Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells says she’ll hand back her CBE – but it may not be that simple

Michael Sheen.

Paula Vennells, former chief executive of the Post Office, has said she will hand back her CBE, following the outrage over the Horizon scandal that left hundreds of people prosecuted for crimes they didn’t commit. Craig Prescott, lecturer in law at Royal Holloway, University of London, answers this and other questions about the UK’s honours system.

1. How is an honour like a CBE handed back?

Once it has been awarded, there is no formal process to renounce an honour. However, a recipient may choose to return the physical insignia to the Central Chancery of the Orders of the Knighthood and no longer use the honour. Formally, the award of the honour still stands.

Honours are awarded by the king, who has, as part of the royal prerogative, the sole right to confer these titles. Vennells received the CBE, which is part of the Order of the British Empire and stands Commander of the British Empire. It is higher than the OBE (Officer of the British Empire) and the MBE (Member of the British Empire). There are other orders, including the Order of Merit, the Order of St Michael and St George and the Order of the Bath.

The king only revokes honours on the advice of the prime minister, who, in turn, follows recommendations from the Cabinet Office’s forfeiture committee. Once the king has accepted the recommendation, a notice of the forfeiture will be published in the the Gazette, an official journal of government record. This bookends the process, as the award of all honours is initially published in the Gazette.

2. Are honours often returned?

It’s relatively rare for someone to say they want to hand back their honour voluntarily. When they do, the expectation has been that they would do so quietly rather than making a public announcement.

But those who have gone public have usually explained that politics lies behind their decision. One notable example is the actor Michael Sheen, who returned his OBE, citing the “tortured history” between England and his native Wales and his wish to explore this without being labelled a hypocrite.

Actor Michael Sheen returned his honour.

John Lennon returned his MBE by writing directly to the Queen. He said his decision was “in protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam, and against Cold Turkey slipping down the charts” – a reference to his own record.

It’s more common for someone to refuse an honour in the first place. In 2003, poet Benjamin Zephaniah refused an honour in protest against the Iraq war and the brutality of the British empire. An investigation by the Guardian showed that between 2011 and 2020, 443 people had turned down an honour.

3. Are people often stripped of their honours?

The forfeiture committee decides if an honour should be removed but the threshold is high. Generally, an honour is removed if a person brings the honours system into disrepute.

This is deemed to include someone being found guilty of a sexual offence, or sentenced to more than three months in prison for any kind of offence, or if they have been subject to censure by a regulatory or professional body (for example, a doctor being struck off).

The committee doesn’t investigate matters itself but acts once proceedings elsewhere have been concluded. In August 2023, the king “cancelled and annulled” 12 honours.

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This included the OBE awarded to Major General Nicholas Welch, former assistant chief of the defence staff, who was found guilty of fraud by a court martial.

Several of those stripped of their honour in August were due to the recipient being guilty of sexual offences. This included Jonathan Ullmer. His MBE for services to education was forfeited after he was banned indefinitely from teaching for taking advantage of a vulnerable pupil.

Ullmer was banned in November 2019, yet it took until August 2023 for him to be stripped of his honour.

4. What happens next for Vennells?

It may be that Vennells’ honour ends up in limbo. In April 2022, the forfeiture committee suggested in response to campaigning that it would only consider the matter of her honour once the official public inquiry into the Horizon scandal has concluded.

This is likely to be at least several months away. The hearings are scheduled to conclude in “spring/summer 2024”, and even then, the final report will still need to be written.

There should be a clearer and much quicker way in which an honour can be surrendered by the recipient. One possible reason that there isn’t is the concern that if it were easy to hand back an honour, more people would do it in protest over government policies.

5. Can the system be reformed?

The honours system is not beyond reform. In 2012, the British Empire Medal was reintroduced (after being abolished in 1992), with the aim of recognising local volunteers who make a difference to their communities.

Beyond who receives an honour, the most controversial aspect is the reference to the British empire in the name. It is increasingly odd to be a member, officer or commander of something which no longer exists. Nor does the term “empire” fit with the post-imperial multicultural society that the UK has become. Changing the word to “excellence” would reflect the more meritocratic society that the UK is, and wishes to be.

New governments often intend to reform the honours system in one way or another. Changes of emphasis were a priority for both the incoming government of Tony Blair in 1997 and of David Cameron in 2010. 2024 will be an election year and a new government may be imminent.

While it will not be foremost in people’s minds on polling day, the fact that 1.2 million people signed a petition for Vennells to be stripped of her CBE, shows that people do care about the honours system and its problems.

The Conversation

Craig Prescott does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.