This case has made me feel really uncomfortable – unless I’ve fallen for a major spoof!
I spotted the illustration linked to Tanya Gold‘s piece about honours like the proverbial magpie to the shiny thing. We know the honours system is a mess. We knew it before the ‘cash for honours‘ storm and we knew it even before the latest Public Administration Select Committee Report on it.
[Edited to add via Julie – This was picked up by The Sunday Times on 15 Jan 2012 and the Northern Echo 2 days before it, but only picked up by myself at the time of posting this blogpost. Given the recent publication of the PASC report on 29 August 2012, it seems appropriate to keep this blogpost as is for now]
Despite all of this, no one seems to have picked up on Lord Brian MacKenzie‘s extra curricular activities with a company called Awards Intelligence. On paper, there is nothing technically illegal with the activities of this company. They are not claiming to secure state honours on your behalf in return for a cash fee. All they are doing is saying that they will apply/put your name or your firm’s name forward for every award under the sun so that should you win, you can use the award to boost your reputation for business and financial gain. By setting themselves up as experts in drafting such applications – and with the political connection that goes to the House of Lords, they can market themselves as increasing the chances of success. From an individual business perspective, all above board. From Lord MacKenzie’s perspective, all above board because he’s declared his chairmanship & special adviser relationship with the firm in the Lords register of interests.
Everyone likes an award, but some awards have more credibility than others
Over the past couple of decades anecdotally I’ve noticed a rise in the use of awards ceremonies across a number of industries. The media is obviously the most high profile, with every celebrity magazine hosting its own awards ceremonies, putting on the free alcohol in a posh venue while getting those all-important snaps of scrubbed-up celebrities posing in front of boards with your logo on it.
There are also lots of lower profile ones too – I went to a couple of them during my civil service days. I don’t have problems with industry awards bigging themselves up – actually it’s a very good ‘non cash incentive’ to get firms to compete and innovate, while at the same time gaining the respect from their peers. Sometimes they team up with media publications or outside organisations to decide who should get which award. Sometimes it will be a survey of peers or respected figures in an industry. Think of the Professional Footballers’ Association – the players player of the year. What higher accolade can you get than one from the very people you have to compete against week in week out?
Such events are also an opportunity for people to celebrate, let their hair down and also meet a once-famous after-dinner speaker or two. From what I have seen of such industry awards, there is genuine pride from the recipients, both at receiving the award and in meeting the famous face giving out the award – especially if that famous face has some knowledge or long-standing connection with the industry concerned.
But with state honours, it’s something very different.
My understanding of being given a state honour is that it should be awarded for achievements that both go beyond the call of duty and also achieving something that most other people in society could not achieve. Puffles is followed by a handful of people who have received such awards. Tanni Grey-Thompson being one and Doug Beattie being the other. Winning one gold medal at one event is one thing. Winning 11 over the years is quite another. In Doug’s case, the citation for his Military Cross speaks for itself.
So when people and politicians undermine the honours system for political and financial gain, it understandably makes people very angry. Others have decided to turn away from the system completely whether because they find it corrupt or whether they see it as a pillar underpinning an unfair social and political system. Both are sound reasons not to like the honours system. I put my own views up in December 2011 on medals and honours.
So why moan about Lord MacKenzie?
Because it feels like it is blatantly undermining the honours system for financial gain. I’m not questioning its legality, I’m questioning its ‘morality’ (which is subjective – a personal opinion, not a question of fact or even law) about inviting people to pay money in order to have their names submitted for state honours for the purpose of boosting a business profile and reaping financial rewards. By all means do it for business and industry awards. Arguably all members of that industry will have some sort of an incentive to hire their services. But for state honours? Especially given the report from the Public Administration Select Committee?
For a start, you can’t self-nominate for a state honour. Someone has to do it for you, find a whole host of signatories to back up the nomination and do the whole thing in such secrecy that the nominated person does not find out until the envelope drops through the door saying you’ve been successfully nominated. Having taken part in part of that assessment process during my time in the civil service, for most of the awards the criteria is very strict. Hence why most of the voluntary and community service awards are extremely well deserved. Not only that, there is also a sense that the award doesn’t go just to the one person, but to the entire community. Completely different in feel to an award going to a business person. How many people working for large corporations felt any sense of achievement or benefit at state honours received by very senior members of their staff, for example?
I guess the final kick in the stomach for me is this paragraph:
“A bespoke and discreet reputation building programme designed for you, encompassing Queen’s honours, other personal honours, business awards, House of Lords applications, media relations, public appointments and non-executive directorships, personal introductions, charity and community programmes, networking, issues management and image management.”
(Taken from http://www.awardsintelligence.co.uk/vip-inner-circle.asp dated 01 Sept 2012)
This isn’t about doing something for the community or society out of the goodness of one’s heart. This is about deliberately and consciously trying to improve the reputation of clients through the use – amongst other things – of state honours. What makes it even more disturbing is the House of Lords component – because the Lords get to legislate.
There is also the controversial issue of links with charities. Controversial because some charities have found their brands being tarnished over links to both businesses and governments – whether attempts at ‘greenwashing’ by polluting corporations or participation in politically controversial programmes such as workfare. Interestingly, the general public is becoming much more savvy and aware about short-term charity tie-ins. It’s the famous faces that have long term relationships with charities that stand the credibility test. Think of Sir Ian Botham’s work with Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research. He received his knighthood not for cricket but because of the 25+ years of support and fund-raising he had given/carried out for the charity.
Will reforming the honours system put a stop to the company’s activities on state honours?
Probably not – because any citizen can nominate. Why shouldn’t they? They are not doing anything illegal even though for me personally it leaves a very bad taste. You could also say there is a ‘gap in the market’ – A basic internet search has not come up with any other firm offering a similar service.
The challenge for politicians and the civil service is to decide whether they are comfortable with applications being used in this way. Remember though that the political establishment has been fine with using state honours as a means to incentivise and promote British business – anecdotally I recall Tony Blair making the ‘step change’. This change led to a number of honours for bankers – ones that they were later to regret.
If the Government chooses to follow the recommendations of the Public Administration Select Committee, then we may see a shift away from state honours being given to people running businesses, and more for those who have made an impact in their community. If that includes people who run businesses, that’s fine – but the criteria as with civil servants, politicians and celebrities will need to encompass standards that involve nominees going far beyond simply doing what they are paid to do. i.e. What is it that makes said individual stand out head and shoulders above everyone else in terms of benefit to their community, those less fortunate than them and to society in general?
Will anything happen as a result?
Probably not, but I felt I needed to call the company and its chairman out on it.