HL Deb 04 March 2002 vol 632 cc101-20

8.18 p.m.

Lord Dubs

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will review the operation of the honours system.

The noble Lord said: I welcome the opportunity of making some proposals about the working of the honours list, which annually honours 2,000 people, half of them in the new year list and half in the birthday list. It is not my intention to be critical of individuals who have received honours, even if I go on to be critical of the system through which the honours have been obtained. I know some individuals who have achieved honours in a way that, I believe, should not be the case in the future. Nor do I wish to take issue with the Queen's own list of honours, which, I think, is called the Royal Victorian Order. This debate is about honours given out by the Government and the state.

I do not suggest that there should be any changes in the granting of honours for bravery in the Armed Forces or for equivalent acts of courage by civilians. Nor do I wish to get embroiled in allegations that honours are sometimes a reward for political donations. That has been the case in the past; I trust and believe that it is no longer true.

I also welcome the reforms of the honours system initiated under the Conservative government by John Major when he was Prime Minister and continued by the present Government. My contention is that more needs to be done if we are to modernise the system.

As regards this House, I welcome the Government's intention to make a clear distinction between being a Member in the future and having a title. That is the Government's intention as stated in the White Paper and I trust that it will be carried through in the legislation when it comes forward.

I also welcome what the Government have done in abolishing the concept of honours for political services and in putting more emphasis on ordinary people and on education, the NHS, law and order and the voluntary sector.

I now turn to my key points. I want to make only seven proposals for change. First, I want to see abolished the present hierarchy of honours, the more so as they are directly related to the status or seniority of the recipient. Who receives knighthoods as against who receives MBEs? I do not believe that it is right. It is wrong in principle to devalue, by implication, the many people who receive the lower level of honours.

Perhaps I may say as an aside that I await the day when the chief executive of a multinational company receives an MBE and his driver a knighthood. That is absurd, and it would not happen in our society. But if we can change the way in which the honours system works we shall have a better approach.

I believe that the Government have not yet done enough to stop the practice of seeming to give honours, virtually automatically, to people in senior positions in business, industry and the Civil Service. It is wrong to use honours merely to reward success. They should not be based on rank, occupation or status. In principle. I am against giving honours to people merely for doing their jobs, be it in business, industry or the Civil Service, or even in areas such as entertainment, sport and politics. I know of two senior civil servants who declined the honour which normally goes with the rank they achieved in their departments.

My key point is that honours should mainly be given for voluntary efforts in the community to people who have put in the extra effort, often without reward, to help others. Perhaps I may give examples of people I know. When I was at the Refugee Council a member of my executive committee was Mrs Novotna who received an OBE for services to refugees. I attended a number of parties at which the Polish community, of which she was a member, celebrated that fact. She gave her work to all refugees, not just to Polish refugees. It was heart-warming to see the pleasure and enthusiasm with which her friends and colleagues in the Polish community and other refugees greeted the reward of an honour. It made such a difference to her and many other people; a difference which I do not believe is made to those who receive knighthoods and so forth at the other end of the scale.

More recently, Mrs Jeannie Hope received an M BE in the honours list. She lives in the village in which I have a home in the Lake District and she received her award for services to the local community in Cumbria. She has, for example, been secretary to the Loweswater annual show for 24 years; she has been secretary of the local village hall; she has been involved in the League of Friends at Cockermouth Hospital; and she represented Cumberland on behalf of the women's institute at a ceremony in London. She has done much in the local community; all a voluntary unstinting effort on her part for others.

I agree that in exceptional cases it might be appropriate to give honours to people who have done exceedingly well in their jobs or professions. However, the emphasis would have to be on "exceptional effort" in such work. If not, we shall merely be returning to the principle, "With the job goes an honour", which surely we do not want.

I also believe—here I may be entering a more contentious area—that we should no longer use the titles of our honours to reflect the British Empire. It is out of date; the Empire has gone and we now have a Commonwealth. I do not believe that we should any longer have a list of titles all of which pretend or suggest that we are still an imperial power. We are not—it is not the case—and we should move on.

Furthermore, honours should in no way be related to titles, not just for the future Members of this House but generally. Honours should not involve being called "Sir", "Dame", or whatever. We should have a simple system but I have not thought of what the titles should be. Perhaps they should be an order of merit, but that might be confused with the existing Order of Merit. Australia has an Order of Australia and perhaps we could have a United Kingdom order. I believe we should have something of that sort which is simple.

I am open-minded about whether there should be more than one grade of that honour. My inclination is probably not but I would need to be assured that in becoming hierarchical the defects of the present system would not be repeated.

There appears to have been a regional bias in honours towards London and the South East and mainly at the higher level. Those who receive those higher levels tend to have jobs associated with London and the South East. Incidentally, the lower level of honours were evenly scattered across the country, which says something else about how the system works.

