HC Deb 21 January 2004 vol 416 cc1444-50

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ainger.]

7.29 pm
Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries) (Lab)

I am pleased to have secured this Adjournment debate after a third attempt. In fact, when I first applied for the debate prior to the Christmas recess, I was informed by the Table Office that any questions on the honours system were answered by the Prime Minister and that, because my right hon. Friend does not reply to Adjournment debates, it would be impossible for me to secure such a debate. However, I raised the matter with the Leader of the House at business questions and was relieved to hear that he was of a similar frame of mind to myself and that a Cabinet Office Minister could reply. I am more than delighted to see the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Alexander) in his place this evening to do just that.

For some considerable time I have been extremely anxious about an apparent lack of transparency and openness in our honours system, and I am sure that other hon. Members and the public as a whole are concerned when some people receive honours for one reason or another, but many others in our communities appear to miss out—despite having as good as, if not a stronger, case for recognition of their achievements.

During December The Sunday Times ran an article about the leaking of a secret document by a Whitehall whistleblower. Apparently, according to the article, the minutes of the main honours committee revealed the government's obsession with spin and rewarding Labour sympathisers". Does not the secrecy of the system lend itself to such an accusation, irrespective of which Government are in power?

Honours for purely party-political services were discontinued in 1966, but that policy was reversed under the premierships of Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher, and John Major continued the policy of awarding political honours. However, it would be wrong to say that no attempts have been made in the past to address problems within the system. In fact, as long ago as the premiership of Lloyd George, and following scandals about honours being "bought", we saw the establishment of the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee in 1923. Following the setting up of a royal commission a year earlier to examine the procedures for the award of honours, its report eventually led to the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925. Strangely, there have been no prosecutions under that Act.

There have also been some recent and welcome improvements. In 1998, the Committee on Standards in Public Life under Lord Neill recommended that the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee should be renamed the Honours Scrutiny Committee and that the committee should be asked to scrutinise every case where a nominee for an honour of CBE or above had directly or indirectly donated £5,000 or more to a political party during the preceding five years. The committee should be satisfied that the donation had made no contribution to the nomination for an honour. A further review in 2001, commissioned by Sir Richard Wilson, looked at how the nominations system had developed over the 1990s. The dedicated nominations unit was established and a standard nomination form was produced.

It is the apparent lack of transparency in the honours system and the continuing under-recognition of the unsung heroes in our local communities on which I wish to concentrate my brief comments. Evidence suggests that about 30,000 "live" nominations are currently within the system. An average of 6,000 new nominations come in annually, and about the same number of unsuccessful nominations are taken off the list in order to keep it manageable.

My first point is that anyone making a nomination has no idea whether it is still being considered—unless, of course, the individual that they nominated receives an honour. To the best of my knowledge, no notification is given to those who have taken the time and the effort to submit a nomination. Bearing in mind that for the majority of applications it can take in excess of 18 months before an outcome is determined, I believe that notification of an unsuccessful application should be given. I suggest that, when the decision is made to remove a person's name from the list, all the people who supported the nomination should be informed of the decision not to progress it further. Leaving people in ignorance is no longer an option.

Much media attention was centred on the refusal by the poet Benjamin Zepheniah to accept an OBE. However, it has become clear that refusals are not uncommon. The figures show that, over the past eight or nine years, refusals have averaged about 2 per cent. a year. Undoubtedly, the reasons for that decision vary. If people refuse an honour, that is their choice, but those who have made nominations are entitled to know the outcome.

In recent years, there has been a fairly significant shift in the percentage of awards to people who dedicate so much of their time to voluntary work. I very much welcome that. In the 1994 birthday honours list, only one award in three was given for voluntary service. That figure rose to much nearer 50 per cent. over the next 10 years. In the 1999 new year's honours list, 57 per cent. of awards went to people who did voluntary work. However, I think that a greater percentage—of the order of 75 per cent. or even 80 per cent. of the awards—should go to those unsung heroes who dedicate so much of their time to voluntary service.

