Monday, 23 January 2012

The Royal Prerogative: the "honours" system

The United Kingdom is noted for having a complex honours system the workings of which are somewhat mysterious and secretive.

In December 2011, the Financial Services Authority published its lengthy (452 page) report into the Failure of the Royal Bank of Scotland.    Sir Fred Goodwin was Chief Executive of the bank from 2001 to January 2009 - see his Wikipedia entry.   For several years, the bank grew massively in size due to acquisitions and enjoyed soaring profits.  Not surprisingly, Goodwin was feted by many politicians during these "successful" years and he was honoured by the award of a knighthood "for services to banking" - London Gazette 12th June 2004.  Now there are calls for him to be "stripped of his knighthood" - The Guardian "Sir Fred could lose knighthood says Cameron" and The Telegraph "Nick Clegg: I understand outrage over Fred Goodwin's knighthood" and BBC 20th January - "Miliband: Fred Goodwin should lose knighthood."   What is the legal basis for the  "honours" system?  How are they awarded and how are they removed?  General information about the honours system is available via the Directgov website.  See also Royalty UK - Honours.

The Honours system rests on the Royal Prerogative
which may be described as comprising those special powers, rights and immunities recognised by law as attaching to the Crown.  There appears to be no detailed and authoritative source identifying these powers and setting out their scope though the prerogative gives the Crown - in practice, the Executive - enormous power especially in relation to foreign affairs and defence.  The Labour government looked at the prerogative in "Governance of Britain: Review of the Executive Royal Prerogative Powers."  and the grant of honours is one of the Royal Prerogatives.

The legal textbooks tell us that the Queen is the "fount[ain] of honour."  Thus, all honours are granted in the name of the Queen though, with some exceptions, the Monarch acts upon the advice of the Prime Minister who, in turn, usually, adopts a list presented to him - see here for an explanation of the process.

Removal of an honour is relatively rare.  A Parliamentary Briefing Paper issued in January 2008 states:

"Removal of Honours - The Sovereign may, on the advice of Ministers, cancel an award if the holder is considered unworthy to retain it. The object of forfeiture is to preserve the integrity of the Honours System. No person found guilty of a serious offence should be recommended for an honour; it is generally felt that a person who has been honoured and subsequently commits a serious offence should not continue to hold a symbol of high regard. Each case is considered on its merits by the Forfeiture Committee but if it came to light that an honours recipient had received a criminal conviction and a prison sentence for a serious offence, the forfeiture of his or her award would be almost inevitable."

The members of the Forfeiture Committee are: the Cabinet Secretary, Treasury Solicitor, Permanent Secretary to the Home Office and Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Executive. The Committee’s recommendation for forfeiture is submitted through the Prime Minister to The Sovereign. If the Sovereign grants approval a notice of forfeiture is placed in the London Gazette.  Examples of forfeitures are given below, but are not comprehensive:

Roger Casement, executed for treason in 1918
Jack Lyons, a prominent businessman who made extensive charitable donations, but was convicted of fraud in the late 1980s
Anthony Blunt, who lost his knighthood in 1980 after he was revealed to be a member of the Philby-Burgess spying rings, although not charged or prosecuted..
• Terence Lewis forfeited his knighthood in 1993, following the findings of the Fitzgerald inquiry into corruption in Queensland, Australia, and his subsequent conviction of corruption.

Citizens of states who do not have the British monarchy as titular head of state are awarded honorary awards. It is also possible for these to be removed. Removal of a peerage requires primary legislation."

To this list could be added the famous jockey Lester Piggott whose OBE was removed in 1988 following his conviction in connection with taxation.  Interestingly, Gerald Ronson was awarded CBE in 2012 despite him being previously convicted in 1990.  His award was for charitable services.

