JOHN HUMPHRYS: Gongs for Covid fat cats and a stench of dishonour

JOHN HUMPHRYS: Gongs for Covid fat cats and a stench of dishonour

Confession time. I cannot sing like David Bowie nor write plays like Harold Pinter nor poems like Rudyard Kipling. Yet we do have something in common. We have all said no to the offer of a gong.

Actually even that isn’t quite true. In my case it was suggested by Alastair Campbell when he was Tony Blair’s right-hand man rather than actually offered. But I’d have said no if it had been so it comes down to the same thing in the end.

That’s partly because the only reason they’d give an honour to someone they regarded as a troublesome hack would be to make him a bit less troublesome. 

It’s also because the whole honours system is, to use Whitehall jargon, unfit for purpose. 

Not to mention often downright corrupt and shrouded in secrecy.

This week the curtain was lifted a little — albeit by accident rather than design.

The Government has set up online classes for people to ‘master’ the honours nomination system to help them get awards. 

We know about it because the letter from the Government department was leaked. 

The honour system is ‘downright corrupt’ writes JOHN HUMPHRYS, after it was revealed the Government set up online classes for people to ‘master’ the nomination system

So was the list of big business bosses who received it.  No wonder there is great embarrassment in Whitehall.

Let’s give you a flavour of the lucky recipients. One was Serco, the private company that has made a fortune helping to run so many of our public services — including the Test and Trace system, which is costing us an eye-watering £37 billion.

The leak happened on the very day that Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee delivered a damning indictment of Test and Trace. 

It had contributed nothing to tackling the pandemic. Yet it’s still managing to spend a fortune on 2,500 management consultants, some of whom have been paid a whopping £6,000 a day.

Not bad considering only a fraction did anything to earn it. Or so says the committee. 

Serco, the private company that has made a fortune helping to run so many of our public services, including Test and Trace (pictured, a drive-in testing facility) was one of the recipients of the classes

They also mentioned the salaries pulled down by the two top bosses: £7.4 million last year, much of it in bonuses. You may ask: for what precisely?

Serco was not alone in being invited to learn to apply for gongs. Two of the world’s biggest accountancy firms were on the list as well in spite of deeply troubling questions being raised about their own standards. 

So were Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple. Doubtless a reward for their skills in tax avoidance.

These are companies whose sole concerns are share prices and bonuses. Their behaviour is often cited as one of the principle causes of Britain’s hopeless record on productivity.

Rishi Sunak has already ‘honoured’ them — with a Budget promise of huge tax breaks over the next couple of years to get them to invest.

So why are they being urged to get their bids in for all those tempting gongs? Is it too cynical to suggest that certain civil servants and politicians are looking to their own futures after they leave Whitehall?

Put bluntly the honours system embodies much of what is wrong with modern Britain: corruption, abiding snobbery and obsession with status.

Just look at the titles themselves. The most modest is the bem, the British Empire Medal. What Empire is that then?

The more elevated is Commander of that same British Empire. Then you start getting into knighthoods.

This silly Ruritanian distinction between awards is meaningless. All it does is bolster something dear to the heart of British snobbery: hierarchy and a pecking order.

Remember that wonderful scene from Yes Minister when Bernard explains to the PM the meaning of knighthoods: ‘CMG means “Call me God”; KCMG means “Kindly call me God”; GCMG means “God calls me God”.’ Perfect.

So should we just dump the lot of them? Actually no.

Rather bizarrely, you may think, I would keep the rank of BEM. 

Lewis Hamilton has become ‘Sir Lewis’ because he can drive a car very fast. He’s made a vast fortune from doing it, which is why he has chosen to live in Monaco where he pays rather less tax than he would in the country that honoured him

Its name would have to change but not its purpose. It does what any decent honours system should do and that is reward ordinary people for extraordinary service.

It gives them recognition, be they lollipop lady or magistrate or nurse or teacher. They get their name in the local paper and a medal for the mantelpiece to be worn on special occasions. And why not?

Recognition is the one justification for an honours system. Why give honours to those who are already widely recognised and well rewarded?

Lewis Hamilton has become ‘Sir Lewis’ because he can drive a car very fast. He’s made a vast fortune from doing it, which is why he has chosen to live in Monaco where he pays rather less tax than he would in the country that honoured him.

Another sportsman, long retired, is Ian Botham. He now has a seat in the House of Lords and nobody seems quite sure why. A peerage is, after all, the cherry on top of the honours cake.

It gives the new lord or lady a role for life in helping determine the laws that govern all our lives without the great inconvenience of having to persuade us to vote for them. And Prime Ministers have been scattering peerages around like confetti in recent years.

There’s not always a sordid financial calculation involved, although it does no harm if you can afford to bung the odd million into party coffers. But Prime Ministers have different motives for creating so many new peers. One is that it helps keep truculent MPs in line.

‘Are you quite sure you can’t bring yourself to support the PM?’ says the smiling chief whip to the rebellious old lag who knows his chances of getting into the Government have long passed and who always thought his leader was a bit of a twerp anyway.

‘Pity really . . . you’d have looked good in ermine. Plenty of companies out there who like having the odd lord on their board, too . . . ’

The old Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe liked to say that the House of Lords was proof that there really is life after death. 

Maybe, but it’s right and proper that we should benefit from the wisdom and experience of people such as David Blunkett and Ken Clarke. 

They have no political ambitions left but still want to be of public service. And they have more than earned their elevation to the upper house.

If we kick an MP out of his job at the General Election we don’t approve when the Prime Minister promptly gives him a peerage so he can carry on being a minister. That’s what Boris Johnson did with Zac Goldsmith. It’s showing two fingers to the electorate

But it is absurdly bloated. More than 800 members. The second largest legislature in the world. Beaten only by the Chinese National People’s Congress.

The question is what kind of upper house we want it to be. We know what we don’t want.

If we kick an MP out of his job at the General Election we don’t approve when the Prime Minister promptly gives him a peerage so he can carry on being a minister. 

That’s what Boris Johnson did with Zac Goldsmith. It’s showing two fingers to the electorate.

The real honours story is not who gets them but who hands them out. It has become primarily a device for politicians to court popularity, raise money and get their way. At its worst it is rotten to the core and has been for years.

Lloyd George had a price list: £400,000 (in today’s money) for a knighthood, four times as much for a peerage. Parliament eventually passed an Act to stop it, but it didn’t work. It just became a bit more subtle. 

There has scarcely been a Prime Minister in recent history who hasn’t been embroiled in an honours scandal.

So here’s a suggestion. Let’s pass a law that says making a party donation above a modest amount automatically disqualifies you from accepting a peerage from that party. 

Perhaps a BEM might be allowed — but I don’t suppose the rich donors would be very impressed by that, would they?

Better, surely, that the present system should be abandoned and restructured to recognise those who genuinely deserve recognition, can get it no other way and wouldn’t dream of greasing political palms even if they could afford it.

Perhaps that will be a topic for those who sign up to the online classes. But probably not.

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