A huge number of nominations have been submitted from my constituency. Some of them have my endorsement, as I am aware of the quality of the community work that the people involved have carried out locally. My frustration at the lack of progress being made with the nominations is matched only by that of the people who made the submissions.

As might be expected, local people try—rightly or wrongly—to draw comparisons between the nominations that they have submitted and the awards that are made. Often, they become exasperated when a person who has received one honour then receives a second. That exasperation is even more intense when such recipients are seen to be doing no more than the jobs that they are employed to do.

Inevitably, honours will continue to be bestowed on people who excel in their career or profession. Indeed, it could be argued that too few awards are made to people in professions such as teaching, nursing and social work. However, it is the ordinary men and women who sacrifice their time and effort in the voluntary sector who remain unrepresented.

I mentioned that a number of submissions from my area are still live in the system. They include nominations for those who work with young people in leisure and competitive pursuits, in uniformed youth organisations, and in the arts. There are also nominations for those who work with disabled people of all ages, and for those who work with carers. Many of those people have anywhere between 25 and 45 years' experience of voluntary work, and derive great pleasure from their work with specific groups. However, it is not only their time that they dedicate: all too often, they use their own finances to ensure that the work can continue.

I know that the talent that works on a voluntary basis in Dumfries and Galloway is evident right across our country. None of the people involved began their volunteering with the aim of being rewarded. Seeing young people develop skills and talents, or watching disabled youngsters smile and enjoy themselves, or providing help and support for those who care for loved ones on a daily basis, is reward enough. However, more recognition for their efforts, in the form of an honour, can only boost the morale of the army of volunteers who work so tirelessly. That, surely, is what our honours system should be about.

I understand that individual views about an application are subjective, but I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister accepts that there is concern about the current system. It needs to be either replaced, or significantly overhauled. My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Mr. Wright), as Chairman of the Select Committee on Public Administration, has launched an inquiry into the honours system. I expect that the Committee, under his leadership, will look very closely indeed at what needs to be done if the system is to be improved. I hope that the Committee will undertake a close examination of how awards are given, and to whom, in different parts of the country, and of the variations that arise. From speaking to colleagues in the House, there seem to be significant discrepancies in our communities. Not enough people in the voluntary sector receive awards. In Dumfries and Galloway over the past four years, around 40 people have done so, and only 20 per cent. of those awards went to people in the voluntary sector, even though, as I know only too well, good work is done in my community.

I do not believe that there is enough local involvement in the honours selection process. Local panels should be established to assist with the process of considering applications and to recommend them to a committee of more senior standing that will deal with such matters.

Around three years ago, a television programme was transmitted on the honours system. I did not see it, but I am reliably informed that there was heavy emphasis on the role played by lords lieutenant. Sir Richard Wilson's review of the system in 2001 showed that around 1,200 public nominations a year do not fit into neat departmental categories. That results in their being handled by the ceremonial branch, which appears to obtain views from lords lieutenant. I fully appreciate that lords lieutenant are recognised as Her Majesty's local representatives, but I am not convinced that they necessarily possess full knowledge of an individual's involvement in whatever activity that individual is associated with. Nor do I believe that the average lord lieutenant is necessarily representative of our local communities. I would appreciate it if the Minister could detail the extent to which lords lieutenant are involved in determining whether an application should be taken forward and whether they actually have a say in the final decisions on honours.

As the system stands, in order to bring about fairness, accountability and openness in the selection process, I urge the Public Administration Committee and my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase to consider the secretive nature of the nine honours selection committees. If we are to create public confidence in the system, the committees should begin by naming, and possibly changing, the 54 people who sit on them. In 2001, that Whitehall group was described as a predominantly white, male, elderly elite. In spite of the system's secretive nature, I gather that the average age is 60, that only eight members are women and only two are from ethnic minorities. Two of the committees are still all male.