Removal of Honours are considered by the Honours Forfeiture Committee.  The Directgov website informs us that the committee exists to "consider cases where an individual’s actions subsequent to their being awarded an honour raise the question of whether they should be allowed to continue to be a holder of the honour."    "To ensure the honours system is not brought into disrepute the Committee normally considers cases put to it when a holder of an honour: has been found guilty by the courts of a criminal offence and sentenced to a term of imprisonment of more than three months; or has been censured/struck off etc by the relevant regulatory authority or professional body for actions or failures to act which are directly relevant to the granting of the honour."

The Committee’s recommendations are submitted to The Queen through the Prime Minister.

It is interesting to note that Fred Goodwin's conduct does not come within either the "convicted" category or the "struck off" category.  Beyond those two categories, it is far from clear on what grounds an honour would be forfeit.  This lack of clarity does the system little credit.  Some commentators have come out in opposition to the removal of this knighthood.  For example, Charles Moore Telegraph - "Let Sir Fred Goodwin keep his knighthood to remind us of our collective folly" and Ian Fraser "Stripping Fred Goodwin of his knighthood is a red herring."    Fraser finds the "current witch-hunt and cross-party campaign to have Fred stripped of his knighthood to be not just unfair, but also populist, rankly hypocritical and a deliberate smokescreen."  Both articles make the obvious point that Goodwin was by no means the only executive involved in banking problems and failures at the time.  (The FSA report contains a list of those who held Directorships at RBS during the relevant period).

From a legal viewpoint, I think that the forfeiture rules (so far as they are in the public domain) do not appear to cover the Goodwin case unless the committee comes to the conclusion that he comes within some vague "unworthy to retain it" criterion.  If he is considered "unworthy" then others must also come within the net.

Further information - see Public Administration Committee 2nd Report 2007 which was published in connection with allegations of "sale" of peerages.

Several Commonwealth States have reviewed and reformed the Honours system - see Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

With regard to removal of certain titles after World War 1 see Titles Deprivation Act 1917 .  The outcome of the Act is here.  At the time, those titles would have been hereditary and the 1917 Act permitted successors to petition the Crown for the return of the title.  No one has done so to date.

Postscript 31st January:

It has been announced that Sir Fred Goodwin's knighthood was removed for bringing the honours system into disrepute.  BBC 31st January 2012.


  1. "those special powers, rights and immunities recognised by law as attaching to the Crown."

    As you observe, there appears to be no detailed and authoritative source identifying these powers and setting out their scope....

    The nub of the 'enormous power' is worthy of eaxamination.

  2. It has always seemed to me that the 'Royal Prerogative' is used as an an expanation where no (other) rational explanation would fit.

  3. Terence Lewis's (cancelled and) annulled knighthood was Australian, NOT British, just as Allen Stanford's presumably annulled knighthood was of and from Antigua and Barbuda, or Antiguan, not that of the United Kingdom.

    The exercise of the Royal Prerogative in the Commonwealth of Australia, where there is no Australian equivalent of the British Home Secretary, and where the Australian Commonwealth's Governor-General instead comes into play, is radically different indeed to the practice in the United Kingdom.

  4. I think it is arguable that the decision of the Forfeiture Committee to recommend annulment of the knighthood is amenable to judicial review, even if the decision of the Queen to follow the recommendation would not be. See the "Roskill list" of "prerogative" powers that are immune to JR and subsequent cases and academic thought. Not that I hold any brief for Mr Goodwin, and not that (I suspect) Mr Goodwin is likely to have the stomach for such a further battle, although he clearly has the resources!

    It is particularly interesting that the decision to recommend annulment notwithstanding that there has been no criminal conviction or adverse regulatory finding has already been characterised by the government as "exceptional". What is the source of the power to make such exceptional rulings? If this sort of thing is going to happen is there not a need to ensure greater independence and transparency in a process that has already been described as "murky" and "shady"?

    At the end of the day what the Queen can give she can clearly take away; but Messrs Cameron and Osborne will be hoping that they have not inadvertently put her at risk of being dragged in to this affair in her Jubilee year...