HL Deb 12 January 2004 vol 657 cc369-71

2.48 p.m.

Lord Dubs asked Her Majesty's Government:

What will be the extent of the proposed consultation on changes to the honours system

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos)

My Lords, we want to make sure that all those who have a view to express can do so and, in the first instance, anyone who wishes to suggest ways in which the honours system might be improved should write to the Ceremonial Officer at the Cabinet Office.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer. Does she agree that long before the recent media interest in the honours system there had been long-standing concern about its operation? Does she further agree that, in addition to transparency, it would be welcome if there was not a hierarchy of honours under which top people receive top honours and ordinary people receive honours at the lower end of the scale? Would it not be more democratic and in keeping with modern Britain, as it is now, if we had a system which reflected that?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, my noble friend is right. We are always considering ways of improving the system. I am sure that my noble friend will be pleased to know that up to 50 per cent of those on a list are engaged in voluntary service or voluntary work of some kind. I am sure that the nature of honours and the question of whether there should be a hierarchy of honours will be addressed by the review.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, we on these Benches very much welcome the proposed study into the honours system to be undertaken by Sir Hayden Phillips, Permanent Secretary to the Department for Constitutional Affairs, and we hope that a wide range of people will be invited to give evidence to that inquiry. However, in view of the extraordinary story that appeared in yesterday's Sunday Mirror, can the Leader of the House assure us that, in appointing political Peers, the Government will carefully respect the promise made in the White Paper and elsewhere that the share of votes cast at the last general election will be a significant factor in determining how many new Peers are to be appointed and the parties with which they are likely to be associated?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the noble Baroness will be aware that that issue was raised as part of the recent consultation process. Legislation will come before this House and that matter will be addressed through that process

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether the consultation briefing will include information about how other countries with honours systems conduct the process and, in particular, what degree of transparency exists in those systems? I think, for example, of Australia.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I am not aware of briefing material which includes information about the systems in other countries, although I am sure that that information is publicly available. However, I shall ensure that the noble Baroness's point is passed on to the relevant part of the Cabinet Office.

Baroness Whitaker

My Lords, will it be borne in mind that, for the purposes of the review, Britain no longer has an empire?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I believe that we are all well aware of that.

Lord Taverne

My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the Research Defence Society. Can the Minister assure us that there will be no repetition of the extraordinary comment made on the last occasion that honours were awarded? Then, an eminent scientist, who is eminent enough to be head of the MRC, was disqualified because he was controversial, having been attacked by nutcases and terrorists. Will the Minister assure us that the Government's policy for scientists to be more open in their work will not be undermined in future and that, in fact, the views of scientists will be given due consideration?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that it is a long-standing tradition that we do riot comment on leaks. However, the noble Lord will also be aware that the assessment committee, which reports to the moderating committee, considers the issue of science. This Government strongly support the role of science and scientists in this country.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, is the Leader of the House aware that, although attention is drawn to the very few honours that go to pop stars and sportsmen and women, the vast majority of honours at every level are much appreciated not only by the recipients but also by many others who value the system as it is? It is time to move cautiously.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I believe it is right that the work undertaken by people across the country is honoured. As I said in response to my noble friend Lord Dubs, just under 50 per cent of those honoured are involved in voluntary work. A little over 50 per cent of those on the list are public servants of one kind or another, including doctors, teachers and people working in local government, the police, the fire service and so on.