The British honours system has been part of our country’s history for many hundreds of years. Many people join the roll of those honoured each year for achievements in public life or having committed themselves to serving and helping Britain.

Whether you are for or against the honour system, there is no denying that it demands attention from the general public and conveys (warranted or otherwise) a prestige. With this in mind, I was pleased to see that the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) decided to consider the honours system as part of their investigations into child abuse in Westminster.

This often complex and archaic system was finally laid bare for consideration.

As part of the IICSA process a vast number of documents appeared on the inquiry’s website and a Senior Official of the Cabinet Office gave evidence. The picture painted of previous due diligence on nominees was bleak, it showed criticisms levied and concerns raised but ignored.

The adequacy of checks and balances in the honours systems in the past was lacking, a flaw that was no surprise to the many who had their abuse ignored time and again.

In recent years there has been more accountability. For example, since September 2014 sixteen people have had their honours removed for offences of child sexual abuse, and one more revocation was for possession of child pornography. However, documentation from IICSA shows us that where cases involving honourees receiving convictions of criminal or civil offences it is only usual to consider removal of an honour. No forfeiture is automatic.

Clearly more can and should be done. Something as heinous as child abuse should warrant an automatic removal of any honours. There ought to be no need for any form of ‘consideration’. This issue was explored further in an article by the Observer today regarding the difficulties faced by survivors of abuse in trying to ensure honorary titles are removed from the perpetrators of their abuse.

Other areas of concern raised by the IICSA investigation included that an honouree must be living for forfeiture to be considered or enforced, as it is said that the honour ceases when the individual dies. In recent years we have seen this in the most perverse ways possible with the likes of Jimmy Saville. What is striking is the lack of reference to the wishes and feelings of the victims of the crimes, which was acknowledged by the Cabinet Office’s witness during the IICSA hearings.

Regardless of whether the honour technically defaults on death is neither here nor there; failing to make a declaration that an honour is or would have been removed robs survivors of abuse of the accountability they so deserve.

Many of my clients talk of the power dynamics involved in sexual abuse. There is an inherent inequality of power between an adult and child, and when it involves a person of public prominence, including those with an honorary title, it can add an additional barrier to people feeling able to speak out. In the wake of Cardinal Pell’s conviction for sexual offences on children in Australia, my colleague Catriona Rubens wrote about how power can provide “thick armour for perpetrators of abuse to shroud themselves in”.

The bravery and strength that survivors of abuse show in speaking out cannot be overstated. They deserve open and transparent justice, and accountability for the abhorrent acts of abuse that they were made to endure. The documents provided to IICSA surrounding the honours system and forfeiture process are alarmingly silent about the victims of crimes.

It is time for a modern and transparent honours forfeiture process, in which those who have been found to have committed abuse on children, be it by criminal conviction, finding of fact, internal investigations, inquiries, or any other such evidential-based investigation, automatically have their honour removed. It is not about the media attention or about the reputation of the honours system itself:

  • It is about the need to address power imbalance
  • It is about accountability for the awful crimes committed
  • It is about acknowledging the strength and bravery of those who have spoken out
  • It is about respecting survivors.