King's Birthday Honours: How does the system work and what do they recognise?

King Charles Credit: PA

The King's Birthday Honours are awarded to celebrate an individual with outstanding achievements and contributions to British society.

Following recommendations by the prime minister or senior government ministers, the King bestows the honours on his birthday in June and at new year.

Typically they are given to well-known personalities and government employees, but around a quarter are given to members of the public who have been nominated.

In the run-up to the King handing out the latest batch of awards, ITV News looks at what they recognise and if they've ever been taken back.

What are the honours for?

The honours are part of orders of chivalry that have been handed out by monarchs since the Middle Ages.

In recent times, and presented by the King, the British honours system recognises people who have "made achievements in public life" and "committed themselves to serving and helping Britain".

It acknowledges long-term volunteers, innovators, entrepreneurs, individuals displaying “moral courage”, those making a difference in their community or field of work or people improving life for others less able to help themselves.

Honours are given to people involved in a range of fields, including sport, health, science and technology, education, business and the arts and media.

Gallantry awards recognising bravery can also be given to members of the armed forces and the emergency services and civilians.

How are people nominated?

Alan Bates, former sub-postmaster and founder, Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, has been made a Knight Bachelor this year. Credit: PA

Any member of the public or an official body can nominate someone for an honour.

UK nationals or citizens of the Commonwealth where the King is head of state are eligible to be nominated.

People who live or work overseas, who have made a significant contribution can also be nominated.

Nominations are submitted to the Cabinet Office’s Honours and Appointments Secretariat, which oversees the honours system.

Non-British or Commonwealth country citizens can be considered for “honorary” awards.

Has anyone refused or had their honour removed?

Throughout the hundreds of years that honours have been bestowed, numerous people have refused to accept them.

Some for political reasons, other personal, and some have initially refused one honour only to accept another.

The largest honour to be refused was in 1657 by Oliver Cromwell, already Head of State, he was offered the crown but refused after fighting a civil war to depose Charles I.

More recently, authors such as Roald Dahl, who reportedly wanted a knighthood so his wife could be called 'Lady Dahl', JG Ballard, and physicist Stephen Hawking all refused honours.

So too did Benjamin Zephaniah, who rejected an OBE because of the association between the British Empire and slavery.

While not a refusal, when Gareth Bale accepted appointment as a Member of the Order of the British Empire, some Welsh football supporters opposed and criticised his decision, describing him as "no longer a Welsh legend" because of his acceptance.

Others have had their honours removed entirely such as Rolf Harris, who went to prison for indecent assault. Harvey Weinstein, was stripped of his honorary CBE in 2020 following his conviction for sexual abuse.

Paula Vennells was stripped of her CBE back in February. Credit: PA

And, in 2024, Paula Vennells, a former Post Office boss who was in charge of the company during the Horizon scandal, had her CBE stripped by the King.

Ms Vennells voluntarily announced she would hand back the honour after more than 1.2 million people signed a petition urging the government to strip her of it.

Who approves of the nominations?

Consideration of nominations can take 12 to 18 months.

The suitability of nominees submitted to the Honours and Appointments Secretariat is established through “merit” and “probity and propriety” checks.

This vetting process, to avoid bringing the system into “disrepute”, can involve the input of government departments, regulatory bodies, professional organisations, HM Revenue and Customs and the ACRO Criminal Records Office.

A group of 10 independent honours committees, each covering a specialist subject area such as sport or health, consider nominations.

The recommendations of these groups of independent experts and senior civil servants are passed on to the Prime Minister and, ultimately, the King for approval.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) oversees the Diplomatic Service and Overseas List.

When are they announced?

Twice a year – at new year and in June on the King’s official birthday.

The lists are published in the official newspaper of the Crown, The Gazette.

Once all recipients have been decided and checked, the Central Chancery of the Orders of Knighthood at St James’s Palace arranges investitures for the presentation of medals.

These ceremonies, held about 30 times a year, take place at Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and occasionally the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, and are hosted by senior royals.

What types of honours are there?

David Beckham was given an OBE back in 2003. Credit: PA

Lists typically comprise knights and dames, appointments to the Order of the British Empire and gallantry awards.

The most senior ranks of the Order of the British Empire are Knight or Dame Grand Cross (GBE) and Knight or Dame Commander (KBE or DBE).

These ranks permit the use of the title “Sir“ for men and “Dame” for women, with the honour given to those who have made major contributions in any field, usually at a national level.

The order’s ranks, after knighthood or damehood, are Commander (CBE), Officer (OBE) and Member (MBE).


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