Honours: Time that Suffolk started blowing its own trumpet a bit more

There are dozens of unsung heroes in Suffolk who deserve awards such as the MBE or British Empire Medal. What we need to do is sing their praises and cross our fingers. STEVEN RUSSELL reports on why the county must put its natural modesty to one side

IT was wonderful seeing lots of selfless East Anglians have their efforts rewarded in the Queen’s birthday honours list a fortnight ago – including a lady given an MBE for her work with Farm Crisis Network and a woman lauded for services to netball and young people. But . . .

The suspicion is that there are many more folk toiling away across the county – willingly giving their time to help their communities – who also deserve an official pat on the back.

Trouble is, courting publicity is generally not part of the DNA of these people. So, unless we push them under the spotlight, they’re not likely to enjoy the thrill of lifting off the doormat an imposing-looking letter that asks “Would you be prepared to accept this honour?” Folk who have done something of national import – developed a vaccine, say, or spent years running a local education authority – will invariably be nominated by a Government department. Then there are the household names: such as actors Kate Winslet and Take That singer Gary Barlow, both honoured two weeks ago.

But it’s the others we need to push forward – the committed and dependable people who hold local life together. The kind of people who were The Big Society long before the phrase first slipped between a politician’s lips.

The country at large might not know who they are, but we certainly do. They’re our friends and neighbours – figures such as David Turner, from Hitcham, who received a British Empire Medal in the birthday honours.

The 74-year-old has given his corner of Suffolk four decades of service. He’s been involved with the council and village magazine. “I have been church warden and treasurer in the past. I’ve cut the grass and cleared the gutters – just whatever needed to be done,” he told the EADT.

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So – back to the crux of the matter. If we want such stalwarts to get their deserved moments in the sun, we have to submit their names to the Cabinet Office Honours and Appointments Secretariat, which organises the process.

It hasn’t always been like this. The dispensing of honours was for many years what the Government called “a closed system”, with the Establishment deciding who should be considered. Only since 1993 have we, the public, been free to nominate someone we believe worthy.

It’s like growing seeds: the more you sow, the greater the chance of a fine crop. The more Suffolk people who are nominated, the greater the odds of more local recipients.

Sometimes, it can appear that the county is something of a Cinderella in the honours lists, outshone by the number of awards garnered by folk in neighbouring Norfolk and Cambridgeshire.

It’s not as simple as might appear at face value. Closer examination can show that two or three folk awarded OBEs are civil servants who work in London and just happen to live in Cambridge. Norfolk, meanwhile, traditionally stands to show well because of the royal estate at Sandringham and the number of locals serving the monarchy.

While the nomination form can appear a little offputting at first glance, most people should find it fairly straightforward.

Nominators need to get across not just how long people have served but what the benefits of their endeavours have been: showing, for instance, what the result has been of introducing community transport. It’s not just statistics that count but facts about how someone’s efforts have meant for people’s lives.

Forms returned to the Cabinet Office are then forwarded to committees (made up of independent experts on particular subjects and senior civil servants). These carry out detailed assessments and compare nominees’ merits.

Those findings are passed to the main selection committee, which forms its own views and forwards recommendations to the Cabinet Secretary – who, in turn, sends the list to the Prime Minister for submission to the Queen.

Once the monarch has given her approval, those all-important letters are sent to nominees, asking if he or she is willing to accept an award.

The process typically lasts a year or 18 months.

Under the rules of the system, recipients must still be involved in the activity for which they are being recognised. The key, therefore, is to nominate candidates while they are still actively doing good works, rather than delay until they’ve retired from office or given up their voluntary duties. It will be too late.

The Lord Lieutenant, Lord Tollemache, who is The Queen’s representative for Suffolk, has for many years been closely involved in seeking to get national honours for individuals in the county.

He says: “It is not easy to achieve recognition for deserving men and women in the New Year and Birthday Honours for two good reasons among many. Firstly, there is a finite national number of honours on each occasion, and there may be seven or eight nominations for each successful honour; and secondly, however worthy an individual is, it is the nomination form and the supporting letters that go with it from which committees in London must decide who is more worthy than others.

“I am convinced that Suffolk should receive more honours than it already does, but it does require effort by the individual who writes to nominate someone.

“It really is not difficult. So I do hope that more people will put pen to paper – I know it will make a huge difference not just for the successful individual but to all those who work with or know that person.”

One of Suffolk’s recent recipients is Anesta Newson, who was presented with her MBE by the Princess Royal at Buckingham Palace last month.

Anesta is chief executive of the Bridge Project in Sudbury, which helps adults “who face multiple disadvantage through their learning, physical and or ‘hidden’ disabilities”. She founded the charity in 1995.

Anesta had no idea she’d been nominated “and that it apparently took several years to happen! And was a complete shock when it did!

“Most of us in our sector feel passionate about the work that we do and many like me don’t see ourselves as anyone out of the ordinary. But we all know that we do make a difference to the quality of lives of many people,” she tells the EADT.

“I gather from my nominators, who came from a wide selection of people, that they had to have drive and commitment to keep on going, in sending in relevant information that was required – and evidence to back it up; not once or twice but sometimes thrice! So I think it’s about getting a group of people together to prepare a nomination and staying with it.

“To me, the award was a great honour. It was also so very special that somebody singled me out. Our whole project was so proud of the award, as it highlighted not just me but the work that my outstanding team do every day.

“So many more people have become aware of us and we have been the happy recipients of numerous well-wishes, not just from local people but countywide and regional.”

Honours: as easy as OBE . . .

THE British honours system is one of the oldest in the world and has evolved over 650 years Awards are given to people who have made a difference – “people of outstanding merit, and those who have committed themselves to service to the nation”

• Honours lists are published twice a year: at New Year and in mid-June, for the Queen’s official birthday

• A new system of committees, to decide who should be recognised, was set up in 2005, after a number of reviews. Those reforms were designed to create a system that was independent, transparent and accountable

• Now, anyone can make a nomination by getting a form – phone 020 7276 2777 or write to the Ceremonial Secretariat, Cabinet Office, 35 Great Smith Street, London, SW1P 3BQ.

• Web: the honours page via www.direct.gov.uk

• The Government suggests that nominators should think beforehand if the nominee has:

– made a difference to their community or area of work

– demonstrated the best sustained and selfless voluntary service

–improved the lives of people less able to help themselves

• The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire was created in 1917 by King George V and most awards are made under this order. Its classes include:

– Knight Grand Cross/Dame Grand Cross (GBE) Knight Commander/Dame Commander (K/DBE)

Awarded for: “a pre-eminent and sustained contribution . . . being recognised by peer groups as inspirational . . . the impact of the contribution being felt at a national level”

– Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE)

For “an achievement or service in a leading role at a regional level . . . making a highly distinguished, innovative contribution with a wide impact”

– Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE)

For “a regional or county-wide role . . . a contribution where the impact is felt by a significant number of people or across a broad geographical area”

– Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE)

For “an outstanding achievement or service . . . a sustained contribution . . . a real impact . . . a local role model”

– The BEM (British Empire Medal) had lain dormant since 1992, until David Cameron announced it would again be issued – beginning with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee

It rewards “an achievement or contribution of a very ‘hands-on’ service to the community . . . This might take the form of sustained commitment in support of very local charitable and/or voluntary activity, or innovative work that has delivered real impact but that is relatively short (three to four years) in duration”

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