MPs to investigate 'secretive' honours system

MPs will undertake a review of the "wholly secretive" government honours system in the new year following a series of damaging leaks and a torrent of criticism of the selection process, it emerged today.

MPs will undertake a review of the "wholly secretive" government honours system in the new year following a series of damaging leaks and a torrent of criticism of the selection process, it emerged today.

The influential public administration committee, chaired by Labour's Tony Wright MP, will investigate the criteria used to select the honours list as well as the type of awards given.

Mr Wright told the BBC: "The fact is that we have a honours system that is wholly secretive, run by senior civil servants ... and you have senior civil servants struggling twice a year to put together an honours list that makes all these impossible calculations."

He added that "fundamental questions" needed to be asked about what was being honoured.

The committee is already conducting an inquiry into ministerial powers and prerogative, and was due to publish findings on the honours system in a section of the report.

But earlier this month the MPs decided that the issue merited an investigation of its own after obtaining documents revealing the beginnings of a government overhaul of the system in 2000-2001.

"A review is becoming more and more necessary by the day. We now know that the government was getting close to it [a review] three years ago but did not progress down this road," Mr Wright told Guardian Unlimited.

"We have already taken the evidence from [Channel 4 News presenter] Jon Snow, who turned down an honour, among others."

The committee hopes to publish its findings in January or February.

Earlier today, a row erupted over the controversial animal experimentation scientist Colin Blakemore, who threatened to resign as head of the Medical Research Council (MRC) when it emerged he had not been put forward for an honour because of his defence of vivisection.

He said: "It has nothing to do with whether I particularly deserve an honour - that is neither here nor there.

"The mission statement of the medical research organisation which I now run includes a specific commitment to engaging with the public on issues in medical research."

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme the science minister, Lord Sainsbury, threw his support behind Professor Blakemore.

"The government believes it is necessary to do animal experiments within the tough regulatory regime which we have," Lord Sainsbury said.

He praised Professor Blakemore, who has been the target of attacks by animal rights activists, for his "courageous" stance against his opponents.

However, he refused to be drawn on the honours system, saying it was a matter for the prime minister and the cabinet secretary.

The row comes after a leak this weekend of the names of high profile individuals who have declined knighthoods and other honours.

The list, leaked to the Sunday Times, revealed almost 300 public figures, including David Bowie, David Hockney, Ken Loach, Graham Greene, JG Ballard and Nigella Lawson, who have turned down gongs over the years.

The notoriously secretive honours system has come under fire from several quarters in the past two years. Last year the Social Market Foundation, a thinktank, condemned it as "too political, too elitist", and more recently the poet Benjamin Zephaniah revealed that he had rejected an OBE.

Professor Blakemore said the leaked list revealed that the system "isn't a rigorous system of assessment of merit".

This was echoed by Mr Wright, who told the BBC's World at One: "We know that every honours list under all governments at all times try to add interest - they try to look out for sports people, celebrities, have a lively kind of list and of course that seeps into the culture of the system, but that simply forces you back to ask more fundamental questions about what is it that we're honouring.

"Because we don't ask those fundamental questions, we have these kind of eruptions every time we get a leak or where there's a dodgy name."

But the Conservative deputy leader, Michael Ancram, defended the honours system, saying: "Honours should be there to reward merit and as long as that is what honours are doing then they are a very valuable part of the way our society works.

"Not only does it recognise the work that people have done in terms of public service but also it encourages others to do the same.

"Governments have always had a role in it but the process must be to produce names at the end of the day who are there because what they have done in terms of public service, or in terms of the achievement in their own right, merits that type of recognition."


Liane Katz and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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