Opinion: Honours should reward public service, says Bernard Jenkin

Much of the reporting of the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) report on the honours system emphasised our apparent criticism that civil servants get too many honours. But as Dame Mary Marsh, the chair of the State Honours Committee, pointed out when I bumped into her on the day of the report’s launch, honours used to be for rewarding public servants; now they should reward public service. That’s an important distinction.

By CivilServiceWorld

05 Sep 2012

At PASC hearings, people told us that the process by which the various committees award honours appears mysterious, with many honours handed to the ‘usual suspects’ – generally people already known to the committees. Every honours list seems to throw up some controversy or other, such as whether a knighthood is linked to a political donation. We are also concerned that too many people who’ve devoted their lives to local communities and charities are overlooked. Yes, as the Cabinet Office pointed out, only a minority of honours go to civil servants; and it’s true that many civil servants give enormous public service, and should be rewarded. Yet civil servants are far more likely to be honoured than an ordinary citizen out in the sticks. How should we address this?

2009 Cabinet Office polling found that 81 per cent of the public were aware of the honours system, and 71 per cent were proud that it existed. The number of people who viewed the honours system as “out-of-date” had fallen from 40 per cent in 2007 to 34 per cent in 2009. These are encouraging signs. Yet only 44 per cent of people saw the system as open and fair.

PASC is therefore calling for an honours system which is more open and independent of politics. Why do we still have something called the “Prime Minister’s List”, when people would prefer not to be honoured by a politician? The Cabinet Office should set out proposals for broadening the range of people who become independent members of the honours committees. We recommend an independent Honours Commission to consider nominations, with the prime minister’s “strategic direction” over the honours system removed. Each lord lieutenant, appointed by the Monarch in the counties, should have an opportunity to consider and comment on all nominations for an honour within his or her lieutenancy. There should also be longer citations published explaining the reasons for the award of each honour.

It is the government’s policy that the days of receiving an honour for simply ‘doing the day job’ are over, and that no one should receive an honour automatically. Civil service head Sir Bob Kerslake, as chair of the Main Honours Committee, insisted that the “policy of getting an honour just for doing the day job has gone”. This point was reinforced by Dame Mary, who told us that “there is absolutely no automaticity at any level”.

Yet it was a persistent concern of PASC witnesses that many honours given to public sector workers did seem to be awarded simply for doing the day job. David Briggs, the Lord Lieutenant of Cheshire, told us that in his view there are “people who get honours because of their job and that is it.” There was also concern about the level of honours received by senior civil servants: former chancellor Alistair Darling commented that the “usual suspects” at the top of the civil service receive knighthoods, while people working in their communities get MBEs. Lord Jones, the former director of the Confederation of British Industry and trade minister, suggested that automatic honours for civil servants might be a remnant of a time when such workers did not receive a market rate salary, but that this is no longer appropriate.

The number of honours distributed in the Prime Minister’s List is limited to 1,300 in each round; and public sector workers have been seen as ‘crowding out’ other candidates for honours. The fact that the most senior civil servants are often based in London helps explain why the region gets more honours than others.

We believe that no-one should be honoured for simply doing the day job, no matter what that job is. In particular, honours should not be awarded to civil servants or businessmen unless it can be demonstrated that there has been service above and beyond the call of duty. Instead, honours should only be awarded for exceptional service to the community or exceptional achievement above and beyond that required in employment. This would result in a far higher proportion of honours being awarded to people who devote their time to their local community, instead of politicians, civil servants and celebrities. There should be no special privileges or quotas for groups of society or certain professions: the honours system should be fair and open to all. ?

Bernard Jenkin MP is the chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC)

See also PASC: end honours for ‘day job’

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