HC Deb 06 May 1998 vol 311 cc838-44

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. McFall.]

10.55 pm
Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

I am a freemason, as the House knows. My purpose in initiating this debate is not, however, to defend freemasons or freemasonry; with my knowledge of freemasonry, I hope rather that I can assist the House and persuade the Home Secretary—and, indeed, the Government as a whole—to reconsider their proposals on freemasons.

I fully accept that some people find freemasonry slightly ridiculous. That is a matter for them, but if I and thousands of other men choose to be ridiculous in private, that is surely a matter for us. On other matters, I regularly get down on my knees and pray to a trinitarian God. I proclaim a creed that asserts baptism for the remission of sins and life after death. Some people believe in transubstantiation—that the bread and wine actually turn into the body and blood of our Lord. Again, I suspect some people find some or all of those ideas ridiculous. Whether I believe them is a matter for me. The state has no business seeking to build windows into men's souls.

Sadly, there are those who, for some reason, regard freemasons not only as ridiculous, but as sinister. Bernard Levin observed in an article in The Times:

Freemasonry hysteria … is paralleled to the same principles as those of anti-Semitism, and indeed it has often been to a very considerable extent a stalking-horse for the more ancient vileness. It could hardly be otherwise; attacks on suspect Jewry have almost always been inextricably entwined with anti freemasonry. Hitler lumped them together without distinction of any kind. Thousands of freemasons from Germany, Vichy France and Nazi-occupied Europe were killed in the gas chambers. The Home Secretary should stop to consider the justifiable outcry that there would be if Jewish judges, magistrates or police officers had to declare themselves as such.

What justification can there be for the state to invade the privacy of those who happen to be freemasons? In the Home Secretary's press release, only one justification is given, which is

Membership of secret societies such as freemasonry". That reflects some very confused thinking on the Home Secretary's part. Freemasonry may be private, but it is not secret: our meeting places, our charitable work and our leaders are well known.

There is no difference between freemasons' lodges and hundreds of other unincorporated associations and clubs throughout the country. To put that to the test, I recently wrote to a random 50 or so London clubs, to golf clubs throughout the country, and to organisations such as the MCC, asking for their membership lists or access to those lists.

I made it clear in my letter that my inquiry was not commercial or frivolous and was based on a matter of genuine public interest. With one exception, all those who responded said that their membership lists were private and not open to public scrutiny. Some, such as the MCC, did not even reply. Liphook golf club said:

I am afraid that we are not empowered to make this information available to you. Sunningdale golf club said:

I regret I am unable to provide you with a list of the names and addresses of Members which is regarded as confidential. The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers said that it was

a private Members golf club … the names and addresses of the Members of this Club are not for public examination. Wentworth golf club said:

it is our policy not to disclose our members' details. The Royal St. George's golf club said that it was

a Private Members Club and, as such, it protects its privacy and that of those, who make up the Membership. The Royal Birkdale golf club said:

As a private members club, the names and addresses of members are not open for public inspection. Every other golf club replied in similar terms.

Of the London clubs, the Groucho club said:

I am afraid that our membership list is confidential so I am unable to furnish you with the details you require. St. James's club said:

the list is private and under no circumstances would I divulge our list to any person requiring information on our Members. Brooks's said:

I am unable to assist you, as the list of members' names and addresses is not open for public inspection. The Garrick club said:

I regret that our Membership List is not available for inspection. The Reform club said:

I am afraid we regard the list of members of the Reform Club as confidential to members. Accordingly the list is not open for public inspection nor am I able to make it available to you. The Royal Automobile club said:

I advise that our membership file is not available for public inspection. I also wrote to the constituency Labour parties of Home Office Ministers, asking whether they made their lists of members available for public scrutiny. That prompted a telephone call from Labour party headquarters at Millbank, asking why I had made such an inquiry. I explained the reasons but, not surprisingly, no membership lists were forthcoming.

If the Home Secretary considers it reasonable for people to keep private their membership of the Labour party, of their local golf club or of any other club that they might join—I hazard a guess that more High Court judges are members of the Garrick than of the grand lodge—why is such privacy to be denied to freemasons alone? What is it about freemasons that he considers so unique that they must be treated so differently?

