn Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Darling, Alistair Moonie, Dr Lewis
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Morgan, Rhodri
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'I) Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
Dixon, Don Nellist, Dave
Doran, Frank O'Neill, Martin
Dunnachie, Jimmy Parry, Robert
Eadie, Alexander Patchett, Terry
Eastham, Ken Pendry, Tom
Evans, John (St Helens N) Primarolo, Dawn
Ewing, Harry (Falkirk E) Radice, Giles
Fairbairn, Sir Nicholas Redmond, Martin
Fatchett, Derek Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn
Fearn, Ronald Richardson, Jo
Flannery, Martin Rogers, Allan
Flynn, Paul Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Forsythe, Clifford (Antrim S) Rost, Peter
Foulkes, George Rowlands, Ted
Fyfe, Maria Sedgemore, Brian
Galbraith, Sam Sheerman, Barry
Golding, Mrs Llin Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Gordon, Mildred Short, Clare
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) Skinner, Dennis
Grocott, Bruce Smith, C. (Isl'ton & F'bury)
Hain, Peter Smith, Rt Hon J. (Monk'ds E)
Hardy, Peter Spearing, Nigel
Heal, Mrs Sylvia Steel, Rt Hon Sir David
Hinchliffe, David Steinberg, Gerry
Hood, Jimmy Strang, Gavin
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Hoyle, Doug Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Turner, Dennis
Hughes, Simon (Southwark) Vaz, Keith
Illsley, Eric Wallace, James
Kennedy, Charles Walley, Joan
Kirkwood, Archy Wareing, Robert N.
Leighton, Ron Watson, Mike (Glasgow, C)
Lestor, Joan (Eccles) Welsh, Michael (Doncaster N)
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford) Wigley, Dafydd
Loyden, Eddie Winnick, David
McAllion, John Wray, Jimmy
McCartney, Ian
McFall, John Tellers for the Ayes:
McKay, Allen (Barnsley West) Ms. Diane Abbott and Mr. Jeremy Corbyn.
McKelvey, William
Arbuthnot, James Fox, Sir Marcus
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Goodhart, Sir Philip
Ashby, David Grant, Sir Anthony (CambsSW)
Atkinson, David Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Batiste, Spencer Griffiths, Sir Eldon (Bury St E')
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Grist, Ian
Bevan, David Gilroy Grylls, Michael
Blackburn, Dr John G. Harris, David
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas Haselhurst, Alan
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Hayward, Robert
Boyson, Rt Hon Dr Sir Rhodes Hicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE)
Brazier, Julian Holt, Richard
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's) Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)
Bruce, Ian (Dorset South) Hunter, Andrew
Buck, Sir Antony Jessel, Toby
Butterfill, John King, Roger (B'ham N'thtield)
Carlisle, John, (Luton N) Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)
Clark, Rt Hon Sir William Lawrence, Ivan
Coombs, Simon (Swindon) Lloyd, Sir Ian (Havant)
Cormack, Patrick McCrindle, Sir Robert
Currie, Mrs Edwina Marlow, Tony
Durant, Sir Anthony Marshall, John (Hendon S)
Dykes, Hugh Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd) Meyer, Sir Anthony
Evennett, David Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Fenner, Dame Peggy Molyneaux, Rt Hon James
Monro, Sir Hector Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Montgomery, Sir Fergus Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
Morrison, Rt Hon Sir Peter Soames, Hon Nicholas
Nelson, Anthony Speed, Keith
Neubert, Sir Michael Stanbrook, Ivor
Nicholls, Patrick Stokes, Sir John
Onslow, Rt Hon Cranley Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Page, Richard Taylor, Rt Hon J. D. (S'ford)
Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Thornton, Malcolm
Porter, Barry (Wirral S) Townend, John (Bridlington)
Powell, William (Corby) Tracey, Richard
Price, Sir David Tredinnick, David
Rattan, Keith Ward, John
Riddick, Graham Warren, Kenneth
Roe, Mrs Marion Watts, John
Rowe, Andrew Wheeler, Sir John
Sayeed, Jonathan Woodcock, Dr. Mike
Shaw, David (Dover)
Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb') Tellers for the Noes:
Shersby, Michael Mr. Teddy Taylor and Mrs. Teresa Gorman.
Skeet, Sir Trevor

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Tony Banks, Mr. Bruce Grocott, Ms. Dawn Primarolo, Mr. Don Dixon, Mr. David Winnick, Mrs. Alice Mahon, Mrs. Maria Fyfe, Mr. Paul Flynn, Mr. Martin Redmond, Ms. Diane Abbott, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, Mr. Dennis Skinner and Mr. Harry Cohen.