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What are honours?

The honours system is a way to recognise people who have:

  • made significant achievements in public life
  • committed themselves to serving and helping Britain.

The people honoured will usually have made life better for other people or be outstanding at what they do. Award of an honour provides a way to recognise exceptional service or achievement. Honours are generally highly valued by the recipients, and by their families, friends and local communities.

Honours are awarded by the King. Most are given on recommendations made to her from the Prime Minister or other senior Government Ministers.

Recommendations come from nominations, made by organisations or members of the public, who are familiar with the work of the candidate. Who gets an honour, and the honour they get, is decided by one of a number of subject based honours committees. These committees advise the Prime Minister.

What can you get an honour for?

People get honours for achievements like:

  • making a difference to their community or field of work
  • enhancing Britain’s reputation
  • long-term voluntary service
  • innovation and entrepreneurship
  • changing things, with an emphasis on achievement
  • improving life for people less able to help themselves
  • displaying moral courage

Honours are given to people involved in fields including:

  • community, voluntary and local services
  • arts and media
  • health
  • sport
  • education
  • science and technology
  • business and the economy
  • civil or political service

Who can make a nomination?

Anyone can nominate someone for an honour.  Nominating yourself is not encouraged.

Many nominations are made by members of the public or by an organisation familiar with the work of an individual. Government departments also nominate people doing good work in their areas of responsibility.

The nomination process is set out on the Honours pages of GOV.UK website, with links to the nomination forms and guidance on completing them.

Nominations for civilian gallantry awards can also made by the public, or by professional bodies. There is no special gallantry form. The standard nomination form may be used.

Members of the House of Lords can be nominated through a separate process through the House of Lords Appointments Commission.

What evidence is required when writing a nomination?

There is no set way to write a nomination.  The person who nominates needs to have personal knowledge of the candidate for an honour. They should also provide evidence of exceptional achievement, not just someone doing their job.

Since 2020 there has also been a special nomination form for someone who has made an exceptional contribution to the response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis in the UK.

A nomination should describe what is special about the candidate’s achievements. It should also show memorably and persuasively how and where they have made a difference.

Only individuals can be nominated, not groups. A nominee must be living and still involved in the activity concerned.

The nominations process for UK residents is managed by the Honours and Appointments Secretariat, in the Cabinet Office government department. They are also able to provide advice on how the process works.

Can a Member of Parliament make a nomination?

Constituents may write to their MP requesting that someone be nominated or asking for support for a nomination. An MP may make a nomination, as with any member of the public. The MP would have to be familiar with the work or voluntary role the candidate is carrying out.

As part of a nomination process at least two letters of support are required to accompany a completed form. An MP may be asked to submit one of these. Letters of support should be provided from people with first-hand knowledge of the nominee who can endorse their contribution or supply additional information.

The important factor is the relevance of the evidence and knowledge about the nominee, rather than where that support originates.

Who decides on award of an honour?

Nominations are considered by a committee of experts in the field of work. There are currently ten subject specialist committees, and a Diversity Committee. There is also a Main Honours Committee, which makes the final selections and deals with overall policy. Committees are made up of civil servants and independent members, who are in the majority.

Committees will recommend the type and level of honour to be given. This can’t be specified in a nomination. Most awards made in Britain are in the Order of the British Empire (CBE, OBE, MBE, BEM).

How are nominees checked?

Checking of nominees is carried out, to establish merit and to minimise the risk that an award could bring the honours system into disrepute. This would include a check with professional bodies, with HM Revenue and Customs, of criminal records and with the Lord Lieutenant, who represents the King in a local area.

How long does it take to consider a nomination?

A person or organisation submitting a nomination will receive an acknowledgement from the relevant Government Department. They may also be asked by the subject honours committee to supply further evidence to support or clarify the nomination. Consideration can take 12 to 18 months, so a nominator may not hear anything more for quite a while.

How does a recipient know they can receive an honour?

Recipients are notified by email or letter that the King intends to award them an honour. They are asked to reply to accept formally. Recipients are also asked not to disclose the award until details are published in an honours list, as this information is confidential. An honour may be declined, and in that case no information would be made public.

How are honours made public?

Honours Lists are published at least twice a year, normally in June for the King’s Official Birthday and in December for New Year. Honours Lists are officially published in the The Gazette. They are also issued to the press, both national and local, and are available on the GOV.UK website.

How would someone receive their award?

People awarded an honour receive the decoration in a ceremony known as an investiture. This is usually carried out by a member of the Royal Family, in an event which takes place in Buckingham Palace or another Royal residence. Some awards, such as the British Empire Medal, are presented by the King’s local representative, the Lord Lieutenant of a County. This can also happen if a recipient is not well enough to attend an investiture. Arrangements for investitures are made by the Royal Household.

When can someone start to use a title?

There can sometimes be a gap of a few months between announcement of an honour and the investiture. Recipients are entitled to use their title, (Knight or Dame, or Orders of the British Empire) and the relevant letters after their name, as soon as the announcement is made The Gazette. They do not have to wait until after the investiture.

How can an honour be removed?

An honour can be removed after it has been awarded. This process is called forfeiture. The King may, on the advice of Ministers, cancel an award if the holder is considered unworthy to retain it. The object of forfeiture is to preserve the integrity of the honours system. An honour can only be removed if the recipient is still alive.

There is a Forfeiture Committee, which is an independent advisory group of senior civil servants and independent members. The Committee makes a recommendation to The King, through the Prime Minister. Their discussions are confidential. If an honour is forfeited, a note will be published in The Gazette.

Why might an honour be removed?

An honour can be taken away if someone is sentenced to prison for at least three months for a criminal offence. This can also happen if someone is censured by a professional or regulatory body, for something directly relevant to their honour (for instance a doctor being struck off).

Other reasons for forfeiture can also be considered. The overall criterion is whether the honours system has been brought into disrepute.

Can the public suggest that an honour be removed?

A member of the public, or an MP, may write to the Honours Secretariat, Cabinet Office to explain how the person may have brought the honours system into disrepute.

Can a removed honour be restored?

Since 2021, it has been possible for honours and medals to be restored to living individuals, whose convictions for repealed offences are eligible to be disregarded or pardoned.  This mostly applies to historical sexual offences which are no longer illegal. Application for restoration can be made to the Forfeiture Committee, through the Honours Secretariat.

Can an honour be returned after award?

There is no official method for renouncing an honour, after it has been accepted and awarded. Any such action is always unofficial, and the record of the appointment in the London Gazette stands. The physical insignia can be returned to the Central Chancery of the Orders of Knighthood. But this act is purely symbolic, as replacement insignia may be purchased for a nominal sum.

Further information:

Commons Library Briefing Paper SN0283, Honours: History and reviews.