David Cameron revives the British Empire Medal

'Working-class gong' scrapped by John Major to be taken up by prime minister, who wants to reward those doing voluntary work

The British Empire Medal (BEM), described as the working-class gong, is to be revived as David Cameron reverses one of John Major's signature reforms that was designed to create a classless society.

The prime minister, who is consulting the Queen on the change, hopes the revived medal will be awarded to people involved in voluntary work.

Downing Street, which has been looking for ways to revive the prime minister's big society initiative, believes that people involved in the voluntary sector are often overlooked in the current honours system. The prime minister hopes that people who are not considered senior enough to receive an MBE or OBE will be able to receive a BEM.

The move may come as a surprise to some Conservatives after Major scrapped the medal in 1993 on the grounds that it was out of date and entrenched class divisions. The medal was established in 1917 for people not of rank. Unlike the OBE and MBE, which are awarded personally by the Queen or Prince of Wales, the BEM is awarded by a local lord lieutenant.

The National Archive confirms that the BEM was traditionally awarded on the basis of rank and not achievement. It says of the original intention for the award: "The British Empire Medal (BEM) was awarded to ranks below warrant officer for the same services as OBE and MBE."

Major made clear that he thought the medal was out of date when he outlined reforms of the honours system in 1993. He increased the number of MBEs to make up the shortfall, and told MPs: "The distinction between service meriting the award of an MBE and that meriting a British Empire Medal has become increasingly tenuous.

"It can no longer be sustained. I therefore intend in future to increase the number of recommendations for MBEs and to discontinue recommending awards of BEMs."

Announcing the plan during his visit to Perth for a Commonwealth summit, Cameron will maintain that class divisions are not on his mind and that he simply hopes reviving the medal will ensure that people involved in voluntary work are properly recognised.

The prime minister will say: "I am delighted that we are going to start using the British Empire Medal again. The medal will be handed out in recognition of the dedication and hard work so many people devote to their communities. At the moment the number of people being honoured for the services they provide for their local communities is disproportionately low. I am determined to change that and redress the balance."

Major indicated that he was troubled by one factor that will occur again when the old medal is revived – the inability of recipients of BEMs to attend a royal investiture.

In 1993, Downing Street persuaded Buckingham Palace to increase the number of investitures for MBEs to allow people who would have received a BEM to be recognised by a member of the royal family.


Nicholas Watt in Perth

The GuardianTramp

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