Lawmakers clash over UK title system

2012-08-29 19:32
Queen Elizabeth II (AP, File)

Queen Elizabeth II (AP, File)

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London - Public trust in Britain's system of awarding titles such as Knight and Dame could be damaged because honours are handed to society's elite such as celebrities and sports stars rather than ordinary citizens, lawmakers said on Wednesday.

Honours, which also include Officer of the Order of the British Empire and Commander of the British Empire, are bestowed by the Queen for public service or outstanding achievement, according to a list submitted by the prime minister.

High-profile recipients include musician Elton John and cyclist Chris Hoy, who has won six Olympic gold medals. Both have been knighted and can use the title "Sir".

Lawmakers on parliament's civil service watchdog said that while British people valued the honours system, few understood how or why titles were bestowed and believed they were awarded to the "usual suspects they already know".

Ordinary people

"Far too few [honours] are being awarded to ordinary citizens for the extraordinary contributions they make to their communities - which is what the honours system should be for," said chairman Bernard Jenkin.

"There should be no 'automatic' honours for people who hold a certain post, or for celebrities and sports stars at a certain level, but too often it seems this is still the case."

The names of people to be honoured are published twice a year at new year and in mid-June on the Queen's official birthday. Anyone can recommend someone to be honoured, but nominations are ultimately handled by a government department.

There are a myriad awards, often with archaic names harking back to medieval times, including Order of the Garter, Order of the Thistle and Order of the Bath.

'Feudal titles'

A spokesperson for the government's cabinet office, which handles honours nominations, said it would "carefully consider" the recommendations of the civil service watchdog, the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee.

"Honours are awarded on merit to those who make outstanding contributions and not for simply doing the day job. Far from being the preserve of politicians, civil servants and celebrities, the vast majority go to the unsung heroes who do remarkable work in their communities," the spokesperson said.

The centuries-old system has drawn fire from critics who say too many awards are going to the often already privileged cream of society, with some even calling for the titles to be scrapped altogether.

Prominent human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said he had been "sounded out" about receiving an honour, but had declined, describing the honours system as a "medieval farce".

Out of step

"Knighthoods and damehoods are absurd relics of feudalism, totally out of step with modern, meritocratic Britain," he said.

"There are too many awards for party donors, establishment figures and time-servers. All imperial and feudal titles should be abolished," he said, adding that awards should only be given for "exceptional achievement" and "personal sacrifice".

Not all recipients are British, and foreign nationals can receive honorary awards. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was given an honorary knighthood for his role following the September 11 attacks in 2001.

Some critics say the system is open to abuse by politicians aiming to reward wealthy or influential backers.

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