Why is the privacy allowed to every other club to be denied to freemasons? Why have the proposals drawn no murmur of doubt from organisations such as the National Council for Civil Liberties? Is it, as Bernard Levin further observed, that the

hysteria that can be summoned up about freemasonry comes close to genuine lunacy"? The Home Secretary's press release is all that we have to enable us to understand his thinking, because he has given no other reasons than those that scantily appear there, but it might be said that freemasons are different because we take an oath.

If that is the reason, I hope that the Home Secretary will have read and noted the conclusion of the Home Affairs Select Committee which, in the previous Parliament, conducted an inquiry into freemasonry and concluded:

when the oaths are read in context there is nothing in them that would appear sinister and nothing in the evidence that we have heard that would show a conflict between the oath taken by a judge or policeman and that taken by a freemason … we do not believe that there is anything sinister about freemasonry … and are confident that freemasonry itself does not encourage malpractice. Indeed, Parliament has been here before, and not found anything sinister about freemasons and their activities—quite the opposite. In the reign of George III, there was genuine concern about Jacobite plots to overthrow the Crown, and the Unlawful Societies Act 1799 was passed making it unlawful to take certain oaths. Indeed, the Tolpuddle martyrs were deported not because they were trade unionists but because they offended against that legislation. However, freemasons were specifically exempted from the terms of the Act on the express provision that the secretary of each lodge each year gave the meeting place, names and occupations of every lodge member to the clerk to the local justices.

That legislation stayed in place and was observed until 1967, when it was repealed by the Labour Government of the time—on the recommendation, as I understand it, of the Law Commission—as unnecessary and obsolete, in the Criminal Law Act 1967. Has anything happened since 1967 that Parliament should now consider that there has been some public mischief concerning freemasons that needs to be dealt with? If so, doubtless the Home Secretary will tell the House about it.

It may be helpful to observe that, in the past 12 years, there have been 34 ombudsman investigations into allegations of masonic influence in local authority matters, and that in only one case was there any suggestion of cause for concern. By contrast, during the same period, the ombudsman found local authorities guilty of discriminating against freemasons in at least two cases.

In 1988, in High Peak, a local lodge applied to the council for a grant for renovating buildings and was refused. The lodge suggested an anti-masonic bias, the ombudsman investigated and found the council guilty of maladministration and prejudice against freemasonry. In April 1988, freemasons applied to Ogwr council in Wales for a grant to improve a masonic building in Maesteg, and were refused. The council were then forced by the ombudsman to give the freemasons £3,500, and were found guilty of maladministration and prejudice against freemasons.

If there is some supposed malpractice that the ombudsman and the press collectively seem to have missed, perhaps the Home Secretary could assist the House by arranging for a parliamentary question to be answered giving the information, or by placing in the Library a list of instances in which he believes that any judge, magistrate, police officer, prison officer or member of the Crown Prosecution Service has acted improperly in any way as a consequence of being a freemason. I venture to suggest that such a list would be extremely short; indeed, perhaps it would not exist at all.

The Home Secretary has asked the grand lodge to consider introducing a voluntary register. He has gone about that in a somewhat strange way. No attempt was made to consult freemasons before he issued his press release, and I understand that there was not even the courtesy of a letter when it was issued. No attempt has been made by officials to discuss practical matters with freemasons since the press release was issued, and only when the grand lodge wrote to the Home Secretary in March did the right hon. Gentleman start to address freemasons' concerns about his proposals.

I do not seek to speak on behalf of the grand lodge or of freemasons collectively. I should simply like to draw the House's attention to what the grand secretary said to the Home Secretary in his letter of 16 March. He wrote:

