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IICSA published its final Report in October 2022. This website was last updated in January 2023.

IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Allegations of child sexual abuse linked to Westminster Investigation Report


I.2: Operation of the honours system


3. The modern honours system stems from 1917, with the creation of the Order of the British Empire (OBE).[1] It was reformed in 1993 by the then Prime Minister John Major, with the aim of making the honours system more open,[2] and in 2005 following reports by the Public Administration Select Committee of the House of Commons and Sir Hayden Phillips, which led to the establishment of the independent honours committees.[3] Most honours today are awarded for voluntary service.[4]

4. There are 10 independent honours committees which are arranged by subject area. Honours committees have a majority of independent members who are knowledgeable about the relevant subject areas. They are recruited through an open competition and appointed for a renewable three-year term.[5] Each committee will consider nominations within their subject areas from members of the public and government departments. Final decisions are made by the Main Committee.[6]

5. We heard corporate evidence from Ms Helen MacNamara, the Director General of Propriety and Ethics in the Private Offices Group within the Cabinet Office. Ms MacNamara’s role includes oversight of the administration of the Honours and Appointments Secretariat.[7] As is customary, the head of the Civil Service has delegated responsibility for the honours system to a permanent secretary. This is currently Sir Jonathan Stephens, the Permanent Secretary of the Northern Ireland Office. The Honours and Appointments Secretariat supports Sir Jonathan Stephens in his role, runs the honours committees and the process of receiving nominations, and supports decision-making.

Probity checks

6. Probity issues are considered both by the independent committees and by the Main Committee. The overarching principle is that even if a person merits an award, where they are of bad character or will bring the honours system into disrepute they will not be granted an award.[8]

7. In the past, the Political Honours Scrutiny Committee (PHSC) performed the role of undertaking probity checks. For the more senior-level honours, there would have then been checks from the police and HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC).[9] Criminal record checks were previously not carried out for OBEs.[10]

8. The current system of checking is more robust. Probity checks vary from nominee to nominee depending on the type of service given, the degree of information provided about the candidate, relevant published information and the level of award proposed. Checks are carried out with government departments including HMRC and relevant professional bodies, as well as using open source information.[11]

9. Criminal record checks are now carried out on all nominees.[12] A criminal conviction will not always disbar a nominee and each case is considered with reference to spent convictions under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974.[13]

10. Checks on the merit of what has been claimed in the nomination are carried out alongside probity checks to ensure that the special and meaningful nature of the honour is preserved.[14] Presentational issues, such as the timing of a particular honour, are also considered.[15] Committees will err on the side of caution and tend not to recommend a candidate if there is any possible issue.[16]

11. Ms MacNamara’s evidence on the operation of the honours system was clear and cogent. Decisions on honours appear to be carefully considered and based on filtering and checking mechanisms that have been functioning for some time.


12. It is more serious to take an honour away from someone than not to bestow it in the first place; therefore, the tests that apply for forfeiture are slightly different.[17] An issue of probity that might not be serious enough to justify forfeiting an honour might be serious enough to prevent a person receiving an honour in the first place.

13. Forfeiture has also changed. There has been a Forfeiture Committee for at least 50 years. It is composed of the most senior civil servant with responsibility for honours, a rotation of at least three of the independent committee chairs, the Permanent Secretary and the Treasury Solicitor.[18] Recently, all those for whom an honour is proposed are made aware, at the time they are asked if they want the honour, that forfeiture is a possibility, that forfeitures are published in the London Gazette[19] and that written representations will be allowed in all cases where forfeiture is proposed that do not involve a ‘hard trigger’ (discussed below).[20] The Forfeiture Committee will also now meet more regularly than it has in the past as more cases are being referred to it. Ms MacNamara emphasised that it is important for forfeiture to be considered quickly.[21]

14. Consideration of forfeiture may be prompted by a letter from a member of the public or government department, among other ways.[22]

15. There are two ‘hard triggers’ for forfeiture: a criminal conviction resulting in a sentence of at least three months, or disbarment or censure by a professional body or regulator.[23] The Forfeiture Committee will then make a decision but would almost invariably decide that the honour should be forfeited in those circumstances.[24] A recommendation is then made to the Queen.[25] The Forfeiture Committee is not an investigatory body and will not second-guess the outcome of a legal process or act when the legal process is still ongoing, including appeal processes, but will inform itself of the circumstances.[26]

16. In cases of child sexual abuse, Ms MacNamara told us, the sentence is irrelevant. Even if a person received a caution, their honour would be forfeited.[27] This is because of the significance of offences of this nature. It was not clear what is meant by ‘child sexual abuse’ in this context; for example, whether it includes convictions concerning indecent images of children.

17. There was evidence of approximately 30 cases where honours have been forfeited following criminal convictions for offences of child sexual abuse.[28] Many of these involved individuals working with the community and in education. The Inquiry also considered a number of case examples concerning prominent individuals.

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