Furthermore, we need to consider the situation in the devolved administrations. Perhaps they should have the right to recommend honours. As regards Northern Ireland, of which I have experience, I am concerned that some nationalists do not feel able to accept honours because of the imperial connotation in the nomenclature. That is not my only reason for saying that we should not have Orders of the British Empire and so forth, but it is an additional argument.

Finally, I believe that responsibility for granting honours should be removed from the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Office and given to an entirely independent commission, somewhat on the model of the committee which elects Cross Bench Peers. I hope it will work a bit better than that committee—no disrespect to those who came by that system. I had better be careful! I do not believe that the system worked very well although it produced some excellent people. However, I believe that an independent commission would be the best way of granting honours because it would be totally removed from the political process and from government.

If the Government feel it necessary to consider further before making the changes I have suggested, there might be a case for having a Royal Commission. However, that is often a way of batting a subject into touch for years so I would rather the Government dealt with the matter.

In short, I am looking for an honours system which reflects a modern 21st century country. That is what we are and that is the system we ought to have to reflect the work which our fellow citizens do mainly on a voluntary basis for the rest of the community.

8.27 p.m.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for raising this issue. As former colleagues on the Broadcasting Standards Commission, which the noble Lord now chairs. I have always had a high regard for his opinions even though, as today, we shall probably not agree on every detail.

I have two interests to declare. First, I am a Member of this House and, secondly, I am a Commander of the British Empire. I would be sad if that were abolished—but then I would say that, wouldn't I?

First, I want to make plain my firm belief in the value of an honours system. I share that view with the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. As in many other countries, it is a widely respected way of expressing public recognition of an individual's service and/or achievement. And I would argue that it has overall stood the test of time. When I say that, it is to acknowledge that our system has rich historical roots.

My second point is that we are far from being alone in that. Let us take, for example, France which has at least nine major orders of merit and dozens of minor ones. The best knows is the Legion D'Honneur which was founded in 1802 by the first Consul of the Republic, Napoleon Bonaparte himself. Two thousand awards are made each year, on New Year's Day and Bastille Day, and there are well over 100,000 members.

Perhaps the most notable feature in the context of this debate is that even in the revolutionary birthplace of fraternity and equality the most prestigious order is divided into no fewer than five ranks or classes from Chevalier to Grand-Croix. Their second order, Ordre National de Merite, created by de Gaulle in 1963, has over 200,000 members and so on.

Other great democracies are not so different. The United States, for example, has several awards and orders dating back perhaps not surprisingly to 1776 and 1861, but again there are more than a dozen other awards, most of them established over the past half century.

Some criticisms of how the honours system can be used have been legitimate, but now they are substantially dealt with and kept under review, as has been acknowledged by the noble Lord. For example, 1 cite the undue linkage between honours and political contributions. Such aspects have been considered on at least two occasions over the past century. The 1920s and 1930s saw the Lloyd-George scandals, while recently recommendations were made by the committee under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Neill, and endorsed by the Government's response in July 1999.

However, other kinds of criticism continue to recur, in particular the percentage of honours awarded to public servants again, as has already been pointed out, almost automatically. Those awards appear to "come with the rations", going to what sometimes looks like a rather random sample. I agree with the principle that has been spelt out that honours should be awarded for actions over and above the requirements of any job or profession, but that does not mean that public servants should be excluded from consideration. Often they perform well above the call of duty, and often too in difficult and dangerous situations. It is also right to acknowledge that during John Major's time in Downing Street, a substantial shift was made towards recognising the unsung and under-recognised voluntary pillars of the local community.

Even so—I come to my third point—I agree with the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that the shift in emphasis could and should be taken further. For example, it is still surprising that, given how much voluntary work at the grass roots, regional and national levels is carried out by women, comparatively so few women still figure in the Honours List, in particular in the very top grades. Overall, I am glad to say that the percentage has risen from 30 per cent to 40 per cent. We must give credit to this Government for that.

But I must not fail to make my fourth point, if only because it is the one that I wish to emphasise the most. I believe that we need to move decisively towards a much more open and transparent system. I should like to support that point by sharing with noble Lords my experience of an operation in this kind of openness in which I was lucky enough to take part some 40 years ago.

I was appointed by the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Gardiner, to serve on the Advisory Committee on the Appointment of Magistrates for Inner London. Our chairman was none other than the redoubtable Lord Denning. I arrived to find that our names were not disclosed to the public—I was reliably informed that the members of the committee were terrified that they would be lobbied. The sole source of "recommendations" were lists from each of the three political parties. From those we 'were expected to choose a given number and pass them on to the Lord Chancellor for formal appointment.

Well, we soon put a stop to that. We decided to make full use of the media, saying who we were, what qualities and experience we were looking for and inviting individuals to apply or to he put forward with references from those who knew them well within their own communities. I can still remember the concerns expressed to the effect that we would be inundated with applications from cranks and lunatics.

