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Most honours awarded today are part of the Order of the British Empire, which was established in 1917. Honours are awarded by the sovereign, with advice from committees of experts and senior Government minister. Any member of the public can now nominate someone for an honour. Almost from the beginning of the modern system, there was controversy about who should receive honours and suggestions of impropriety, particularly in the award of honours for political service.

Revival of political honours

This briefing provides an introduction to the various types of honours. It sets out the recent revival of the award of honours for parliamentary and political service, under David Cameron as Prime Minister in 2012, with the establishment of the Parliamentary and Political Service Committee.  It also highlights the option of awarding honours on resignation taken by some Prime Ministers. This had not been the practice for a number of years, but resignation honours were awarded by David Cameron in August 2016, the first instance since John Major’s resignation in 1997. Reaction to this is highlighted (section 2).

Removal of an honour: Forfeiture

It is possible to remove an honour once awarded, if the recipient is found to have brought the honours system into disrepute. This process is known as forfeiture. In 2016 there have been calls for forfeiture, including as part of a motion in the Commons on 20 October 2016.  This is the first time the House has directly voted to call on the Forfeiture Committee to remove a knighthood. More information is given on the debate and on previous decisions on forfeiture (section 3).

Reviews of the honours system

The current system of honours has been subject to review a number of times since it was established in 1917. These have included a Royal Commission; reviews carried out in private by civil servants; in public by Select Committees and investigations by the police. The changes that have arisen from these reviews have mainly been designed to broaden the range of recipients and to boost public confidence in the integrity of the system. This included the introduction of a system of nomination made by the public, first introduced in 1993. The modern system, with public nomination, has developed so that in the New Year’s Honours 2017, 74% of the recipients were people who have undertaken outstanding work in their communities either in a voluntary or paid capacity. A timeline is included of these reviews, including some suggestions for change which were made, but not carried out (section 4).

Further information on the processes for nomination of someone and for the award of an honour can be found in Library Briefing paper Constituency Casework: Honours, CBP 7627.

The paper does not cover the process of nomination for peerages and membership of the House of Lords, as a life peer or political party ‘working peer’. Further information on appointments to the House of Lords can be found in Library Briefing Paper Peerage creations since 1997, CBP 5867, 3 February 2016.

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