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The honours system

The UK honours system for individuals rewards people for merit, service or bravery. Honours are granted to deserving, high-achieving people from every section of the community ­— from school crossing officials who 'go that extra mile' to make life better and safer, to charity workers, to leaders of industry.

An honour, decoration or medal is a way of illustrating that the recipient has done something worthy of wider public recognition and of the Crown showing appreciation for the recipient's valued contribution to the community. As the 'fountain of honour' in the United Kingdom, The Queen has the sole right of conferring all titles of honour, including life peerages, knighthoods and gallantry awards.

The majority of awards made are in the Order of the British Empire.

Anybody can make a recommendation for a British national to receive an honour. However, You cannot nominate someone for a specific honour: that is decided by the relevant honours committee.

There are different honours committees covering specific fields of interest (for example, local communities, arts and media, and so on). The relevant committee’s decisions go to the Prime Minister and then to Her Majesty The Queen, who awards the honour.

The Lieutenancy can give advice on how any member of the public can nominate a friend or colleague for a national honour, offering advice on the completion of the forms and supporting the honours nomination when referred back to the Lord-Lieutenant for comment.

Since The Queen confers honours mostly on the advice of the Cabinet Office, recommendations for honours must be sent to the Ceremonial Secretariat of the Cabinet Office, not to Buckingham Palace.

While most honours are awarded on the advice of the Government, there are still certain honours in the United Kingdom that the Sovereign confers at her own discretion. The only honours for which the Sovereign personally selects recipients are: the Order of the Garter, the Order of the Thistle, the Order of Merit, the Royal Victorian Order and the Royal Victorian Chain, Royal Medals of Honour and Medals for Long Service.

Honorary decorations and awards are occasionally granted to people from other countries who have made a significant contribution to relations between the United Kingdom and their own country. Those awards are granted on the advice of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Recipients of honours receive their awards from The Queen or The Prince of Wales at a ceremony known as an Investiture.

Orders are also sometimes exchanged between the Sovereign and overseas heads of state. Since the mid-twentieth century, the exchange of Orders has become less personal and more formal and diplomatic. The award, return or removal of Orders can still be highly symbolic. Examples are The Queen's conferring the Order of Merit on President Mandela or her return of the Romanian Order received from President Ceausescu and her instruction to erase the President's name from the Register of the Order of the Bath.

What people get honours for

People get honours for achievements like:

  • making a difference to their community or field of work
  • enhancing Britain’s reputation
  • long-term voluntary service
  • innovation and entrepreneurship
  • changing things, with an emphasis on achievement
  • improving life for people less able to help themselves
  • displaying moral courage and doing difficult things

Honours are given to people involved in different activities, including:

  • community, voluntary and local services
  • arts and media
  • health
  • sport
  • education
  • science and technology
  • business and the economy
  • civil or political service

Types of honour (Order of the British Empire)

Although someone nominating another for an honour for an outstanding contribution to public life cannot suggest the appropriate honour, the following guidelines give a helpful indication of how the honours committees view the various levels of honours and the underlying criteria for awards.

Knight/Dame

This is awarded for having made a major contribution in any activity, usually at national level. Other people working in the nominee’s area will see their contribution as inspirational and significant, requiring commitment over a long period of time.

Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE)

This is awarded for having had a prominent but lesser role at national level, or a leading role at regional level. You can also get one for a distinguished, innovative contribution to any area.

Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE)

This is awarded for having a major local role in any activity, including people whose work has made them known nationally in their chosen area.

Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE)

This is awarded for a significant achievement or outstanding service to the community. An MBE is also awarded for local ‘hands-on’ service which stands out as an example to other people.

British Empire Medal (BEM)

Reintroduced in 2012, this rewards a sustained, local contribution or innovative, high-impact work of a relatively short duration (for example, three to four years).

General

The British honours system is one of the oldest in the world. It has evolved over 650 years and today recognises merit, gallantry and service. Honours lists are published twice a year: at New Year and in mid-June on the date of The Queen's official birthday.

How to nominate someone for an honour.

 

Two orders of the British Empire

(Top) MBE as awarded to a female recipient and (bottom) a BEM as awarded to a male recipient.