The honours system is difficult to get right | Letter

Sir Vernon Ellis, former chair of the arts and media honours committee, responds to a report that quoted remarks he made in a TV interview

Your article on the honours system (Honours committees ‘pressured by No 10 to reward Tory donors’, 21 December) quotes some of the remarks I made in a Channel 4 News interview. In a part of the interview that was not broadcast, I stressed that honours committees’ members were generally robustly independent, as was the civil service secretariat supporting them. The government clearly has a role in the honours system; indeed, David Cameron rightly pushed for more diversity. But my impression at the time was that there was far less attempted interference in the particulars of the regular honours lists than the public probably believes. This is as it should be.

Public confidence in the probity of government and public bodies has taken quite a knock over the last three years. The honours system is difficult to get right at the best of times. However, if the matters revealed on the programme have become systemic over this time, then respect for the whole system will erode.

Your article also quotes an exchange I described on the Channel 4 show that I had with the late Jeremy Heywood, who chaired the honours committee at the time. The quotes in the show related to a particular nomination from another committee, which I felt was the wrong time to bring forward. To be clear, I never felt that Lord Heywood committed any wrong. He was simply trying to flag that there were strong interests promoting this candidate. Moreover, he chaired the two meetings at which the candidate was rejected by the main committee.

As I said in the Channel 4 programme, I have the highest regard for Lord Heywood, and respected his integrity and effectiveness. I feel confident that in his time as cabinet secretary, he would have been resistant to attempts to use the honours system to reward people in favour with the government.
Sir Vernon Ellis
Chair, arts and media honours committee 2012-15

The GuardianTramp

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