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Honours reform has Whitehall waiting: Next week's Birthday list will reveal John Major's fairer system for awards. Steve Goodwin reports

HALF A DOZEN Major Generals and twice as many Whitehall Under- Secretaries will be watching next week's Birthday Honours List to see if membership of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath still comes with the rations or if reform of the twice-yearly ritual has matched John Major's stated intentions.

'In future there should be no assumption that honours will automatically be attached to particular posts in either the public or the private sector,' the Prime Minister said when announcing changes to the system last March.

The chivalrous orders of the Bath, for the military and home civil servants, and of St Michael and St George, for diplomats, have been one of the most hidebound areas of the honours system. Major Generals, Rear-Admirals, Air Vice-Marshals and Under and Deputy Secretaries become companions of the Order of the Bath (CBs) while ambassadors in places of modest importance like Havana and Dakar, become CMGs.

Vice-Admirals, Lieutenant-Generals, Air Marshals and Whitehall Permament Secretaries become Knights in the Order of the Bath (KCBs), while ambassadors in more important capitals, like Bonn, become KCMGs. The most senior figures in each service eventually become Knights Grand Cross (GCB or GCMG).

Of the 19 main Whitehall departments, 12 are headed by knights, five by CBs and two by mandarins yet to join an order. Such title-nakedness would not in the past have been allowed to last long for Patrick Brown, Permanent Secretary at the Department of Transport, and Richard Mottram, heading the office of the Citizen's Charter minister, William Waldegrave.

Under the traditional 'Buggins' turn' system, John Chilcot, Permanent Secretary at the Northern Ireland Office since 1990 and a CB in the same year, is due a knighthood, as is Graham Hart, a CB since 1987, and top civil servant at the Department of Health since last year. Sir Peter Gregson (KCB, 1988) at the DTI and Sir Christopher France (1989) would be in line to be upgraded to Knight Grand Cross, though no more than one GCB was awarded in each list. Sir David Gillmore, head of the Foreign Office and diplomatic service since 1991, could expect to have the KCMG he was awarded in 1990 upgraded to Knight Grand Cross.

'Heads of particular organisations can no longer expect an honour just because their predecessor received one,' Mr Major said. However, none need give up hope. He emphasised that many public servants and office holders would still qualify for honours on merit.

The obvious difference in next Saturday's list will the scrapping of the 'working-class' British Empire Medal and a commensurate increase in MBEs - members of the Order of the British Empire. Some two-thirds of the 1,000 or so awards will be in this expanded category. The Birthday list will see more awards to the voluntary sector but only a limited number of the names will be drawn from the nominations sent in by members of the public since Mr Major's statement. Thousands of forms have been obtained but the filtering work of the honours selection committees would have been over for Saturday's list before many were returned - 1 June was the deadline for the 1994 New Year List.

Political honours for Conservatives and Liberal Democrats continue unchanged. Labour takes no part in the system. Thus a few loyal Tory backbenchers, or ministers of below Cabinet rank, are expected to become Knights Bachelor.

Candidates for this are Tristan Garel-Jones, who stepped down as Minister of State at the Foreign Office after piloting the Maastricht legislation through the Commons, and Archie Hamilton, former Minister of State for the Armed Forces.