Tom Richmond: This knighthood without honour shames the system

Victoria Beckham, who received an OBE in the New Year honours.
Victoria Beckham, who received an OBE in the New Year honours.
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THREE words explain why the honours system is now morally bankrupt – Sir Mark Lowcock.

Who is he? The soon-to-be Sir Mark is the top civil servant at the Department for International Development which has a legal duty to spend 0.7 per cent of Britain’s GDP on foreign aid – irrespective of domestic spending needs like the care of the elderly.

What did he do to merit his knighthood? His department presided over the construction of a £285m airport to boost tourism on the South Atlantic island of St Helena, but which is, in fact, too dangerous for aircraft to use because of high winds.

And what do others say of this project? Two weeks before the knighthood was made public, Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee said it was staggering – after questioning Sir Mark and his colleagues – that DfID “commissioned and completed” the airport “before ascertaining the effect of prevailing wind conditions”.

Their criticism did not end here. “The Department was unwilling to tell us who was responsible for this oversight ahead of its own review into where accountability lies,” said the damning report.

Yet what I don’t understand is how the knighthood has been endorsed – and defended – by Priti Patel, the current International Development Secretary, who said the award was for public service.

However this is the very same politician who complained, on the record, in 2012, that “some very senior civil servants have several gongs, crowding out the honours system and preventing other members of the community from getting awards”.

Why the change of heart? Is Ms Patel afraid of her officials, or at their mercy? If squandering vast sums of public money on flawed airports, or giving away money to corrupt countries to meet spending targets, justifies a knighthood in 2017, it shows the extent to which the honours system has been totally devalued by successive governments.

The honours system was intended to reward and recognise extraordinary endeavour in all walks of life – the people who genuinely go the extra mile to enrich wider society.

It was never intended to indulge career civil servants simply doing their job – and little else – or talentless celebrities like Victoria Beckham who has shamelessly been made an OBE for services to fashion / her vanity / hubby David’s brand (delete as appropriate).

And it should never have been the case that top sports competitors automatically received a gong for winning a football trophy or Olympic gold medal – recipients should, at the very least, have proven their worth in the community and, in this regard, it’s a mystery that the Brownlee brothers, two triathletes with a public conscience, were about the only heroes from the Rio Olympics not to be honoured.

To her credit, Theresa May says she wants the honours system in future to recognise industrialists; people who help young people to reach their potential and those who volunteer in their neighbourhood. I hope carers are included.

I, for one, would not bemoan future awards being devoid of celebrity adornments so community champions – the selfless individuals who make a difference without fanfare – can be recognised.

Yet the test will be whether the likes of Sir Mark continue to receive knighthoods for services to public sector inefficiency and incompetence. I fear they will because true power still rests with the Whitehall mandarins who will always look after their own.

TO its credit, and after readers asked for further information, Leeds City Council has now named the officials who decided not to name the four councillors issued with summonses for non-payment of council tax.

They were Steve Carey, LCC chief officer welfare and benefits, and James Rogers, LCC assistant chief executive. “The decision wasn’t straightforward as it needed to balance being open and transparent with elected members’ right to a private life,” said a spokesman.

The spokesman said the four councillors concerned – Pauleen and Ron Grahame, Arif Hussain and Kim Groves – were entitled to be present at the February 2016 budget because any outstanding arrears at the time were not in excess of two months.

Significantly, the council is now looking at being far more transparent in the future. “We have already looked at our protocols to see how they can be strengthened further to ensure a similar incident is not allowed to occur again, and will be recommending that the council publishes an annual release of such information in the future,” added the spokesman.

Although it should not have come to this, I look forward – as a local resident and taxpayer – to being informed how this obligation will be fulfilled.

AN early contender for interview of the year must surely be Alastair Campbell’s tête-à-tête with Labour deputy leader 
Tom Watson.

Asked the extent to which he discussed policy with Jeremy Corbyn as the party’s poll ratings implode, Mr Watson replied: “I am not on his strategy committee.”

Asked “Who is then?”, Mr Watson said lamely: “I don’t know.”

Heaven help us if Messrs Corbyn and Watson ever come close to winning the keys to 10 Downing Street.

LIKE other motorists, I’m acutely aware of the dangers of fog because of diminished visibility, but why have the BBC’s presenters and weather forecasters started to referring to such climatic conditions as ‘heavy fog’?

Do they weigh the fog to determine whether it should be classed as heavy? Probably.

AS a devotee of the Sport of Kings, I‘m pleased to report that ITV’s new-look racing coverage is a breath of fresh air despite the rather soggy conditions at Cheltenham for the New year’s Day launch. Presented by Ed Chamberlin, with able assistance from 20-times champion Sir AP McCoy and the not-so-able former rider Luke Harvey who performed the ‘cheeky chappy’ role to perfection, it was both engaging and entertaining – two qualities not associated with Channel Four in recent times as its presenters bored viewers to sleep. If you’re remotely interested in racing, give 
it a go – at least ITV appear to recognise the importance of the horse.