What we actually got was a much wider and more comprehensive cross section of the whole community, which we duly sifted and then interviewed. We were then able to submit to the Lord Chancellor a, in my view, much better qualified and well balanced list of potential magistrates. I believe that today—I certainly hope it is the case—all such advisory committees are equally transparent and accountable.

That is the background against which we should be looking for a much more open system for awarding honours. Today there is, I believe, at least a little more transparency, at least for those who take the trouble to ask about how to apply. But why is not information of this kind made much more widely available to the public at Consignia offices, on the Internet, or in broadcast and newspaper adverts? That should be done, together with more information about the kind of candidates that are being sought, how long the process is likely to take and the guidelines by which the system will make its judgments.

I have to say, from my own experience and that of many others who have put forward names, that there appears to be complete bafflement at how and, above all, by whom the choices are made and what, if any, logic is applied. There appears to be a network of nameless and faceless committee members, which is in complete contrast to today's arrangements for selecting members of the magistracy or, indeed—as was pointed out by the noble Lord—for appointing independent Members of your Lordships' House, and all appointments that are made or are under review by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments.

Beyond that, there is little or no feedback on why some names with wide and well-founded support that are put forward repeatedly over many years are riot chosen. Is it because they do not measure up or because the list's quota of, say, OBEs has been used up and they would be considered again in six months' time? All one ever sees is a uniquely bland, uniquely uninformative formalised response.

If one needs a model for an apparently far-reaching change of the kind one would like to see, then one need only to look to Australia—again, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. Incidentally, that country is still one of Her Majesty's dominions, but with a system fundamentally transformed in its method of operation. There is complete openness about how it works and about how the ordinary citizen can make it work. Above all, the people who run it are known.

In our own country, we still do not know who makes these judgments. Are they entirely civil servants or entirely "experts" in each field of "expertise"? Are they sufficiently representative of the outside world—by which I mean representative of both sexes and proportionately of the races that we have within our country? Is there a regular turnover of the membership? I realise of course that the answers may not be as simple as the questions imply, but surely we can make a start on achieving greater transparency and accountability in this whole area.

8.37 p.m.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for introducing this Unstarred Question for debate. In speaking I remind the House that I have an interest as a serving officer in the Territorial Army. I am just about to be awarded my Territorial Decoration, the TD.

The noble Lord referred to the reform of this House. I do not think that we should separate the peerage from the membership of this House, but I do think that it ought to be possible to be a Member of this House without having to be a Peer or a Lord.

I have some sympathy with the noble Lord's identification of the defects of the current system, but he will not be surprised if I do not agree with many of his solutions.

The noble Lord referred to the last government. They made two significant changes to the honours system affecting the Armed Forces. First, they stopped awarding the British Empire Medal, the BEM, because in future all awards were to be that of the Member of the Order of the British Empire, the MBE. It was seen as an equality measure, but I believe that it created a problem for the Armed Forces. Previously, other ranks were awarded the BEM and officers the MBE. The problem is that now soldiers have to compete with officers for an award. The fact of the matter is that there will be a ration or quota for each endeavour. Therefore no matter how good or how exceptional an NCO or warrant officer might be, he will not be able to affect the outcome of an endeavour in the way that an officer can.

Commanders expend a great deal of effort in writing up recommendations for an honour or award, but there is no incentive to write them up if there is very little chance of success. Of course, this exacerbates the problem of soldiers competing with officers. Will the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House consider reintroducing the BEM—and many more of them—perhaps with investiture by a senior member of the Royal Family rather than by Her Majesty?

If we follow the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and have no more ranking of awards, we shall have problems with other awards similar to those I have described in regard to the MBE and BEM.

The second change made by the previous government was to discontinue the award of the Military Medal. In future all recipients would be awarded the Military Cross. I fully supported that because I could see no difference in acts of gallantry between officers and soldiers.

Noble Lords should not underestimate the motivational value of a gallantry award. I well recall private conversations in the Officers' Mess before deploying on a operation. The officers were very mature, but there is no doubt that if the opportunity arose they would "go for it". That is not surprising as all officers and NCOs are programmed and selected on that basis. Fortunately, on that operation few opportunities arose anywhere—it was a stable operation—but it could have gone wrong at any time. Furthermore, being in a logistic unit further reduced the opportunities.

The British Armed Forces are very parsimonious about awards. The members of the Armed Forces understand that and are extremely disparaging of some US servicemen who have a chest full of medals and have yet to carry out one military operation. It is also well understood that an award to one serviceman reflects well upon the whole unit.

The Army Medals Office administers army medals and decorations. The other two services will have similar organisations. I remind the House of my interest but I have no difficulty myself. The staff are dedicated and provide a reliable service. However, I detect a perception that it is a bit slow to process applications. In view of the continuing high level of operations, will the noble and learned Lord check to ensure that the Army Medals Office is adequately resourced?

