The British honours system: How does it work?

Tom Pilgrim, PA
·6-min read

The release of the New Year Honours list provides another opportunity to celebrate individual outstanding achievements and contributions to British society.

But who decides how honours are handed out, and what exactly do they recognise?

Here the PA news agency takes a look at the inner workings of the honours system:

What are honours for?

Queen’s Birthday Honours List 2020
Footballer Marcus Rashford was made an MBE for services to vulnerable children in the UK during the Covid-19 outbreak in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List 2020 (Mike Egerton/2020)

Honours as part of orders of chivalry have been given by monarchs since the middle ages.

In recent times, the British honours system recognises people who have “made achievements in public life” and “committed themselves to serving and helping Britain”.

It acknowledges long-term volunteers, innovators, entrepreneurs, individuals displaying “moral courage”, those making a difference in their community or field of work or people improving life for others less able to help themselves.

Honours are given to people involved in a range of fields, including sport, health, science and technology, education, business and the arts and media.

Gallantry awards recognising bravery can also be given to members of the armed forces and the emergency services and civilians.

How are people nominated for honours?

Any member of the public or an official body can nominate someone for an honour.

UK nationals and citizens of 15 Commonwealth “realms” to which the Queen is monarch are eligible to be nominated.

People living or working overseas, whose achievements were made in another country or in the UK and have a significant international element, can be nominated too.

Nominations are submitted to the Cabinet Office’s Honours and Appointments Secretariat, which oversees the honours system.

Someone who has made an exceptional contribution to the response to the coronavirus crisis in the UK can also now be nominated.

Non-British or Commonwealth country citizens can be considered for “honorary” awards.

Who approves nominations?

Consideration of nominations can take 12 to 18 months, but recent honours recognising services during the coronavirus pandemic were approved in less than six months.

The suitability of nominees submitted to the Honours and Appointments Secretariat is established through “merit” and “probity and propriety” checks.

This vetting process, to avoid bringing the system into “disrepute”, can involve the input of government departments, regulatory bodies, professional organisations, HM Revenue and Customs and the ACRO Criminal Records Office.

A group of 10 independent honours committees, each covering a specialist subject area such as sport or health, consider nominations.

The recommendations of these groups of independent experts and senior civil servants are passed on to the Prime Minister and, ultimately, the Queen for approval.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) oversees the Diplomatic Service and Overseas List.

When are honours announced?

Twice a year – at new year and in June on the Queen’s official birthday.

These honours lists are published in the official newspaper of the Crown, The Gazette.

Earlier this year, the Queen’s Birthday Honours list was delayed until October to enable nominations for people playing crucial roles during the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Once all recipients have been decided and checked the Central Chancery of the Orders of Knighthood at St James’s Palace arranges investitures for the presentation of medals.

These ceremonies, in pre-pandemic times held around 30 times a year, take place at Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and occasionally the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh and are hosted by the Queen, the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Cambridge or the Princess Royal.

What types of honours are there?

Barbara Windsor death
The late Barbara Windsor after she was made a Dame Commander of the order of the British Empire in 2016 (John Stillwell/PA)

Honours lists are typically comprised of knights and dames, appointments to the Order of the British Empire and gallantry awards.

The most senior ranks of the Order of the British Empire are Knight or Dame Grand Cross (GBE) and Knight or Dame Commander (KBE or DBE).

These ranks permit the use of the title of “Sir“ for men and “Dame” for women, with the honour given to those who have made major contributions in any field, usually at a national level.

Originally a military honour dating back centuries, knighthoods are traditionally conferred by the Queen with the touch of a sword on the shoulder of a kneeling recipient.

In 1917, the Queen’s grandfather, King George V, introduced the Order of British Empire to reward people’s actions during the First World War – including for non-combatant military service and civilian contributions to public life.

The order’s ranks, after knighthood or damehood, are Commander (CBE), Officer (OBE) and Member (MBE). These are variously given to people for their prominent or leading roles at national, regional or local level, as well as distinguished or innovative contributions and outstanding achievements to particular areas.

Other honours include:

– Companion of Honour (CH) – Part of another order established in 1917, the honour recognises significant contributions to the arts, science, medicine or government over a long period of time. It is limited to just 65 people at any one time.

– British Empire Medal (BEM) – Evolved from a medal associated with the creation of the Order of the British Empire, the BEM honours local community service that has made a significant difference.

Honour recipients are appointed to an order of chivalry, that have different ranks, with most appointments made to the Order of the British Empire.

Others include the Royal Victorian Order (RVO), founded by Queen Victoria in 1896, which the Queen personally appoints people to for services to the British sovereign.

The Order of the Bath, established as a military order by King George I in 1725, is for senior civil servants and military officers.

The Royal Red Cross (RRC), Queen’s Police Medal (QPM), Queen’s Fire Service Medal (QFSM) and Queen’s Ambulance Service Medal (QAM) respectively recognise the services of nurses, police, firefighters and ambulance service workers.

Has the system been criticised?

Opponents have called for the word “empire” in the orders of the British Empire – the CBE, OBE and MBE – to be replaced with “excellence”.

Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green, herself made an OBE in 2005, recently said the language of the Order of the British Empire was “offensive” and “divisive”. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer disagreed with her views.

Many would-be recipients have turned down honours because of their association with the empire and its history of slavery, including poet Benjamin Zephaniah, who rejected an OBE in 2003.

So people have turned down honours?

Yes.

Cabinet Office figures released under a freedom of information (FOI) request from the Guardian newspaper revealed that, from 2011 to 2020, some 443 people rejected a knighthood, MBE, OBE or other honour.

A BBC FOI revealed a list of 277 people who had turned down honours between 1951 and 1999 and had since died. This included painters Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon and authors Aldous Huxley and Roald Dahl.