Since time immemorial, men … in this country have enjoyed a right to privacy and a right to freedom of association. You are apparently seeking to create different categories of citizen: those who are Freemasons and those who are not. It seems inconceivable that whilst a man can gain the protection of the law because of prejudice on grounds of race, creed or colour, he is to be singled out because he pursues the membership of a lawful society in his free time. If this is to happen, England will be discriminating against Freemasons in a way not seen since the days of Vichy France or Nazi Germany. So that you can know how generally offensive such a measure would be, Freemasonry … includes some 350,000 men of all political persuasions and none; and of all respectable religious faiths … Freemasonry is not and has never been a secret society, regardless of what those who hold to the conspiracy theory of society may pretend. Our Year Book, which includes a statement of our aims and principles, and names of Masonic leaders and meeting places, is on sale to the public, and spokesmen are readily available to meet the media, Select Committees and other interested bodies. I do not believe that freemasons are minded to do that which is not demanded, or expected, of any other club or society in the land and I have to tell Home Office Ministers that, if the Home Secretary wishes to take his proposals forward, he will have to introduce primary legislation. I hope that the Government collectively will reconsider all those matters before taking such a step and that the Cabinet Legislative Committee will give them serious collective thought as well.

I also have to tell the Home Secretary that if he does introduce such legislation, it will be opposed. Any such Bill will be opposed by hon. Members of all political persuasions as being contrary to natural justice and an unwarranted infringement of civil liberties. I do not intend even to start to comment on the practical difficulties of any statutory register. Are police officers who are freemasons to have their addresses published? Who will have access to such a register and on what terms will they have access? Where will the register be held? The practical difficulties are legion and will have to be examined closely if the Government introduce such a Bill.

I hope that the Home Secretary is not insensitive to civil liberties or to the freedoms of individual citizens. I fear that some prejudice against freemasons has clouded his judgment and the collective judgment of the Government. With such a majority, the Government can drive through Parliament any Bill they choose, and freemasons, being lawful citizens, would comply with such a Bill, if it were to become an Act, and with the wishes of Parliament. However, such a law would not be a happy piece of legislation on the statute book by which to remember the Government. I hope that Ministers, who may have been tempted simply to take forward a recommendation of a previous Select Committee, but who have not given the basic principles the necessary careful consideration and thought, will now reconsider the proposals.

I remind the Home Secretary that, in the past year alone, freemasons gave £16 million to charity—money which was raised freely and voluntarily from among freemasons. Most reasonable men and women in the country will recognise such giving and, however eccentric they think freemasons are, will, after considering the issues carefully, not support legislation that discriminates against one group of citizens in the way the Home Secretary proposes; for to discriminate against one group of citizens in society is to discriminate against all citizens.

11.13 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Alun Michael)

The hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) has made his case in a reasonable and measured manner, but I regret his stated intention, with others, to obstruct progress on a sensible and balanced proposal by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, supported by the Government, in respect of an important matter of concern.

I shall deal first with two specific points. The hon. Gentleman suggested that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has not published his reasons for establishing a freemasons' register other than through a press release. That is not the case. On 17 February, the day of the press release, my right hon. Friend appeared before the Select Committee on Home Affairs and gave evidence on his reasons for establishing the register. That sitting was public and it was reported in Hansard.

Secondly, it is worth pointing out to the hon. Gentleman that the grand lodge, like my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, knew full well what the Select Committee on Home Affairs had recommended and was aware of the Government's response. My right hon. Friend wrote fully to Commander Higham on 27 March.

I welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman declares his interest as a freemason. I welcome also the fact that others are open about exercising the option that the hon. Gentleman described as choosing to be ridiculous in private. Perhaps that applies more widely. One of the great freedoms open to humanity is to look and to be ridiculous. Indeed, it is what many of us do best, but that is not the issue which leads to the approach that the Government have adopted.

It is not only my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State who considers the issue important. The matter has been the subject of massive concern and debate over many years. The Government decided to adopt a measured and moderate response after careful consideration of the report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. I therefore welcome the opportunity to set out the Government's policy in relation to the declaration and registration of membership of the freemasons by those employed or appointed within the criminal justice system, or who seek such employment or appointment. It is worth underlining the fact that it is the criminal justice system that we are talking about, which is one of the bastions of a free society and of our democratic processes. It is extremely important that it should be free from bias and for that to be seen to be the case.

Before getting into the detail of the arrangements, I should make it clear, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has said, that the Government do not see a problem with freemasonry itself. The Government are concerned solely with dealing fairly and effectively with the legitimate public expectation that the rights and freedoms of all are properly observed and safeguarded in any dealings with the various parts of the criminal justice system.