Lord Lieutenants' certificates of meritorious service are awarded to members of the volunteer reserves and to some civilian organisations. As an officer commanding, every year I received a letter from the secretary of TAVRA, the Territorial Army Volunteer Reserve Association. I had to nominate three soldiers for consideration by a committee. Two would be accepted for an award and one would be rejected. This had been going on for several years before I arrived and, as a result, I found that I had no really deserving soldier left. But the TAVRA letter stated that finding no suitable candidates would be "sheer idleness". If I received a letter like that from my commanding officer accusing me of sheer idleness, I would go to him and ask him whether he still required my services.

It got to the position where I was going through the company's nominal roll to select the least undesirable option. I had an excellent company but few of the soldiers were outstanding. It is particularly galling and distasteful to have to write up one of the nominations to ensure that he was not selected. I did not want a mistake to be made; I wanted the two best soldiers to receive the award. Unfortunately, the soldiers could easily see that most recipients were not really outstanding. Consequently the utility of the award was lost.

I do not know whether the noble and learned Lord can mitigate the problem, but it would be helpful if he encouraged the chain of command to state categorically that units should never have to make nominations for any award.

In conclusion, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that the system could be improved. I am certain that we should explore the matter further

8.44 p.m.

Lord Parekh

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Dubs for initiating this extremely important debate.

It goes without saying that every country has some way of distinguishing and honouring those citizens who deserve well of it either by virtue of their professional achievements or their social and political service. The system of honours reflects and reinforces a country's sense of national identity and, therefore, cannot be judged independently of what we think ourselves to be.

Our honours system has changed over the years because our conception of who we are as a country has changed over the years. Going back to 1398, when the Order of the Garter was established, we have had around 14 important changes in the honours system, one of the latest being the Order of the British Empire, which has been with us since 1917. The Order of the Indian Empire was discontinued in 1947.

I mention this simply to indicate that our system of honours has changed over the years. Because it has changed over the years we need to look at it carefully from time to time to see whether it is keeping pace with new circumstances. It is in that spirit that I wish to make half a dozen what I consider to be important suggestions.

First, the British Empire ended a few decades ago and the five honours associated with it need a new vocabulary or a new nomenclature. This is particularly important because we are still finding it difficult to come to terms with our post-imperial identity. A change in name would greatly assist the process of self-understanding. I have no immediate alternatives to MBE, OBE or CBE, but it is not beyond our imagination to think of some. The "Empire" could be replaced with the "Commonwealth", or we could think in terms of nomenclatures such as "Admirable Citizen", AC; "Distinguished Citizen", DC; or even "Most Distinguished Citizen", MDC.

Secondly, although over the years our honours system has become more broad-based and representative of our cultural and social diversity, it still remains a little too narrow. Some groups of people, such as civil servants, MPs, political activists and those in London and the South East, tend to receive a larger share of honours than others. Those who receive less than the proposed share of honours include people such as nurses, school teachers, journalists, social workers and those engaged in the voluntary services. Ethnic minorities for years were poorly represented. Although this has changed during the past few years, on a very quick calculation I reckon that at present the ethnic minorities, which constitute 7 per cent of the population, have received no more than 1.2 per cent of the total honours. Even these largely under-represented groups tend to be clustered at the bottom of the hierarchy. This is a problem of representation at different levels of the hierarchy and among different groups of society and needs to be looked at carefully.

My third suggestion is of a different kind. The honours lists that are published twice a year are rarely subject to parliamentary debate. I am not suggesting that they should be subjected to parliamentary scrutiny—that would create its own problems—but they should be the subject of debate of the kind that we are having today. The point of the debate would be to look at the basic categories of people who have received honours and at the principles which guided who receives what. In the course of that debate we could lay down the guiding principles for the future allocation of honours.

Fourthly, although we do honour foreign nationals—increasingly so in recent years—we do not seem to have a coherent policy on the subject. To the best of my knowledge, we have no system of honouring those people in other countries who help to promote British interests or who have contributed to building a better understanding between their countries and ours. The French have such a system and we should give the matter some attention. For a country like ours, with global political, commercial and cultural interests, a way of honouring foreign nationals who have contributed in their own countries to the promotion of our national interest has a great deal to be said for it.

Fifthly, we currently have nearly a dozen different categories of honours; and the distinctions between them are not entirely clear. It would be useful to rationalise the system. One way to do that would be to set up a Royal Commission.

Finally, unlike honours in almost all other countries, some of our honours carry titles. As my noble friend Lord Dubs pointed out, they create and ostentatiously assert a culture of social inequality. To be called "Sir So-and-so" or "Lord So-and-so" tends to encourage an attitude of superiority on one side and one of deference on the other. These seductive and even addictive titles nurture a culture that has not served us very well in the past and may need to he combated in years to come if we want to be a fully democratic society.

