The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1993Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Commons Statement on the Honours System – 4 March 1993

Below is the text of Mr Major’s statement made in the House of Commons on 4th March 1993 on the subject of the honours system.


The Prime Minister (Mr John Major): With permission, I should like to make a statement about the honours system and to announce some changes, which have been approved by Her Majesty the Queen. The award of honours for service and achievement has been a valued part of British life for centuries. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker : Order. Would the Prime Minister allow me? Would those Members leaving the Chamber do so quietly? We want to continue with our business here.

The Prime Minister : Let me begin again for those hon. Members who may not have heard what I was saying in the hubbub.

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the honours system and to announce some changes which have been approved by Her Majesty the Queen.

The award of honours for service and achievement has been a valued part of British life for centuries. It is the means by which we, as a nation, can show our respect and gratitude to those who have contributed most to our national life. Acts of courage, lives of sacrifice, inventiveness, generosity and commitment to others are formally recognised and acknowledged. It is rooted in our history, and given special value by the close personal attention which the sovereign has given to it. To retain its valued role in our national life, the honours system must, from time to time, be reviewed and renewed.

The present system has remained largely unchanged for 70 years, despite huge changes in national life. I have therefore been discussing with Her Majesty some changes that will, I believe, enjoy widespread support.

I wish to start by clarifying the circumstances in which honours awards should be made.

First, honours should be awarded on merit, for exceptional achievement or exceptional service, over and above that which normally might be expected. Secondly, there should be different levels of award to reflect different levels of achievement. Thirdly, awards should not be automatic and follow simply as a result of doing a particular job. Fourthly, awards should place more emphasis on voluntary service.

I therefore propose to end the recommendation of honours where they are given solely by seniority or on appointment. In future, with one exception I shall turn to in a moment, there should be no assumption that honours will automatically be attached to particular posts in either the public or the private sector.

Public servants and office holders will, of course, still be eligible to receive honours, and many will qualify on merit, but the assumption that a particular post automatically carries an honour will end. Instead, awards will be open–on merit–to a wider range of individuals.

I intend that these principles should be applied throughout the civil service and the rest of the public sector, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence concur in respect of the foreign service and the armed forces.

I also intend the same principles to apply in the private sector. Many people give generously of their time, energy and expertise to help their fellow citizens, and a more flexible system can take greater account of such contributions. While heads of particular organisations can no longer expect an honour just because their predecessor received one, they will, of course, continue to be eligible if their achievement and their service to the community merit it. I propose to continue making recommendations for political service, and I shall apply the same principles there, too. I mentioned earlier one exception. The independence of the judiciary is fundamental to our legal system. Awards of honours should not be thought to depend upon approval of legal judgments. For that reason, I believe that High Court judges should continue to receive the traditional honour of a knighthood on appointment. This practice has preserved the independence of the Bench from the exercise of patronage for two centuries, and I believe it should continue.

I should now like to turn to specific awards where I have some changes to announce. The largest proportion by far of current awards are MBEs and BEMs, mainly for service to local communities. 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. I should make it clear that this change will not affect existing holders of the BEM, who will of course retain their medals. These are, rightly, highly treasured personal possessions.

The change will also apply to the lists recommended by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. The Governments of those Commonwealth countries that recommend British Empire Medals in their own lists have been informed of these proposals.

To end a similar distinction in the Imperial Service Order, I shall no longer make recommendations for awards of the ISO. Those considered to merit the award will instead receive OBEs. The associated Imperial Service Medal is a long-service medal awarded on retirement and will continue.

At present, those receiving the BEM do not attend a royal investiture. For the future, the Queen has graciously agreed to increase the number of investitures both at Buckingham palace and elsewhere in the country. This will enable the increased numbers receiving MBEs to attend a royal investiture, though the Queen will not be able to conduct all investitures herself. I realise, however, that some may value a local presentation which gives greater opportunity for friends and family to mark the occasion. Her Majesty has, therefore, agreed that those awarded MBEs, OBEs or CBEs may receive their honour from their lord lieutenant if they prefer. The choice will rest entirely with the recipient.

I turn now to military gallantry awards. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is separately conducting a review, and will be announcing his conclusions shortly. But there is one change I can announce today. At present, except for the Victoria Cross, awards for gallantry are linked to the rank of the recipient. Officers are eligible to receive crosses or equivalent decorations, but non-commissioned ranks are eligible only for medals. The time has come to end this distinction. In future, the level of award will be determined by the part played by the individuals concerned, and the courage they displayed, without regard to their rank.

At present, the numbers and distribution of honours are reviewed every five years. However, I have requested that the next examination of these numbers be brought forward to the summer of this year. I have asked the review, first, to take greater account of the desirability of recognising work in the voluntary sector and service to the community; secondly, to look at the proportion of awards to state servants to ensure that it appropriately reflects changes in the role and the size of the home civil service, the diplomatic service and the armed forces.

Finally, I believe that the means of nomination for honours should be more widely known and more open. It is, at present, too haphazard. Nomination forms, setting out the type of information needed, have therefore been prepared. I will make sure that the forms are readily available both to members of the public and particularly to voluntary bodies and charities. I hope that this change will help increase the recognition of merit of all kinds.

The honours system has been with us for centuries and has a continuing and valued role to play in British life. I strongly support it, but it is right that it should periodically be examined. The changes that I have announced today mean that exceptional service or achievement will be more widely recognised; that greater importance will be given to voluntary service; that automatic honours will end; that the distinction between ranks in military operational gallantry awards will cease; that the bulk of honours in the half-yearly lists will be of a single, undifferentiated award, the MBE; that all recipients of honours will be invited to a royal investiture.

I shall report to the House in due course on the review of the numbers and distribution of honours, and I shall consider at that time whether further changes are needed.