Andreas Whittam Smith: The honours system is fairer than we think

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The Independent Online

In the past year I have twice attended meetings to examine names being put forward for honours. Honours in this sense, I should add, means knighthoods (and dames) and awards of CBE, OBE and MBE and excludes peerages. The sessions I go to are part of the preparation of the New Year's Honours and the Birthday Honours lists.

That I or any other ordinary citizen, neither working for the state nor a member of a political party, should now have a say in such matters is a very significant change in the way honours are awarded.

I don't think this new state of affairs is widely understood. The Government has reduced its involvement in the nominations process while continuing to handle, as it must, the administration. The announcement last week by Mr Blair, that he is withdrawing as the final arbiter makes the revolution even more sweeping.

What I belong to is the Arts and Media Honours Committee. My chairman is Lord Rothschild, a former chairman both of the National Gallery and the National Heritage Memorial Fund, and my fellow members are Jenny Abramsky, director of BBC Radio and Music, John Gross, literary and theatre critic and author, and Ben Okri, novelist and Booker Prize winner. Other committees cover sport, health, education, science and technology, economy, community, voluntary and local service and the state.

You might well ask who on earth are these people that they should set themselves up as judges. In fact the positions were advertised in the press and someone drew the task to my attention. The best practice rules of public appointment were followed. We are still finding out how best to do the job. Indeed it won't be long, I think, before we make suggestions for the further improvement of the process. Present at our meetings also are the Permanent Secretary of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Dame Sue Street, and officials. And until now at least, William Chapman, the Prime Minister's Appointments Secretary, has also been at the table.

Our task is to work through a long list of recommendations collected from government departments which have sought suggestions from leading institutions in their area of activity. This is a very old practice. In the Fleet Street of long ago, when my editor was Bill Deedes (now Lord Deedes), I was even asked by a senior executive of my newspaper whether I wanted to receive an invitation to a royal garden party. I remember saying yes out of curiosity and I duly went. That was a sort of very minor honour, I suppose. Nowadays the public is encouraged to send in suggestions and a substantial volume is sifted and assessed by officials. My impression is the net is spread widely but not yet widely enough.

The Arts and Media group, like the other committees, is presented with more proposals for each level of honour than there are places. Typically we would be provided with, say, 15 citations for awards of knight or dame and be told that there are only, say, six places available. The criteria for the different grades all demand achievement or service to the community, but at the level of knight or dame the special requirement is a pre-eminent contribution usually at national level. Thereafter the national dimension becomes progressively less important.

While we can only work with the citations put in front of us, we have not felt rigidly bound by the suggested grades. We have promoted CBE candidates to knights or dames and likewise relegated others. Also when the decision is marginal between two candidates, we can ask that the person passed over this time can be brought back again.

At the same time, every subsection of arts and media has to have its representation in the final list. If we ended up, say, with no literary awards, we would almost certainly have distorted our list.

In the field of arts and media, the most difficult problem we face is how to assess celebrity.

It is one thing to say, as I do, that the test should be what use popular British film stars and television entertainers make of their fame for the public good and whether they lend themselves to charitable causes in an effective manner. But I can see this doesn't cover every case. For some entertainers and artists continually work at the limits of their remarkable abilities without sparing themselves, sometimes well after any normal retirement age, and isn't this itself an act of giving and thus of service to the community?

The equal and opposite problem to celebrity is obscurity. If I substituted for the popular entertainers described above, say, choreographers, or poets, or composers exploring new frontiers in music, who are known to few outside their specialist fields, but who also had worked ceaselessly at the limits of their remarkable abilities, surely they should also be honoured in the same way. And in between these two categories, the famous and the relatively unknown, comes a further question which relates to quality.

Is the best-selling author, for instance, who, by definition, has brought pleasure to large numbers of people, even though he or she never wins prizes, as worthy of honour as the writer greatly admired by the literary world whose books yet sell in limited quantities?

After we have got together our list, the chairs of the eight committees meet together in what is called the Main Honours Committee, under the Secretary of the Cabinet, Sir Gus O'Donnell. Also present is the Permanent Under-Secretary of the Foreign Office, the Chief of Defence Staff and the Appointments Secretary from 10 Downing Street.

This body looks at the proposals in the round. The recommendations of individual committees may be challenged and have to be defended. This is also the occasion when the Prime Minister may add names. But if he does, these names have to be shown to the House of Lords Appointments Commission. Lists are adjusted accordingly.

When the Prime Minister intervenes, he is well within his constitutional rights.

The Queen is the fount of honour and her principal adviser on such matters is naturally her first minister. Now, finding himself in a tight corner, Mr Blair has suddenly given up this role.

I imagine that Sir Gus feels uneasy at the prospect of taking it on. While I am glad to see the political dimension in the awards of honours reduced, the new arrangement in which the Cabinet Secretary is the final arbiter doesn't feel quite right either. This is what happens when constitutional changes, even quite minor ones, are made on the spur of the moment.

I would prefer the Main Honours Committee itself to make the final decisions, electing its own chair from among the sector committees, with Sir Gus as an influential Secretary of the Committee. Meanwhile, as far as I can see by looking at the final press announcements, the recommendations of the committee to which I belong have thus far gone through without amendment.