The Big Question: How does the honours system work, and do gongs go to the right people?

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The Independent Online

Why are we asking this now?

Because the announcement of the New Year Honours list is upon us, and, with it, headlines of the great and the good who have been given a gong.

One man who will not be receiving one is Professor Colin Blakemore. The former chief executive of the Medical Research Council and leading champion of vivisection in medical research has again been passed over for a knighthood. His unwavering support for animal testing in certain medical research during his career has made him a figure of hate for animal rights groups. That has caused suspicion that, despite his considerable contributions to scientific research in the UK, he has been passed over because handing him an honour might prove too controversial.

And with Michael Parkinson becoming the latest celebrity to be offered a knighthood, allegations that the Government is using the honours system for publicity purposes are never far away. Previous honours committee minutes have shown that other well-known names were added to give "interest" to the final list.

All this comes at the end of a year in which the "cash for peerages" scandal put the honours system under even more scrutiny, compounding its image as an outdated system mired in institutional nepotism and back-door dealings.

Is it the first tim Professor Blakemore has missed out?

No. He missed out on the honour when he was first given the top job at the Medical Research Council in 2003 and his nomination has been rejected several times since. The role of chief executive has usually coincided with a knighthood. At that time, Cabinet Office civil servants were said to feel that giving the title to a man who champions "controversial" vivisection might offend animal rights supporters.

Professor Blakemore was furious with the decision, and even considered resigning from his new post. He argued that it showed a lack of support for science from the Government and criticised ministers openly about what he saw as their weak stance in the face of activist pressure. Rumours also circulated about donations made to Labour by animal welfare groups before the 1997 election.

What are the main complaints against the honours system?

That honours are handed out for reasons other than honour. As the passing over of Colin Blakemore suggests, some argue that it is a very calculated and political process, designed to create positive publicity and popularity for the government dishing them out.

Another complaint is that civil servants and those working closely with government receive honours as a matter of course, simply for doing their job. As Bernard Woolley, the fictional prime minister's secretary from the political satire Yes Minister, said: "In the service, CMG stands for Call Me God. And KCMG for Kindly Call Me God." And GCMG? "God Calls Me God". He went on to say that he knew only one civil servant who had refused a knighthood in 1496. Why? "He had already got one."

Is that fair?

Yes and no. It is true that the likes of Elton John, Bob Geldof and Tom Jones have received knighthoods which were popular with the public.

The vast majority of the people who are given honours are not the sportsmen, ex-politicians or actors who make the headlines when the latest list is published. They are normal people who serve their communities in different ways, and are nominated by local people to give them some recognition for that work.

There do seem to be political judgements made over who receives them and who does not, though. And, while attempts have been made to do away with "automatic" honours for civil servants, it still appears to be the case that honours follow from a stint of public service. And the latest scandals about the relationship between party funding and honours have highlighted a need to reform the system.

Has the system been investigated?

Yes, several times. In 2004, a report on reform of the honours system found little blatant corruption, but called for titles to be phased out and replaced with a national honour. It also called for an end to automatic awards to civil servants, diplomats, former politicians and other public servants. The inquiry was largely ignored, though its backing for more independence for the committee vetting the nominations was taken up.

The Public Administration Committee has just released a report on the process of giving out peerages. It says there should be no automatic right for someone given a peerage to have a seat in the House of Lords. They would then not be able to have a say on the making of the law of the land. But it also seems to concede that there will always be a link between honours and support for a political party.

Has the honours system changed?

As one would expect for a system 650 years old, it has evolved over the centuries. The introduction of People's Peers in 2001 was seen as an opportunity revamp its image by inviting the public to nominate people. There were great hopes that the list would create a new group of lollipop Ladies and plumber Lords. An Independent Appointments Commission was set up to oversee the selection process.

The eventual list was a great disappointment to those who wanted change. Among those on the first People's Peers list were Lady Howe, a former chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission and wife of a former foreign secretary, Lord Howe, and the former government chief scientific adviser and president of the Royal Society, Sir Robert May. Though both had distinguished careers, they were hardly a change from the type of names that had dominated lists in the past.

Shouldn't we scrap the whole thing?

That might be one way of solving what to do with the system which has become associated with corruption and has been unable to rid itself of an outdated image. But dispensing with the honours system altogether also creates new problems. How do we then reward all those unsung heroes who do receive honours through the present system?

And for all the problems exposed over the years, the fact remains that most of those receiving honours are delighted by the award. Handing honours to public servants also serves a purpose. Many good people might be lost to the private sector without the status that comes with public service. And those who want to refuse an honour around 2 per cent of the people on each list are free to do so.

So will it be reformed any time soon?

The latest inquiry has come up with some conclusions that will be hard for Gordon Brown to ignore. Some commentators argued that the lack of charges resulting from the police inquiry into "donations for honours" showed the inadequacy of the current 1925 Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act. The new inquiry has called for a stronger Corruption Act, which would prevent the main political parties from exploiting loopholes in the current laws. Gordon Brown has already said he favours making the system more independent, reducing the Prime Minister's power of patronage. But almost everyone accepts that support for a party will always have a relationship with honours.

A White Paper will be published next year outlining constitutional reform, which should include reforms for the honours system. But even if the rules on political interference are tightened, don't expect knighthoods for beloved talk show hosts to disappear and for controversial figures suddenly to be given titles. And don't expect this to be the last time the honours system is debated.

Are honours going to the wrong people?

Yes...

* They're given to worthy celebrities to give the government a popularity boost, while more controversial figures are ignored

* Civil servants and diplomats are given a gong as a matter of course, just for doing their job

* People who support political parties always seem to end up with an honour of some kind

No...

* People who spend a career serving the public should be rewarded for their work

* Celebrity nominations take the headlines, but most on the list are people working more locally to help their community

* New reforms proposed next year should help to make the system more independent

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