Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative leader and architect of the universal credit benefits system, is among three serving MPs to be handed titles in an honours list low on political figures this year.
Duncan Smith, an MP since 1992 and Tory leader from 2001 to 2003, was awarded a knighthood alongside Bob Neill, the MP for Bromley and Chislehurst and former Conservative party vice-chairman.
The Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull North, Diana Johnson, has been made a dame, in part because of her campaigning for a full inquiry, which is currently taking place, into how contaminated blood transfusions infected thousands of people with hepatitis C and HIV.
While it is not uncommon for long-serving MPs, particularly former party leaders, to receive honours, Duncan Smith’s knighthood was met with criticism from opposition parties because of his record on benefits.
Labour criticised the decision to honour “the primary architect of the cruel universal credit system, which has pushed thousands of people into poverty”, while the Liberal Democrat MP Christine Jardine said the award “beggars belief”.
As work and pensions secretary for six years from 2010, Duncan Smith was the central figure as significant cuts were made to benefit and disability entitlements during the peak of the Conservative-led austerity period.
He faced particular criticism for a botched system of assessing people for disability payments and for helping preside over a rhetorical culture centred on “shirkers” and “scroungers”, which charities said led to an increase in abuse against disabled people.
In the role – which he eventually quit in protest at further planned benefits cuts – Duncan Smith also oversaw the beginnings of universal credit, his personal brainchild for a system to replace a series of working-age benefits with one flexible payment.
However, UC has proved deeply problematic and slow to roll out, with particular criticism about delays to initial payments, which charities said contributed to an increase in the number of people needing to use foodbanks.
New year honours predominantly reward public service rather than political work, so feature relatively few MPs. Many more political figures are likely to receive awards early next year, when the dissolution honours – drawn up by the outgoing government before a general election – are published.
The new year list also includes honours for a series of public servants and senior civil servants, among them Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, who is knighted.
David Prior, the chair of NHS England, said he wanted to congratulate Stevens and others in the health service given new honours. “It is the staff who make the NHS what it is, our most treasured national institution, so I am pleased to see their skill and dedication recognised,” he said.
Also given recognition was Alison Saunders, a former director of public prosecutions, whose five-year term ended in 2018 amid some controversy, notably over the collapse of several rape trials after the failure of the prosecution to disclose evidence. Already a Companion of the Order of the Bath, she is upgraded to become a Dame Commander of the order.
Similarly elevated within the Order of the Bath is Sally Davies, the former chief medical officer for England, who becomes a Dame Grand Cross, the highest level.
Among those receiving the same honour is John Manzoni, the lead civil servant in the Cabinet Office and chief executive of the civil service, who becomes a Knight Grand Cross.