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Wednesday, August 03, 2016

So how should we reform the honours system?

The Independent and the BBC report what must surely be the final chapters on the Cameron 'chumocracy' honours awards. They run with the news that the ex-Prime Minister's attempt to award a peerage to former Tory treasurer, Michael Spencer, who has been involved in a major City scandal, has been "blocked" by the honours committee and that businessman Ian Taylor, who was reportedly in line for a knighthood, has said he does not want his name to go forward.

From what we understand it is not unknown or even a recent phenomena for the honours committee to block appointments. Nor is it unknown for Prime Ministers to honour their pals. Those of us who are a certain age will remember Harold Wilson's 'lavender list' for example and let us not even start on David Lloyd George's fundraising efforts.

The difference in the twenty first century appears to be a greater level of scrutiny and more leaks. That is not a bad thing.

Many politicians of course have jumped on the media bandwagon by calling for the honours' list to be scrapped altogether or to be reformed so as to recognise the contributions of ordinary people. Those are valid points of view except that when those same politicians are in a position to do something about it they conveniently forget these high principles and fall into the same pattern of patronage and reward. Could that be because we cannot find a better system?

There have been substantial changes to the honours system since the days of Harold Wilson. There is an open and fairly transparent process for non-politicians to nominate worthy individuals from their own community for example. That has led to many more lollipop men and women, school governors, play leaders, community workers and many others getting gongs.

The vast majority of awards however, still go to the great and the good, to civil servants, members of the armed forces and of course political workers and donors.

To an extent that is inevitable in a system that relies on patronage to operate effectively. Public servants are very rarely paid what they are worth, whilst in the absence of the state funding of political parties our democracy relies on a vast number of volunteers and individual donors to function.

These people may well be propping up the great and the good in the citadels of power but without them we would not have a functioning democracy. Few of them do the work they do for personal reward but surely their contribution must be recognised by thanking them with more than a pat on the back.

I know ordinary people who have been awarded honours for a lifetime of service to their community. I know politicians who have received gongs as a reward for their service to their country, to their party and to the people they represent.

In all cases the pride of the recipient at being recognised for their work is matched only by the pride of their family and friends who have seen the personal sacrifices they have made for their community and are delighted that the system has seen fit to recognise that.

There are changes that can be made to the honours system of course. We can better regulate the funding of political parties so that they no longer rely on donors who, in some instances are perceived to be buying influence.

We can abolish the appointed House of Lords and replace it with an elected second chamber. We can improve the remuneration of civil servants and members of the armed forces and restrict further their access to cushy and often conflicted-interest jobs in the City once they leave their profession, and we can ensure that ordinary people who are often restricted to MBEs and OBEs are considered for higher awards.

Fundamentally though, it is right that we recognise people's contribution to our society, to government and to politics in this way. The state as represented by the monarch, should continue to honour those who make this country and its democracy work, no matter at what level they operate.
Or we could simply do away with honours altogether.
I agree. That is the only course of action. Honours have been used by the Establishment for decades to honour cronies, donors and sycophants. But if you must have them ..

1. No honour should be given for doing paid work - whether they are civil servants, army officers, third-rate entertainers, head-teachers, lollypop ladies or politicians.

2. No honour should be given for charity work. Surely working for the charity of your choice is a reward in itself.

3. Finally - Why do we still give people honours in the name of an empire that no longer exists ? There is no empire - it has long ceased to exist. How on earth can you be a member, an officer or a commander of something that disappeared decades ago ?

I would suggest:
- a yearly cap on honours
- published criteria for honours
- public scrutiny - through the parliamentary processes - ending in a vote to give an overall approval to each year's list
- at least 30-40% of each year's list being reserved to those who - in addition to the published criteria - have met a certain threshold of signatures in a public petitionary process a la the petitions website now running.
- separate but procedurally identical honours processes for the devolved regions and nations
- no resignation honours, no direct Prime ministerial / first ministerial patronage.
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