John Lidstone: The New Year Honours List is a corrupt farce

Blair will allow a decent interval to elapse before he rewards millionaire donors

Thursday 29 December 2005 01:00

Those whose names are included in the 2006 New Year Honours List will already have received their letters from the Queen which begin: "The Queen (for which read Tony Blair) is minded to..."

A few principled men and women will refuse them; and, as usual, a large number of diplomats, civil servants, and members of the Armed Forces will get their automatic, graded gongs to go with their jobs.

The news this week that a parliamentary sleaze watchdog has blocked the Prime Minister's list of 28 life peerages pending a "cash for favours" probe means only that Blair will allow a decent interval to elapse before he grants these peerages, together with something to put round their necks - a cheap device - to a clutch of multi-millionaire businessmen who donated hundreds of thousands of pounds to the Labour Party's general election fund in 2005.

For although the 2006 New Year Honours List will be the first to be issued since a House of Commons Select Committee inquiry into abuses of the honours system, little, if anything, has changed in this corrupt biannual farce.

The Select Committee's report, "A Matter of Honour: Reforming the Honours System", was never debated in the House of Commons. Instead Tony Blair kicked it into the long grass until after the 2005 general election.

Why? Because it included the recommendation that an independent honours commission should take over the sifting of nominations for honours, and that the Prime Minister should no longer be able to influence, still less have a final say over, the nominations for honours, not a few of which are given to those who donate huge sums of money to Labour Party funds and its "blind trust".

The main recommendations of the Select Committee were that titles should be phased out over a period of five years, and that a national honour - Companion of Honour (CH) - should take their place. No more automatic awards should go to civil servants, diplomats, the Armed Forces, politicians and judges.

Honours selection committees, formerly chaired by senior civil servants, should be replaced by an independent commission, which would take over from ministers and others the responsibility of making recommendations to the Queen. The names of those serving on this commission would be published, unlike those of the bodies it replaces, whose membership was always kept secret. Members of the commission should be independent, and reflect the diversity of the country.

Only two of these recommendations were implemented. The first is a politically doctored version of the honours commission. There are to be eight sub-committees covering Arts and the Media; Community, Voluntary and Local Services; Economy; Education; Health; Science and Technology; Sport; State.

Each is chaired by a titled man or woman. So, from the outset, they could be said to be biased in favour of an honours system from which they have benefited, even before they review the claims of others. While senior civil servants at Permanent Secretary rank no longer chair such committees, there are no less than 31 of them out of a total of 84 men and women serving on these committees. And they have between them 84 honours, the majority going with the jobs they hold.

The second recommendation implemented from the report was, wait for it, that a suitable lapel badge be worn by recipients of honours. A naff idea in keeping with the standards of this government, although it was proposed by John Major when he gave evidence to the Select Committee.

Honours handed out at the New Year and on the Queen's official birthday each June take their place with all the other debased gongs given out in so many areas of our national and local life. In this failure to implement the majority of the Select Committee's recommendations, an opportunity to reverse the tendency to award everyone a lead pencil has been missed.

Since I first studied the on-going abuses of the honours system, which stretch back well beyond the selling of honours by Lloyd George, my guiding principle has always been the same. Honours should be awarded to two categories of people only - those who have done signal deeds beyond their job and duty, and those who perform acts of heroism in civil or military life - and to no one else. As Robert Peel said during his time as Prime Minister: "I wonder people do not feel the distinction of an unadorned name."

The writer gave testimony to the House of Commons Select Committee on the Reform of the Honours System

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