In the 2003 birthday honours list, only around 37 per cent. of recipients were women, and only 20 per cent. of those who received a CBE or higher were women. Black and ethnic minorities received less than 7 per cent. of the honours awarded, and just 3.5 per cent. of the CBEs or higher. If the honours list is to be as representative as possible of outstanding service and achievement across the whole country, whether in the public, private or voluntary fields, the people involved in the selection process must be representative of the population as a whole.

Finally, I want to mention the titles of the honours. The British empire was an important part of our history, and we should never be allowed to forget its significance. History books show, however, that as well as the positive side of our colonial past, there were many dark sides that should never be forgotten. I question the need to continue to link the empire to our honours system. Today's recipients of an honour are being recognised for their achievements in today's modern world, which brings with it the difficulties of today's modern society. For that reason, I hope that in continuing with an honours system, we can look for a modern system and discontinue the use of the phrase "British empire" in the awards.

I want to make it clear that I congratulate all recipients of honours over the years, and, as a Scot, to say that nothing gave me greater pleasure than seeing England's team winning the rugby world cup. I am delighted that all those who took part were rewarded well. I only ask why the 1966 football team were not rewarded so quickly. I can see that the Minister, as a fellow Scot, wonders why I mention all this. I do it to show that the system can be fast-tracked if necessary. I have no doubt that the awards in the new year's honours list were right.

If we are to retain the awards system and if we are to overcome the growing cynicism towards it, it is time that a modern society in the UK begins to develop an honours system that meets our needs and that is, above all else, open and accountable. I hope, therefore, that my suggestions—proper feedback to those making nominations, more involvement of local communities with local panels considering nominations, an increase in the number of awards to the voluntary sector, a change in the membership of the honours selection committees and an end to references to "British Empire" in the title of awards—will be considered by the Minister. We are embarking on a debate that will inevitably bring the honours system very much to the fore in the months and years ahead.

7.46 pm
The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Douglas Alexander)

I have listened with interest to the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown). Time is pressing this evening, as I understand that he has a Burns supper to attend, and as a fellow Scot, I would not want to come between my hon. Friend and a plate of haggis and neeps. Also as a fellow Scot, it is hard to resist pointing out that the 1966 England football team was defeated by the Scottish team in 1967.

My hon. Friend has raised a number of important points, and I have noted his concerns about the current honours system. I will respond to some of his specific points in a few moments and I will also give a brief overview of the current honours process, but I would like to begin by recognising the fact that, as he pointed out, my hon. Friend experienced difficulty in securing tonight's debate.

The Prime Minister is responsible for the honours system. However, it has been a long-standing convention under successive Administrations that the Prime Minister does not take part in Adjournment debates such as this, and thus it has not in the past been possible to hold a debate on the issue in these circumstances. After my hon. Friend raised the matter with the Leader of the House at business questions on 18 December 2003, I was asked to represent the Prime Minister on this occasion so that my hon. Friend could secure his debate.

As my hon. Friend acknowledged in his introductory remarks, responsibility for the honours system clearly rests with the Prime Minister. To give an example to show how the system works in practice, during my time at the Cabinet Office, on no occasion have I ever had sight of any honours lists before they are published in the London Gazette and the national newspapers, and on the No. 10 website. No other Minister, with the exception of the Foreign Secretary and Secretary of State for Defence—I shall come to that point in a moment—has direct responsibility, except in so far as they may be asked by the permanent secretary of their Department for views on the names that the Department has it in mind to put forward for the next new year or birthday honours list, whether those be the Department's civil servants or individuals who work in its field of expertise.

Advice to the Prime Minister on honours matters comes from the Cabinet Secretary, and the Prime Minister himself makes recommendations to Her Majesty the Queen. The Cabinet Secretary has devolved his involvement in the honours process to Sir Hayden Phillips, permanent secretary at the Department for Constitutional Affairs. The Cabinet Office has managerial responsibility for the ceremonial branch, which co-ordinates the honours system. There is also an honours secretary in the Prime Minister's Office, who gives advice directly to the Prime Minister.

