It is an exclusive club whose members have one thing in common: they have all rejected an honour from the Queen.
Until now, only a few celebrated "refuseniks" - most recently the poet Benjamin Zephaniah - have revealed their membership. But yesterday, for the first time, a list of the people who have snubbed an appointment was published in The Sunday Times. And an impressive list it is, too.
From the film world there is Albert Finney, from literature J G Ballard. Popular music is represented by David Bowie, comedy by Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders and art by the sculptor Anish Kapoor.
They are among 300 people who have rejected an honour in the last 60 years,leaked documents show. The Cabinet Office confirmed yesterday that an investigation was under way into the source of the leak.
Some, such as Kapoor, who was appointed CBE this year, and Helen Mirren, who became a Dame, refused lower ranking honours earlier in their careers. Others were more consistent - the painter L S Lowry is said to have turned down five awards, including a knighthood, a CBE and an OBE. Thirty nine people are reported to have refused honours since Tony Blair became Prime Minister. Ballard, offered a CBE for services to literature in this year's birthday honours, said this week that he thought the system was exploited by politicians. "I am opposed to the honours system," he said. "The whole thing is a preposterous charade."
The revelations will increase pressure to reform the honours system, which is due to come under the scrutiny of the House of Commons' public administration committee in January.
The committee is likely to call witnesses, including Zephaniah, who angrily rejected an Order of the British Empire last month because of its "legacy of colonialism". Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, The Independent columnist who recently returned her MBE, will also testify.
Tony Wright MP, the committee's chairman, has suggested the reference to Britain's imperial past might be removed in any revamped honours system. "I personally feel that the empire stuff is outdated," he said.
More than 1,200 people are honoured each New Year - nearly 90 per cent of them with an OBE. People who have been nominated are notified by letter six weeks before, an estimated 2 per cent of them do not accept the invitation.
The committee's investigation follows a confidential Downing Street review of the twice yearly awards which reported that the honours system risked losing the respect of the public because it was too secretive and favoured civil servants.
Despite an avowed policy to "scrupulously observe equal opportunities" only 20 per cent of those who receive honours of CBE and above are women and less than 4 per cent are black or Asian. Twenty nine per cent go to civil servants. A Cabinet Office spokeswoman confirmed that an investigation was under way into how minutes of the main honours committee, chaired by the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Andrew Turnbull, were leaked to the press last week. They showed that the tennis player Tim Henman was being considered to "add interest" to the New Year list and that the scientist Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, had been turned down because his pro-vivisection beliefs might offend animal rights activists.
She said the latest revelations would be considered as part of this "ongoing internal investigation". About a fifth of the refuseniks had already been honoured or subsequently accepted an award.
The documents, which do not give reasons for the refusal, are deemed highly confidential and not for release under the 30-year rule because they contain personal information on celebrities. A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said a refusal did not necessarily mean someone would not be considered again. But she added: "There's no point in offering someone an award if they are always rejecting it."
THE GREAT AND GOOD AMONG BLAIR'S REFUSENIKS
- J G Ballard, writer, turned down CBE
- David Heckels, refused MBE for charitable services to the arts
- Michael Frayn, writer, Kt
- Ian Albery, services to drama, CBE
- Cedric Price, architect, CBE
- Jim Broadbent, actor, OBE
- John Pandit, musician, MBE
- Geraldine McEwan, actress, CBE
- Richard Lambert, editor, Kt
- Honor Blackman, actress, CBE
- George Melly, musician, CBE
- Claire Tomalin, writer, CBE
- Nigella Lawson, chef, OBE
- Patrick Collins, sports writer, MBE
- Susan Loppert, art historian, MBE
- Doris Purnell, MBE for services to drama
- Elgar Howarth, conductor, CBE
- Dawn French, comedian, OBE
- Jennifer Saunders, comedian OBE
- Albert Finney, actor, Kt
- David Bowie, singer, CBE
- Jonathan Kent, theatre director, OBE
- Ian McDiarmid, theatre director, OBE
- John Dunn, broadcaster, MBE
- Polly Toynbee, journalist, CBE
- Vanessa Redgrave, actress, DBE (received CBE 1967)
- Jocelyn Herbert, theatre designer, CBE
- Leon Kossoff, painter, CBE
- Leslie Waddington, gallery chairman, CBE
- Alan Mattingly, Ramblers' Association, OBE
- Frank Auerbach, painter, Kt
- Garfield Weston, businessman, CBE
- Anish Kapoor, sculptor MBE (received CBE 2003)
- John Sales, head gardener, MBE
- Laurence Harbottle, services to theatre, OBE
- John McCormick, controller BBC Scotland, OBE
- Marjorie Hebden, MBE for services to the Malvern Museum
- Gwendoline Laxon, MBE for services to charity
- Rachel Whiteread, artist, MBE