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The Honours System

The honours system derives from the simple and laudable wish to recognise exceptional service and achievement and to show gratitude publicly. Unlike other awards systems in the UK, it provides distinctive recognition by the State - in the British constitution, by the Sovereign, as Head of State. One of the key features of the honours system - which determines much of the way in which it operates - is adherence to limits on the numbers of awards made, including an overall limit and allocations at different levels and for different sectors of life. Limits are important in order to ensure that discipline remains in the system and honours are not devalued by being given too easily.

The committee was instituted following recommendations by the Royal Commission on Honours set up in 1922 (following the Lloyd George scandal about the sale of honours).

Following acceptance of an honour, investiture is arranged at Buckingham Palace. One investiture takes place annually at Holyrood House in Edinburgh. Investitures have also taken place in Cardiff. Those who would prefer to accept the honour more locally can opt to receive it from the Lord Lieutenant. This is usually for reasons of health. Recipients of honours living overseas can choose to have their presentation by Her Majesty's Representative (for example, HM Ambassador or Governor General). 100. There are 25 investitures a year. Honours are presented by The Queen or - for around a third of investitures - on her behalf, by the Prince of Wales. Just over 100 awards are presented at each investiture.

About 98% of those offered awards accept them, and the majority of the 2% who refuse do so for personal private reasons. The most frequent reasons among those that declined honours were: unwillingness to have a title/award attached to their name; concern about the perception and reaction from those in the community they serve; and security (in Northern Ireland and the defence services). The award of an honour gives pleasure to the family, friends and community in which the recipient lives. The fact that the investiture is, almost invariably, done by The Queen or the Prince of Wales, and the manner in which it is done reinforces its high level of acceptance.

Two major changes occurred in the later part of the 20th Century fundamentally affected the honours system as it has progressively moved away from being primarily a system of reward for Crown Service. The first was in the mid-1960s when the balance between honours for State service and non-State service substantially moved to reward the latter. The percentage of awards going to State servants in the Prime Minister's List is now only one third of the figure in 1960. The second was in 1993 when John Major as Prime Minister introduced the system of direct public nomination. This has proved very successful in broadening the coverage of honours so that 45% over recent lists have achieved awards by that route.

The Orders of Chivalry featured in the New Year and Queen's Birthday honours lists are:

  • the Companion of Honour (CH),
  • the Order of the Bath (GCB, KCB, DCB, CB);
  • the Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG, KCMG, DCMG, CMG);
  • the Order of the British Empire (GBE, KBE, DBE, CBE, OBE, MBE); and
  • Knights Bachelor.
Honours lists are published twice a year, at New Year and on the Sovereign's official birthday (the middle of June). There are three separate lists from the United Kingdom:
  • the Prime Minister's List of around 1,000 people - for those active in the UK;
  • the Diplomatic Service and Overseas List of around 150 people - for members of the Diplomatic Service and for those UK citizens working for UK interests abroad; and
  • the Defence Services List of around 200 people - for members of the armed forces.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:07:41 ZULU