8.51 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I. too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for introducing the debate. It has provided some interesting insights into the honours system. I congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, on the decoration that he is to receive in recognition of his great contribution to the Territorial Army. He offered an interesting insight when he said that it all depended on "how you wrote people up". I envisaged situations in which many of us might put pen to paper to offer an enthusiastic, but somewhat flawed, proposal which might lead to that person not receiving the award that he or she was hoping to receive.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, about the importance of dropping references to the British Empire. That seems to me an astonishingly anachronistic award. However, I worry slightly about including an adjective in an award—for example, "distinguished" citizen. In the United States, where I sometimes teach, there is now the special category of "distinguished professor". A professor does not have to prove that he is distinguished; he is simply called "distinguished". I can imagine the possibility of an innovation in this House. We might have the "noble and sociable Lord", the "noble and fun-loving Lord", or the "noble and truly serious Lord". The possibilities are extremely exciting and would doubtless add greatly to the enjoyment of our debates.

I want to express my sympathy with the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. I believe that we are now looking at something of an "alphabet soup" of awards—infinitely complicated. In the days when people devoted vast attention to patronage, it was no doubt interesting to be GCMG rather than KCMG, or whatever it might be. I feel that we have gone past that period of time and that we ought to remove what might be described as the Gilbert and Sullivan aspects of our honours system.

My party would like to see a straightforward system. I do not disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Howe of Idlicote, that we need some way of recognising outstanding public service or personal actions. But that could probably be in two broad areas—for example, a form of order of merit which might be much more generally extended for outstanding public service, and a form of George Cross which might be much more greatly extended for forms of individual courage and outstanding contribution.

It is only right to pay considerable credit to the former Prime Minister, John Major. He introduced a clear and sensible approach to the honours system when he said that it should recognise "self-sacrifice and generosity". That is an astonishing pair of nouns. But the more you think about it, the more you recognise that that is indeed a basis on which someone might be honoured by society.

I share the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, that we need to widen the system. All of us know people who labour in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. I can think of at least two or three people who worked in extremely poor communities in Liverpool year after year. They still have no honour of any kind. Yet the work they did in holding those communities together far outstrips what might be described as a reputable public office which, after 30 years, leads finally to a knighthood because that always comes with the rations. That is not a very good basis on which to award honours. My plea is that we should recognise not only voluntary service but also service to local communities as a strong basis on which to award honours.

It is said that fools rush in where angels fear to tread, so I shall spend just a few minutes being a fool. It is difficult to avoid the tricky issue of the relationship between honours and political donations. I shall not be partisan or personal, but I want to make a few remarks about the issue.

In the past, we had a situation that was deeply troubling. No one on these Benches can forget that one of our great forefathers was the great Prime Minister, Lloyd-George. One of his most attractive characteristics was not an excessive respect for financial probity. Indeed, he financed the early stages of my party—before it became upright but poor, as it is today—by selling honours fairly generally. Incidentally, although he is often presented as unique in that respect, most of us who know our history recognise that the practice was more widely followed than just by one particular Prime Minister or one particular party.

We have moved away from the crude auctioneering of honours—but not entirely. Perhaps I may quote Robert Blackburn, who wrote a book entitled The Electoral System in Britain, which was published in 1999. He stated: Critics of the operation of the modern-day honours system do not suggest that open arrangements are made for the sale of honours, but it is widely accepted that substantial political donations buy goodwill and substantially enhance the likelihood of being considered for an honour, and the overall prospects of receiving one". Mr Blackburn made it plain that he was not referring only to political honours. That may be the important point. He was referring to other, high honours—in regard to which, if someone has been a loyal and generous donor to a political party, can tip the balance towards receiving an honour rather than not receiving one. It is important that we have proper system of scrutiny.

I have a worry about scrutiny. The Political Honours Scrutiny Committee—a body of undoubted reputation which we all hold in high respect—consisting of three Privy Counsellors, was invited as a result of the fifth report of the Neill committee to examine not only political honours but also honours where a political donation might be influential; in other words, where it might just tip the balance between the honour being awarded and a decision not to award it. The committee's remit has been extended to cover the difficult area of those who are given an honour, not for political reasons, but for other reasons, but who nevertheless were active in politics and who may have been active supporters financially of a particular political party.

Here we come head-on to the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. The difficulty, as I understand it, for the scrutiny committee is to try to obtain the information that it needs to do a proper job of scrutiny. As we all know, the information about political donations rests with the Electoral Commission and not with any other committee. That may well be as it should be.

However, we must consider whether a system in which it is still the case that the Chief Whip is the person who has ultimate authority in terms of someone's record and probity is a satisfactory system at the beginning of the 21st century. I very much doubt that it is. I have the greatest respect for Chief Whips—indeed, if I did not say so, my Chief Whip, on reading Hansard tomorrow, would take me sharply to task. Nevertheless, Chief Whips, although nearly omniscient, are not totally omniscient. It is doubtful whether a Chief Whip, however busy, can know all that there is to know about the reputation and probity of, let us say, 500 or even 300 individuals. None of us can do that—and Chief Whips cannot do it either.