I think that that is apparent from what my right hon. Friend said to the Select Committee on Home Affairs on 17 February:

There is no suggestion whatever that if people want to join the freemasons they should be stopped from doing so. I do not find anything about the freemasons offensive. Our interest is concerned entirely with the public's expectations regarding the fairness and integrity of the criminal justice system. It is an interest which is clearly shared by the Select Committee on Home Affairs—that is made clear in its third report for 1996–97—and, among others, by the Association of Chief Police Officers.

The Government announced on 17 February that all new appointments, whether full-time or part-time posts, to the judiciary, the police, the legally qualified staff of the Crown Prosecution Service and the probation and prison services will have to declare their membership of the freemasons as a condition of service. Any later admission to the freemasons after taking up post will also be declarable.

I shall move on to how the Government can best resolve the issue of openness and disclosure about membership of the freemasons in relation to those already serving in the relevant occupations and professions within the criminal justice system. The House will be aware that the view of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, shared by the Government, is that the best solution is for freemasonry itself to publicise the information. However, we know from various comments, which have been reinforced by the hon. Gentleman this evening, that that will not happen. That is regrettable. Consequently, the Government have decided that the various parts of the criminal justice system should open registers and invite serving office holders and employees to declare whether or not they are members of the freemasons.

The Government will consult on where the registers should be available, but, in any event, the Government believe that they should be publicly available. This entirely voluntary arrangement will be reviewed in the context of the need for legislation, having regard to the extent of compliance with the voluntary registers, once they are established. I invite the hon. Gentleman and others to reconsider the view that they would push the Government to introduce legislation. That seemed to be the implication of the hon. Gentleman's remarks.

Since the Government announcement on 17 February, we have had discussions with two of the groups that were not mentioned in the original statement: coroners clerks and justices clerks, both of which will be included in the terms of the declaration and registration policy. The position in relation to members of police authorities is also to be considered.

Concerns have been expressed that the declaration and registration policy might be incompatible with the terms of the European convention on human rights, in particular article 8 which concerns respect for private and family life. There is no conflict between the ECHR's provisions and our policy in respect of those working in the criminal justice system who are freemasons.

The two key points are that our policy has nothing to do with interfering in an individual's choice about the freemasons, and that the provisions of the ECHR concerning an individual's rights and freedoms are expressed within the corresponding balance of the freedoms and rights of others. It is important to reinforce my point that the Government are concerned about maintaining and improving openness and transparency within the criminal justice system. Given that membership of the freemasons can raise suspicions of a lack of impartiality or objectivity, those matters would be most effectively dealt with if the public had access to the facts.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned a previous arrangement whereby freemasons registered with the local clerk of the peace. I do not pretend to be an expert in the law, but my understanding is that the provisions of the Unlawful Societies Act 1799, inter alia, required the secretary of each freemasonry lodge to send an annual list of members to the local clerk of the peace, as the hon. Gentleman said. It is difficult to know what purpose the lists served, but they were not made public and were solely for the use of the magistracy. The arrangements were repealed by the Criminal Law Act 1967.

I am not convinced that the legislation was observed to the letter of the law up to 1967. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can tell me whether lists were dispatched annually. I am also unsure of the purpose of the system. It has been suggested to me that fear of revolutionary activity following the French revolution 10 years earlier led to the passage of such legislation, which would mean that the image of the freemasons in 1799 was different from their image this century.

Such an arrangement would not meet public expectations or Government policy, primarily because we believe that the register should be publicly available. Our policy in relation to declaration and registration of membership of the freemasons, as I hope that I have clearly explained, is entirely concerned with the public's expectations regarding the fairness and integrity of the criminal justice system.

Those issues gave rise to concerns that were examined with great care by the Home Affairs Committee. It did not leap to conclusions or produce answers without having given them careful thought. Nor will we move forward without consulting on the way in which the requirements that the Home Secretary explained to the Home Affairs Committee in February would be carried through. We shall press on with the work needed to ensure that the implementation of the policy later this year is consistent and efficient across the component parts of the criminal justice system. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts the reasoned way in which the matter is being approached.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes past Eleven o'clock.