Q&A: Who decides honours?

image captionCBE, OBE and MBE medals

A report by a group of MPs says too many civil servants, politicians and celebrities are receiving honours. But who decides who gets honours, and how does the whole system work?

What honours are we talking about?

The honours list consists of knights and dames, appointments to the Order of the British Empire and gallantry awards to servicemen and women, and civilians.

Honours are awarded on merit, for exceptional achievement or service, twice every year - at New Year, and in mid-June on the date of the Queen's official birthday.

How did honours start?

Throughout history Monarchs have rewarded gallantry in battle and loyal service with gifts of land, money or titles. Sometimes a king would grant a title or land in recognition of their illegitimate children, who could not succeed to the throne.

After medieval times the awarding of knighthoods, insignia of Orders of chivalry and other honours replaced gifts of land, money or weapons, although, until the beginning of the 19th Century, such awards were restricted to members of the aristocracy and high-ranking military figures. The backgrounds of recipients has steadily widened although traditionalists have criticised the trend for giving honours to showbusiness and sports stars. in 1965, several ex-servicemen returned their MBEs in protest at The Beatles receiving theirs.

Does the Queen decide who gets an honour?

No. In line with the Monarch's other duties, she acts on the advice of her ministers, who present her with a list of nominees each year for her approval. The Monarch's power to decide disappeared in the 18th and 19th Century, as government by a cabinet of ministers headed by a prime minister developed.

So how do you get on to the list?

You have to be nominated. Anyone can nominate someone for an honour. Government departments also put forward candidates.

Private nominations, made by individuals or by representatives of organisations to the Cabinet Office, traditionally make up about a quarter of all recommendations.

Who sifts through and chooses recipients?

The nominations are divided into nine subject areas - the arts and media, health, the parliamentary and political service, education, science and technology, economy, community, voluntary and local services, sports and state - and assessed by committees comprising independent experts and senior civil servants.

Their assessments are passed to a selection committee that produces the list, independently of government, that is submitted to the Queen through the prime minister.

Who sits on these committees?

image captionLord Coe is chair of the sport honours committee

The chair of each specialist honours committee is an independent expert - such as Sir Vernon Ellis, chair of the British Council, who is chair of the arts and media committee, and Sir Michael Barber, head of McKinsey's global education practice, who is the chair of the education committee.

The chair of the health committee is Sir Ian Carruthers, chief executive of the South West Strategic Health Authority, the chair of the science and technology committee is Lord Krebs, the Principal of Jesus College, Oxford University, and Lord Coe, the chair of London 2012 Games organisers Locog, is chair of the sport committee.

Other members of each committee are a mixture of independent experts - who are appointed via a public appointments process - and "official members", who are the Permanent Secretaries of the departments within whose remit the committee's specialism falls.

There is always a majority of independent experts in each committee and a representative from No 10 is invited to attend each meeting.

The main selection committee - which produces the final list submitted to the Queen - is made up of 12 people.

It consists of the chairs of the specialist honours committees, the Permanent Secretary of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Chief of Defence Staff and another Permanent Secretary.

The main committee is chaired by the head of the civil service, Sir Bob Kerslake.

Who appoints the committee members?

The Cabinet Office invites applications for independent members of the honours committees when vacancies arise. The interview panel then makes a recommendation to Sir Bob.

Didn't the committee used to be shrouded in secrecy?

Yes. In 2004, a Public Administration Select Committee report, which said the honours system was outdated and secretive and needed overhauling, and Sir Hayden Phillips' report to the cabinet secretary, which said greater independence was needed, led to significant changes in how the honours system worked.

What about political honours?

A Parliamentary and Political Services Committee comprising a majority of independent members and the chief whips of the three major parties was set up in 2012 to considers honours for politicians.

Political honours were abolished in 1997 although some people were still honoured for services to Parliament.

What happens after the Queen approves the honours list?

Letters are sent to each nominee. Once a nominee accepts the proposed honour, the list is formally approved.

The honours are published in the official Crown newspaper, the London Gazette.

The Central Chancery of the Orders of Knighthood at St James's Palace then arranges investitures for the recipients to be presented with their medals by the Queen or other members of the Royal Family.

Have there been any controversies about honours?

There is a long history of titles being granted in exchange for favours and, in some cases, cash. William the Conqueror openly sold titles nearly 1,000 years ago. in 1611, James I invented the title baronet and sold them to raise funds for his war in Ireland.

In the 1920s, Liberal prime minister David Lloyd George was involved in a "cash for patronage" scandal. In 2006, police launched an investigation into claims people were being nominated for life peerages for making large donations to the Labour Party, then headed by Prime Minister Tony Blair. No charges were brought.

Has the honours system been tightened up as a result?

Yes. In a November 2011 response to a parliamentary committee's inquiry into the honours system, the Cabinet Office noted that all candidates for senior awards are "checked against the lists of donations maintained and made public by the Electoral Commission.

"The Main Honours Committee must satisfy itself that a party political donation has not influenced the decision to award an honour in any way; the committee must be confident that the candidate would have been a meritorious recipient of an honour if he or she had not made a political donation."

Have any honours been forfeited?

Yes. The Honours Forfeiture Committee considers cases where a recipient's actions "raise the question of whether they should be allowed to continue to be a holder of the honour".

The Queen's art adviser Anthony Blunt, stripped of his knighthood in 1979 after being revealed as a Soviet spy, and jockey Lester Piggott, who lost his OBE after he was jailed in 1987 for tax fraud, are among those to have had honours annulled.

And in January 2012, former Royal Bank of Scotland boss Fred Goodwin - heavily criticised over his role in the bank's near-collapse in 2008 - had his knighthood removed.

Do people ever turn down honours?

Yes. In January 2012, a list of 277 people who had turned down honours between 1951 and 1999, and who had since died, was made public by the Cabinet Office following a BBC Freedom of Information request.

The list included the authors Roald Dahl, J G Ballard and Aldous Huxley, and the painters Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud and LS Lowry.

What about overseas citizens?

The Foreign Office has responsibility for the Diplomatic Service and Overseas List which recognises service overseas, or service in the UK with a substantial international component.

UK nationals or citizens from the 15 Commonwealth realms such as Australia, Canada and Jamaica can be nominated for an honour, and honorary awards for foreign nationals are recommended by the foreign secretary.