My question to the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House is: will he tell us something about the extent to which the databases of the Electoral Commission and the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee can be brought together? I recognise that there are real problems because of the Data Protection Act and also because of legal difficulties. It is important that we have full information without invading people's privacy, so that people know that they will be looked at in these terms.

Secondly, will the noble and learned Lord tell us something about the transition period in which, as I understand it from the White Paper, the database of the Electoral Commission would be built up. It could he as long as three to five years; and given that, the White Paper was published in 1999, we must be getting reasonably close to the point at which the transitional provision period will be over. Perhaps the Leader of the House can say something about that.

As with all late evening debates in the House of Lords, we have learnt all sorts of fascinating things. I reiterate that, like other Members of the House, I feel that there is a strong case for an honours system, which is a useful way of recognising outstanding merit. However, there appears to be a fairly broad consensus that that should be merit not simply by seniority and the passing of time but because one has gone beyond the proper expectations of the work that one does in one's office. Honours should not be linked to class structures any more, although I take the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, about military decorations. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord could say something about that.

Finally, there is the serious issue of ensuring that, while nobody should discourage honourable and openly stated political donations, the honours system is proof against political donations as a way into that system. We would all be less than honest if we did not recognise that over the past century the two have sometimes been much too closely interlinked. I look forward to the answers from the noble and learned Lord and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for raising these many issues.

9.1 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, I suppose that I should start by declaring an interest, as I have the honour to be a member of the Privy Council and a knight, as well as a Member of your Lordships' House—although whether the membership of this House was awarded as an honour or as an appointment is not for me to speculate. We are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for initiating this interesting short debate.

The current British honours system retains a value for our national life out of all proportion to its costs. Honours matter to people and are appreciated by all who receive them, including foreigners such as the mayor of New York, who recently received an honour, as well as British citizens, right the way down to school crossing wardens. I wish to see the system maintained—or perhaps "conserved" would be a better word, because I do not mean that it should never change.

One of the advantages of the system is its flexibility and the different ways in which it has been used over the years. Small but significant changes happen comparatively frequently. To a certain extent they happen all the time because each honours list is a hit different from its predecessor. However, it should change only slowly and almost imperceptibly to maintain its necessary mystique and traditions, although some of the honours are not as old as they seem.

With respect to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, to try to introduce too much logic into the system seems to me to be a mistake. What logic is there in naming the highest order in the land after a garter? Where is the logic in naming an order after the bath? Nevertheless, those things count and have acquired prestige over many centuries. The Order of the British Empire is quite modern by comparison. In general, honours are not a suitable candidate for modernisation as it is sometimes understood these days. In any case, it usually means that things look dated more quickly.

The honours system is sometimes discussed as if it were somehow inextricably bound up with this country being a monarchy. In fact, just as we would presumably have a president or some other person as head of state if we had no monarch, I am sure that we would also have a new honours system but without the history of our present system. Such a system would have all the present system's disadvantages but no advantages. Virtually all the republics in Europe and throughout the world have state honours systems—they are just not as respected as ours. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, may not appreciate titles, but they are appreciated abroad and they help our diplomatic and other efforts overseas.

Many honours in this country and elsewhere are not awarded by the Crown. These days, the Crown is not the only fount of honour. For example, universities have elaborate honours systems, including honorary degrees, emeritus professorships and various other special titles, such as visitor. Some, notably emeritus professorships, confer a form of title on the individual concerned. Sometimes they are for academic achievement, sometimes they are for distinction in other fields and sometimes, I am told, they are for donating money to the university, particularly to allow the foundation of a new school or facility.

The Church of England also awards honorary degrees in divinity and in music. Some dioceses appoint honorary lay canons from lay people who have served the Church in that area. The Roman Catholic Church creates knights, sometimes primarily for their heredity and sometimes as a recognition of their services to the Church. Local authorities create honorary aldermen and give the freedom of their city or borough to distinguished citizens or other people who have served the borough.

One could go on with other examples. Many societies, charities and clubs recognise service or achievement by making people patrons, vice-presidents or honorary members. There is an enormous variety of honours that have nothing to do with the Crown.

For that reason, I do not object to the fact that direct service to the state—or to the Crown, as we express it in this country—through the Civil Service or the Armed Forces or in other ways is heavily represented in the Crown honours lists twice a year. It seems to me right that the state should recognise those who serve it well in high posts—and sometimes in lowly posts—as well as those who serve the community in other ways. From a practical point of view, it is certainly motivational and encourages people to serve the state and to strive for the highest offices in these highly competitive times, even though they are not generally as well paid as comparable jobs elsewhere. As for ironing out some of the gradations in honours, I understand the argument for it. However, by having a hierarchy of ranks one can repeat the motivation at different stages of the individual's career in the public service.

