The calls for Sir Philip Green to have his knighthood removed have been made strongly by both the press and by MPs – with Dennis Skinner referring to him pithily as a ‘billionaire spiv’. The former BHS owner has been subjected to strong criticism following the difficulties now being faced with respect to the retailers’ pension provisions. Sir Philip Green is said to have profited at BHS and its workers’ expense.
Public opinion appears to be firmly in favour of removing his title. MPs passed a vote calling for him to be stripped of his honour. However, Sir Philip Green remains a Knight Bachelor following his appointment to the lowest rank of the honours system in the Queen’s birthday honours list in 2006 for his services to the retail industry.
This is not necessarily surprising as a vote in Parliament is not what is required to remove an honour. The correct procedure for removing, or ‘forfeiting’, an honour is as follows. The Honours Forfeiture Committee will convene to consider the case. If it recommends that the honour be forfeited that is communicated directly to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister then passes this instruction to the Queen who has the final decision as to whether the honour is to be forfeited. Any such forfeiture will be published in the London Gazette.
The honours forfeiture committee is an opaque body whose rules are vague. They will consider forfeiting an honour if the recipient has done something which damages the honours system’s reputation. The examples given of such conduct are a prison sentence of at least 3 months, or being struck off by a professional or regulatory body. Neither of these apply to Sir Philip Green but it is arguable, from the vitriol directed at ‘sir spiv’ that his conduct has brought the honours system into disrepute.
The last high profile case of forfeiting an honour was the case of Fred Goodwin (formerly, Sir Fred Goodwin) the former head of RBS. The manner in which his knighthood was forfeited formed a part of a 2012 House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee report into the honours system (available here). This report concluded at paragraph 106 that the ‘media storm around Fred Goodwin’s knighthood was one of the reasons why his case was considered by the Forfeiture Committee, and why the decision was made to cancel and annul his knighthood.’ The report went on to conclude that the forfeiture of his knighthood was not in line with the criteria for withdrawing a knighthood and a series of recommendations were made to clarify this issue and make the process much more transparent. These recommendations have not been implemented.
However, the Honours Forfeiture Committee conducted an internal review following Mr Goodwin’s case. This altered the membership of the committee so that the majority are independent from any case under consideration. This review concluded that the overriding criterion to be applied is a test based on whether the recipient of the honour has brought ‘the honours system into disrepute’.
It appears, therefore, that the only matter to be decided is whether Sir Philip Green’s conduct has brought the honour system into disrepute. Based on the outcry in the media and in the House of Commons that criterion has been met. It seems to be only a matter of time before the Honours Forfeiture Committee meets to consider whether ‘Sir Spiv’ should be known as ‘Mr Spiv’.
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© Chambers of Lawrence Power