I shall give the House a brief account of the way in which the current honours system operates in the United Kingdom, and I shall then say a little about the review of the system that is currently being carried out under the leadership of Sir Hayden Phillips. As my hon. Friend will know, the Prime Minister's honours lists are published twice a year, on new year's eve and on the Queen's official birthday in June. Each list includes up to 1,000 names. There are also separate lists for the diplomatic and military services, which the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary respectively oversee, and those are published at the same time.

The selection process is independent of Ministers and is based on merit. A series of specialist assessment committees consider all the candidates put forward in a particular field, such as the arts, sport, industry and medicine, and each makes a series of recommendations. These recommendations go forward to a final moderating committee, which looks to achieve a balance of representation and standards across the proposed list. The revised list goes forward to the Prime Minister via the Cabinet Secretary. The Prime Minister may, of course, make changes to the list, but any new names that he adds will be scrutinised for propriety by the honours scrutiny committee before the final list goes forward to Her Majesty the Queen for approval.

Achievement and service at many levels, over a wide variety of fields, have been recognised in a way which has given a great deal of pleasure not only to those honoured, but also to those who have been associated with or benefited from their work.

The honours system has been criticised for being unduly opaque. My hon. Friend has raised concern about the lack of openness and clarity in the current system. That is why I am glad to be able to tell the House that Sir Hayden Phillips is leading a review of the honours system which will look, in particular, at ways in which it can be made more open and transparent, without sacrificing the confidentiality of candidates, recipients and assessors, which is intended to protect them against undue interference or intervention. I wish Sir Hayden Phillips well with his review and look forward to seeing the outcome, probably within the next few months.

I note that the Public Administration Committee is also currently conducting an inquiry into the honours system, and my hon. Friend may wish to feed into that inquiry his observations on the need to notify those making nominations of their progress, or indeed on the names of specific honours, and any other observations that he may have on the honours system in general. I—and no doubt many other hon. Members—look forward to seeing the Committee's report on this matter in due course.

My hon. Friend raised the specific issue of tracking where applications are in the honours process, and of notification of unsuccessful applications. It is true that under the current system people who have nominations are not routinely informed of progress. However, I would encourage any hon. Members concerned about progress to contact directly the ceremonial secretariat, which will be able to provide an update on the progress of a particular application.

In answer to my hon. Friend's question about the extent of the involvement of the lords lieutenant in the honours process, I have been informed that they are consulted about candidates nominated for services at a very local level, to obtain a local assessment of the merit of the nominations. I have also been informed that the views of lords lieutenant are taken into account by the assessment committees, but that they play no part in the final decision-making process.

I now turn to the important matter of the people who actually receive the awards. On each Prime Minister's list there will be some 30 to 35 awards at the level of knight or dame and 120 at companion or commander level, for people who have made important and inspirational contributions at a national or regional level. The remainder of the awards will be at OBE and, for more than half the list, at MBE level, on occasion reflecting the very local contribution made not just by the traditional lollipop lady, but by people such as scout leaders, ward nurses, parish councillors, lifeboat men and many, many more.

I am informed that nearly half of all the awards in any one list go to people who are involved in one way or another in voluntary work, and half the people on the list will have been nominated by, or supported by, members of the public. Contrary to recent press speculation, these are not people who have been selected on political lines. I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating all his constituents, and indeed those of other hon. Members, who have been rightly recognised for their exceptional achievement or service by the award of an honour.

I have listened to the concerns and frustrations with the current honours system so clearly set out by my hon. Friend. I conclude with my own hope that the review led by Sir Hayden Phillips and the inquiry being carried out by the Public Administration Committee will at least go some way to meet the expectations of all those, including my hon. Friend, who have expressed views, both positive and negative, on the way in which the honours system currently operates.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Eight o'clock.