I realise that if the contestants on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" were asked to arrange the KBE, the CBE, the OBE and the MBE in order of seniority most of them would fail, as would most of those on the Clapham omnibus or in the public bar of most pubs. Nevertheless, as my noble friend Lord Attlee said, in the course of his improvements to the honours system my right honourable friend John Major amalgamated the MBE and the BEM and in doing so made the most significant single change. Although it may not sound much, the crucial difference is that, whereas the BEM was presented by the Lord Lieutenant, the head of a Civil Service department or a senior person in the Armed Forces, the MBE is presented at Buckingham Palace at a full investiture.

I had personal experience of that when my ministerial driver was honoured. She had driven me for some years while I was in various government posts, and driven other ministers for much longer, until she was a very senior driver in the service—as well as being an excellent one, with a first-class knowledge of London. She was honoured after John Major's changes were made. Therefore, instead of the BEM she received the MBE. When she went to the Palace I drove her and I waited in the Palace quadrangle during the investiture.

Should the amalgamation process go further? I think that change will be a matter of degree and that the process will make little difference in practice. I therefore do not think that it should have a high priority.

It was left to almost the end of our debate for the noble Baroness, Lady Williams—the successor in office to the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd-George, in some respects; well, not quite, but very nearly—to raise the issue of political honours, particularly when donations might be involved. We all want reassurance that the preventive mechanisms, including the law itself, work in these cases. However, speaking as a Chief Whip, may I say that we do not rely only on our own judgment in these matters. We have sources of information that are helpful in answering the questions from the Honours Scrutiny Committee. We do have to nominate someone within the political party hierarchy to answer the difficult questions when they are asked. Perhaps there is a better person than the Chief Whip to do that but I am not sure who that person is.

In general, I think that the honours system should evolve and adapt gradually. It was altered and opened up considerably, and quite rightly, by my right honourable friend John Major. However, it is a worthwhile and valuable system. It also depends on its history and tradition. For that reason, to change it drastically would be to damage it seriously. We should value our traditions and their continuity. They are what make our country different and special.

9.11 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, it is on occasions such as this that I miss with deep nostalgia the high noon day of the imperial dynasty of Japan in all its pomp and the Ming dynasty in China with all its certainties. I had thought that perhaps appearing before me this evening there might have been a philosophic chasm with those to the right and those to the left, but all are in the middle. No one seems to think that there is anything really wrong that could not be improved, and that is a very useful platform from which I may develop my brief thoughts.

This is a very distinguished House, of course. It would not be commonly known to all—some might be ignorant of this—but we have with us this evening, although not speaking, a holder of the Order of the Lion of Finland and also a holder of the Grand Cross (Second Class) of the Federal Republic of Germany. I am simply reminding the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, and others of my friends—not present this evening, but constantly in my thoughts—who hold the Order of the Rose (Silver) Bulgaria 1991 and the Grand Official Order of the Southern Cross (Brazil) 1997. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, is a holder of the Commander Cross of the Order of the Merit of the Republic of Poland; the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, is a member of the Order of Francisco de Miranda (Venezuela); and the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, is a member of the Order of the White Lion—definitely first class—of the Czech Republic. So, in some ways, I think that your Lordships have approached this deeply serious matter with a degree of superficiality which I hope that my researchers have corrected.

There is lots to be said for country lawyers—Robespierre was one—although no one has adopted the creed of the Sea-green Incorruptible, who probably would have had nothing to do with honours of any sort. I noticed that, according to the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, in 1802, Napoleon Bonaparte introduced in France some rather plebeian honours. But he soon recognised the error of his ways because he made himself emperor quite soon thereafter.

In the old, sad days of the Conservative Party, one of the honours that whips offered, in strong competition, was the order of the double cross; but so many people might have been eligible for it that even the chief whips got tired. I remember when President Nixon's nominee for the Supreme Court was robustly thrown out by the Judiciary Committee on the basis that the nominee was "utterly mediocre and talentless", to which the indefatigable Nixon said, "Utterly mediocre and talentless people should be recognised and rewarded just the same as everyone else".

In the comparative calm of your Lordships' House, perhaps the most distinguished recent statesman was Mr Gladstone. He was born Gladstone and died Mr Gladstone; and in some ways perhaps had the last laugh on us all. Even the great Cromwell accepted the designation of Lord Protector although I believe that he declined the crown. The question is this. Is the desire for an honours system simply the maggot in the apple? Is it because humankind is irretrievably flawed and failed, too weak and enfeebled to live without an honours system; or is it that, by and large, we think that it does a certain amount of good and no real harm? I suspect from what noble Lords have said that the latter ringing endorsement is the one that your Lordships feel appropriate.

Last weekend, I was reading Andrew Roberts' biography of the Marquess of Salisbury. As noble Lords know I have a deeply sad life and I turned to read that book. Salisbury spent so much time on the issue realising, as he is quoted in the book as saying, that most of the supplicants for honours did not want them for themselves; they wanted them to irritate and annoy their friends and colleagues who were not going to have them. That seems a perfectly deeply Christian approach to these matters.

