System 'would have to be reinvented'

SIR Michael Palliser, the former head of the Diplomatic Service, welcomed the shake-up of the honours system, but warned that there should not be wholesale changes. 'If it was swept away, there would be a period of indignation and it would then have to be reinvented. I just hope that there will be a reform for political honours as well.'

Sir Michael said the notion that people automatically received medals was exaggerated. 'You don't get recognition until your late forties or early fifties. The numbers are very small compared with the total size of the service.'

He said he received his knighthood at the relatively early age of 49 for his role in the negotiations for Britain's entry into the Common Market, but emphasised that this was an exception.

'You can say that the honours system is appealing to the wrong side of human nature, but I dont think that's true. People are pleased to see other people doing well.'

Sir Patrick Nairne, a former permanent secretary at the then department of health and social security, said he saw no need for an egalitarian system that would give him and his doorman the same title.

He told BBC Radio 4: 'One can see some point in a man or a woman at the top receiving something called an honour. He is unquestionably in a position of far greater personal responsibility than the doorman, even though the quality of the public service may be comparable.

'There is an angle relating to the authority and responsibility of a post which fits with retaining a long-standing honours system, including knighthoods.'