On 26th March 2019 Baroness Berridge asked the Government “what plans they have, if any, to review the honours system.” The Bishop of Salisbury, Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, asked a follow-up question:
The Lord Bishop of Salisbury: My Lords, I am not sure that the Minister’s Answer to the original Question* from the noble Baroness was entirely convincing. There is careful screening to check whether somebody might be willing to consider accepting an honour before an application is ever made. That is done by talking to their family, their friends and others involved with them. Therefore, the figure of 2% refusals is entirely unconvincing, and there needs to be a much more careful analysis of what is going on behind the Question in order to deal with the real issue, as is recognised by the questions asked by the House.
Lord Young of Cookham: I take seriously the point made by the right reverend Prelate. People do give reasons for turning down honours; those reasons are not made public. In the letter which my right honourable friend the Prime Minister wrote to my noble friend last year, when this issue was raised, she said that it was “rare” for an honour to be turned down for this reason. But we will try to dig further, in the light of the comments of the right reverend Prelate, and see to what extent this is a real disincentive.
*the question and answers were:
Baroness Berridge (Con): I thank my noble friend the Minister for his Answer, but in 1917 the introduction of a system to recognise service to your country that included the word “Empire” was appropriate—it is not so today.
For this reason, many people, often from within the black and minority ethnic community, refuse to accept—or even to apply on behalf of others for—an honour. Can my noble friend the Minister please outline whether consideration could be given to the introduction of an additional honour to the existing system that does not include the word “Empire”, so that all parties can be satisfied that those who have a conscientious objection for good reason can accept an honour that might be the Order of British Excellence—keeping the same letters—but so that the existing system could be respected as well?
Lord Young of Cookham: I agree with my noble friend that we should do more to ensure that those from ethnic minority communities who have made a significant contribution to society should see their achievements get public recognition, and we should remove any obstacles in that path.
In 2016, 6% of the New Year Honours went to those from black and ethnic minority communities. In the New Year Honours this year it was 12%, and we are averaging around 10%, but none the less more can be done. There are relatively few refusals of honours; the latest figure I have seen is around 2%. The reasons for refusal are not given, but I understand that it is very rare for a refusal to be on the grounds that my noble friend suggested. On her final point, that would require a new order of chivalry. The structure of the honours system is a matter for the monarch; this is well above my pay grade and, indeed, my rank.