I used to wonder, and worry sometimes, about how we would manage reform of your Lordships' House. Compared with reform of the honours system, the reform of your Lordships' House would be but the work of a moment. The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, wants the BEM brought back. The noble Lord, Lord Cope, in no circumstances wants the BEM brought back. Many noble Lords prefer a degree of stratification. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, wants no stratification except reversed stratification so that the captain of industry might have the OBE and the driver might have the knighthood—or in the case of the noble Lord, Lord Cope, the damehood.

Your Lordships will recognise that I approach the issue with a wholly open mind. I have to point out to my noble friend Lord Parekh that the history of awards to members of ethnic minorities has been rather good. Since 2000, the figure has been 5.1, 5.9, 5.5, 5.6 and 5.4 per cent respectively., so I think that we have done better there. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, that we have not been as fair and even handed in the recognition of the work that women do but that is common and endemic throughout society and not restricted to the honours system, in my opinion and experience.

Since the rather refreshing approach of Mr Major, the automaticity—what a concept: what word—of honours has virtually gone. I think that the only people who get honours automatically now are High Court judges who receive a knighthood on the occasion of their being sworn in or soon thereafter. But the remainder of the automatic appointments has virtually gone. We need to draw the distinction between honours and appointments. It is an honour to come to this House but it is not the same as an honour which rewards public service in the usual way.

Whether or not one agrees with an honours system, almost half the awards go to those in the voluntary sector. I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, on that. More than half go to people who are active at grass roots, not all voluntary, but all doing good work—for instance, the lollipop lady, the postman and the parish councillor. When one reads through the list—I do so religiously because coming from where I do it is always interesting to see how many of those called Jones come from Wales; I can assure noble Lords that it is the overwhelming majority—almost half go to those people who have been nominated by, or have support from, members of the public.

If you apply for an award or an honour yourself, you are virtually certain not to get it. I hope that message will be heard throughout the length and breadth of the land as it would result in my postbag being significantly diminished from tomorrow onwards. Apparently, it is said that very few people refuse an honour. The system is kept under constant and appropriate review. I am happy to pay tribute to Mr Major as he did seek an open-minded, much more modern approach. There is much greater emphasis post-Mr Major on education, health and law and order. We are seeing excellent schoolteachers appropriately recognised. We should be reproached that we are surprised that a schoolteacher or a headmaster of a difficult comprehensive school, a beacon school, is eligible for a knighthood or a damehood. We have been unimaginative in the past. The system is much more flexible now than it was even 10 years ago. I entirely agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Cope, in that regard.

Criticism has been made—it was made this evening—that the system is wrapped in too much secrecy. That may be inevitable: otherwise, the names of persons who were put forward but failed would be disclosed. I say seriously that that would be rather hurtful. There is also the problem of those who have the levers of power being lobbied to pull them on a partisan basis. That would result in difficulties. I believe that the system in its outcome tends to be rather good in the vast majority of cases.

It is true that among the—I put this in inverted commas—"senior honours" there are the ranks of the great and the good. However, if one looks at the many thousands—the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, mentioned this—of awards given every year (if one wishes to have such a system) by and large the system works decently and fairly. I give one example. When I was Attorney-General, it was time for reform of the system whereby "government work"—I put that in inverted commas—was distributed to members of the Bar. That had always been done in a rather secretive way by the Attorney-General's clerk. I thought that that was wrong in principle. My former clerk at the Bar, Alan Kilbey, wholly reformed that system as a public service in his own time, without financial reward and was honoured in the New Year's honours list. That is an appropriate honour for someone who has given distinct public service without the hope of reward of any kind, whether by way of honour or financial recompense.

As we all recognise from the debate, there will never be a basis upon which everyone will agree. As the noble Lord, Lord Cope, said, virtually every country in the world of which I am aware wishes to have an honours system of one kind or another. Is that simply catering to human foible? Is it simply a sop to human vanity? It may be in some ways. Is it, on the other hand, a public recognition that not everyone does things simply for financial advantage? There is an aspect of that also.

All of your Lordships' thoughts, ideas, proposals and suggestions will be transmitted by me. I cannot satisfy all of your Lordships as most of your Lordships internally disagree. I shall finish, as I have almost reached the 12 minutes allotted to me. When I was a child, not long ago, my grandfather—

Noble Lords


Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I hope that the word "Oh" will not appear in Hansard tomorrow. My grandfather was an Asquithian Liberal and my father a Lloyd-George Liberal which led to endless arguments. The one controversy that I still remember is my grandfather spitting out furiously at my father, who was a Lloyd-George Liberal, "What happened to the Lloyd-George political fund"? I do not know the answer to that, but one day we shall find out.

House adjourned at twenty-five minutes past nine o'clock.