Vicky Pryce stripped of her honour – but who are the Honours Forfeiture Committee to decide?

by Stephen Tall on July 30, 2013

Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce-1756679Vicky Pryce — the former wife of Chris Huhne, who was imprisoned earlier this year for perverting the course of justice after admitting taking speeding points on his behalf — was today stripped of the honour she was awarded by the Queen in 2009. As the BBC reports:

The economist, who was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath in 2009, was found by a committee to have brought the honour into disrepute.

Some people will have no sympathy for Vicky Pryce and stop there. “She went to prison, serves her right,” will be their response. Others may regard the honours system as a complete waste of time and also stop there. If you’re in either/both of those categories feel free to skip what I’ve got to say.

I’m not going to attack the decision itself. What I do want to do is question who made this decision and the basis on which they made it. The BBC report highlights the key problem: “a committee” decided. What is this committee? Who’s on it?

After asking around on Twitter, it turns out to be the Honours Forfeiture Committee. This was referred to in the media today as the independent Forfeiture Committee, though it isn’t independent by any meaningful definition. Its membership used to comprise six civil servants. Its membership now, apparently, includes a majority of independent members, although they are not named anywhere. There is only one official reference to the committee: here. It does not publish any minutes of its discussions: its decisions are posted in the London Gazette. The Committee’s workings were heavily criticised by the House of Commons’ Public Administration Committee last year:

The very existence of the Committee was viewed by some of our witnesses as mysterious. The former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, told us: “having been in Government for 13 years, I had never come across it [the Forfeiture Committee] before”. The way the Committee worked was also criticised by witnesses: Lord Jones told us that “the rule book, transparency and predictability went out of the window”.

This is the body which has stripped Vicky Pryce of her CB.

I have no particular reason to defend Vicky Pryce. I haven’t ever met her. I thought her behaviour in bringing Chris Huhne down was reckless bordering on vindictive, however understandable it was that she should feel hurt and betrayed. As for the honours system, I feel conflicted about it, as I explained here:

The idea of the state elevating a chosen few, and marking them out through the awarding of a title which separates them from everyone else, can jar. However, that nagging concern has always been outweighed by this simple argument: a society which does not say thank you to those who offer extraordinary service to its citizens would be a very ungrateful one.

I do think due process matter, though. The criteria for stripping recipients of their honours is vague. Jail terms and professional censure are cited as two examples, but “other reasons for forfeiture can also be considered” apparently.

The Honours Forfeiture Committee may believe Vicky Pryce has brought the name of the CB into disrepute. But the Committee brings the entire honours system into disrepute by existing in the shadows. This secretive body should itself be stripped of its powers, its appointments made independently, and its decisions published openly and applied consistently.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.