Six dames in last honours before reform

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The Independent Online
Shirley Williams, one of the founders of the now-defunct SDP, becomes the sole life peer in today's New Year Honours List, the last of its kind.

But while the Prime Minister is to announce changes to bring the system more in line with his 'classless society' ideal, his office cautioned against expecting a radical overhaul - indicating that Whitehall, prime recipient of automatic 'gongs by rank', may have blocked dramatic progress towards awards based principally on merit.

Mrs Williams's peerage, backed by Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, and the inclusion of six Dames of the British Empire, the most in a single list for some time, are important for John Major, who also wants women's achievements to be recognised without resorting to 'positive' discrimination.

But dramatic change towards greater equality has proved elusive too. The overall proportion of women, 30 per cent, is about the same as last year, with a substantial majority receiving lesser honours.

Some MPs believe Mr Major wanted far more fundamental changes than those to be announced soon. But Tory traditions such as automatic knighthoods for the Attorney General and Solicitor General may go.

Labour made, as usual, no applications for political honours. Marjorie Mowlam, frontbench spokeswoman on women, said: 'The present system has fallen into disrepute and I question its validity. But given that, 30 per cent is still disappointing. This probably reflects the proportion of women in public life. It shows how far we still have to go.'

Two of the most controversial honours, from the Opposition point of view, are knighthoods for Robert Balchin, chairman of the Grant Maintained Schools' Foundation, and Duncan Nichol, chief executive of the National Health Service Management Executive, who are rewarded for work on the Government's education and health changes.

Created OBE is Anne Snelling, headteacher of Stratford Grant Maintained School, in east London, threatened this year with disciplinary action by governors over alleged racism.

Mrs Williams, 62, a former Labour Secretary of State for Education who has been teaching at Harvard University's John F Kennedy School of Government, had indicated she was ready to return to full-time political life.

David Frost, 53, the political interviewer who is about to embark on a new BBC series, becomes a knight. 'To be honoured this way in mid-career is just terrific,' he said. Anthony Hopkins, 55, the actor who played the psychopathic killer in The Silence of the Lambs, receives a knighthood. He is president of the pounds 2m appeal to protect Snowdonia from erosion, and his honour is an indication of a future trend - an element of service or charitable activity as well as doing one's job well.

Knighthoods bestowed for services to business include Christopher Lewinton, chairman of TI Group. The company is noteworthy on two scores - selling Matrix Churchill, the firm at the centre of the arms-for-Iraq scandal, to the Iraqis, and for not, in contrast to many, contributing to Tory party funds.

Trading on a Sunday has not stopped Geoffrey Mulcahy, the chairman of Kingfisher, which owns the B & Q do-it-yourself chain, from becoming a knight.

V S Pritchett, the popular author knighted in 1975, becomes a Companion of Honour at 92. Other arts and broadcasting figures include the Welsh operatic soprano Margaret Price, 51, one of the six DBEs. Catherine Cookson, the novelist, becomes a dame for charitable services in the North-east. She has given more than pounds 2m to charity.

Annette Penhaligon, widow of David Penhaligon, the Liberal MP, who died in a car accident, becomes a dame for political and public service. She said of her husband: 'I suspect the honour is as much his as it is mine.'

Honours in the sporting world include OBEs for David Coleman, the BBC commentator, and Gordon Strachan, the former Scottish international footballer who plays for Leeds United. Last season, when captain, he led the team to the League championship. British winners at the Barcelona Olympic Games become MBEs.

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