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Honours list to continue along path of tradition: Slow progress on road to classless society

CAPTAINS of industry and top civil servants are likely to head the list of honours awarded by the Queen in the New Year's Honours List this week, according to a briefing note to MPs by the House of Commons library.

John Major's efforts to reform the system to reflect his ambitions for a 'classless society' are unlikely to change the picture on Friday. After industry and the Civil Service, local government, community service, voluntary bodies and public bodies provide most of the recipients.

One source quoted in the briefing note suggests the odds on receiving an honour are: Conservative MPs, evens; high-earners in public office 2-1 against; professors at Oxford and Cambridge, 5-1 against; Queen's Counsels, 6-1 against; and accountants 200-1 against.

However, the form guide offered by a statistical analysis of 'gongs' shows that Civil Service mandarins, and chairmen, chief executives and directors of Britain's top companies have consistently taken the largest share of the honours since the Tories came to power 14 years ago.

It has led to controversy over the alleged purchase of honours in return for large donations to Conservative Party funds - a charge strenuously denied. The briefing note quotes Labour research listing big donors to the Tory party with the honours they have received. It shows that Baroness Thatcher awarded peerages in her resignation honours to Sir Hector Laing, of United Biscuits, whose company donated pounds 244,500 to the party; Sir Gordon White, of Hanson, who donated pounds 652,000; and Sir Jeffrey Sterling, of P & O, who gave pounds 470,000.

Mr Major has announced an end to the award of honours solely on grounds of seniority or appointment. Some of the 'automaticity' was built into the system from its inception, the note says. For example, the British Empire Medal was restricted to those who did not qualify by rank for the higher awards in the Order of the British Empire.

Seniority also has dictated which grade of honour can be expected: knighthoods go generally to permanent secretaries of departments of state, chairmen of regional health authorities, university vice-chancellors, chairmen of national associations, prominent 'serious' actors, chairmen of major companies, and editors of national newspapers. CBEs, OBEs and MBEs go to lesser lights, such as chairmen of companies ranked 500th to 1,000th in the UK, assistant permanent secretaries in the Civil Service, and former England football captains.

The paper disputes the claim that the honours system discriminates against Northerners. 'It does not seem particularly surprising that more awards are made in respect of occupations and activities in London and the South-east . . . in the Civil Service, the more senior your grade, the more likely you are to be working in London,' it says.

The analysis shows that Mr Major reduced the political awards in June this year, to 38 from 56 in the last New Year's list, and 53 in June last year. Tory MPs believe a knighthood is in the offing for Graham Bright, Mr Major's Parliamentary Private Secretary, which could herald his departure later in the year to a ministerial job at the environment or transport departments.

They expect it to be coupled with an attempt to beef up the Downing Street operation, to answer criticism of the Goverment's lacklustre performance, and to give Mr Major more support from his backbench.

Finally, among honours forfeited this century, the briefing note says, are the knighthood for Roger Casement (1916); Anthony Blunt's KCVO (1979); Lord Kagan's knighthood (1981) and that of Lester Piggot (1988); Nicholae Ceaucescu's GCB (1989); and Jack Lyons' CBE and knighthood (1991).

Time for reform, page 14