Inquiry call over New Year Honours list 'leaks'

Paul Cummins, Sheridan Smith Image copyright Reuters, PA
Image caption The names of Paul Cummins and Sheridan Smith appeared in stories earlier this month

A senior MP has called for a formal inquiry after the names of some New Year Honours recipients appeared in the press before the formal announcement.

Bernard Jenkin, the Tory MP who chairs the Commons Public Administration Select Committee, suggested the leaks looked like a "political stunt".

The Sunday Times first mentioned the names of Tower of London poppy creators Paul Cummins and Tom Piper in November.

The head of the civil service, Sir Bob Kerslake, said he was "concerned".

Sir Bob, who oversaw the honours list, said they were "highly regrettable".

He said: "There have been leaks in the past but there was, on this particular occasion, a significant number and that's the point we will look into."

Mr Jenkin said: "The pre-briefing on honours before they are announced makes the whole thing look more like a political stunt than the reward for outstanding public service that it ought to be.

"There should be a formal leak inquiry."

In November, the Sunday Times reported that Mr Cummins and Mr Piper would be appointed OBEs. In fact, the pair became MBEs.

But soon afterwards, other papers carried correct stories that actors Joan Collins, Sir John Hurt, James Corden and Sheridan Smith would be on the list when it was officially issued on 30 December.

Damian McBride, who was political press adviser to Gordon Brown, told BBC News an early draft of honours nominations was prepared for the prime minister by the cabinet secretary, and was then sent to the Queen.

He said it would be seen "widely by a lot of people" who are not doing any legitimate job connected to the honours list.

"That is very high commodity information to trade for a front page story," said Mr McBride.

"That's the way it's done between spin doctors and the political editors."

'Humming a theme'

Before 2005, political advisors were allowed to recommend names for the honours list, but the system was changed. Committees of appointed individuals, chaired by civil servants, now make the nominations.

Mr McBride said it appeared spin doctors had become "very casual" about secrecy during the process.

"It does appear to be worse than ever, even when it was [Tony Blair's former communications director] Alastair Campbell doing this," he said.

One newspaper reported last week that the former England rugby union star Jonny Wilkinson was in line for a knighthood, when he was not.

Mr McBride suggested this may have been the result of a briefing from an adviser who was not being entirely clear. He said journalists may have been told that a world cup winning rugby player was being rewarded.

Honours have, in fact, been given to Sarah Hunter and Rochelle Clark, members of the England women's team who won the World Cup this summer.

The former spin doctor admitted that he would frequently brief journalists in such a way.

"I used to hum the themes from television programmes, and journalists would ask, 'Is it the main star?'"