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Last Updated: Monday, 22 December, 2003, 11:57 GMT
Q&A: The Honours system
Helen Mirren
Actress Helen Mirren has turned down and accepted an honour
A leaked document has revealed a list of 300 people who have turned down honours over the years. But how does the whole system work? Here is BBC News Online's guide.

What honours are we talking about?

These are the knighthoods, OBEs and CBEs awarded each New Year and on the Queen's birthday in June.

Are they a new thing?

Nope. Some type of patronage system for monarchs to award honours has been the stuff of scandal for centuries. William the Conqueror sold them openly nearly 1,000 years ago.

What are honours awarded for?

About 3,000 honours are awarded each year for exceptional achievement or service to one of the public services, the arts, sports, industry, science, the media, diplomats and the armed forces.

Are the recipients chosen by the Queen?

As head of state, officially it is said she decides who gets what, but actually the list is presented to her from Downing Street.

How do you get nominated?

Anyone can now nominate anyone else (or even themselves) for an honour. Party political leaders put forward lists.

So who sifts through and chooses recipients?

The Cabinet Office's ceremonial secretariat decide the list. The process by which they do this is shrouded in secrecy but we do know they have an awards committee which sifts the nominations.

Who is on the awards committee?

The names of the people making the choice are a closely guarded secret - but a recent government review revealed its members are 85% male, 96% white, and with an average age of 60.

What happens when they've made their decision?

The list of names goes forward to Downing Street and the recommendations are then passed on to Buckingham Palace.

So secrecy is the order of the day?

Absolutely. Those chosen to get an honour are asked, before the list is published, on a confidential basis, whether they would be willing to accept an honour. Until the leak of the list of 300 refusers it was extremely rare for any of these cases to become known.

Are there plans to change the system?

The latest leak has focused attention on a system which is already in line for change. The government wants to ensure more women and ethnic minorities get honours. There are also calls to change the names to make them less focused on empire.

What's next?

We are only nine days away from the New Year's honours and then in 2004 we are likely to find out a bit more about how the system works - and possible changes - when MPs on the House of Commons Public Administration Committee get stuck into their inquiry into the whole subject.




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