HC Deb 30 March 2001 vol 365 cc1261-6

Order for Second Reading read.

2.5 pm

Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I should explain that this is the first time in 18 years that I have succeeded in bringing a private Member's Bill to the Floor of the House, so if I am a little rusty on the procedure, it is because I have been sitting here thinking about other things.

This is a short Bill with a clear and narrow objective. It simply requires that anyone elected to a local authority, the House of Commons or the National Assembly for Wales who is a member of a secret society—for example, and perhaps most obviously, the freemasons—shall register his membership with that public body.

I am pleased to say that there has been cross-party support for the Bill. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) and for Boston and Skegness (Sir R. Body), and to the hon. Members for Lewes (Mr. Baker), for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) and for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay). As has been pointed out to me, that is an eclectic bunch if ever I saw one. I am grateful for their support, and for the support and advice that I have received from many people both inside and outside the House, especially Mr. Martin Short, who wrote a best-selling book on the subject some years ago.

May I add—without straying out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker—that, depending on what statement is or is not made on Monday, this may be my last opportunity to make a speech in the House? I am sure that I am not the only person on the Opposition Benches who has felt the excitement of a further career challenge, which in my case will involve a return to the business world, from which I entered the House 18 years ago.

I make it clear from the outset that I have come across freemasons throughout my adult life. An uncle of mine was chaplain to the Royal Masonic hospital, and when I worked in industry, many of my colleagues were freemasons. I have no hesitation in defending their right to privacy for the activities that they pursue in their private lives. I respect their sense of fellowship and admire their charitable good works.

However, I maintain that once a person crosses the threshold into elected public office, he or she should register that interest. That is the nub of the Bill. I am pleased to see in his place my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry), who belongs to such a secret society, and who has for some time recorded that fact in the Register of Members' Interests.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

My hon. Friend's Bill applies to membership of the House, which is regulated by the Register of Members' Interests and the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. My hon. Friend did not give evidence to the Committee during its latest inquiry, and I do not know whether he has seen the conclusion of its report, which was published last week. It says: The Code does not, and the House should not, seek to regulate what Members do in their purely private and personal lives. I consider my involvement in masonic lodges to be purely personal and private. If the Committee on Standards and Privileges does not consider that a matter for the Register of Members' Interests, why does my hon. Friend feel that registration should be a statutory requirement?

Mr. Wardle

Because I abhor the idea of secrecy among people who are elected to public office. I am presenting this Bill because I think it important, in the spirit of openness and accountability, for Members to be steered in that direction. If a statutory requirement is necessary, as I believe it is, the Bill is necessary. I shall enlarge on the subject shortly: I shall say something about Lord Neill's advice to his own Committee on Standards in Public Life, which I think is pertinent to what my hon. Friend has said.

It stands to reason that the Bill will not reach the statute book, not just because of the Minister's endeavours, but because it is being presented at a fairly late stage in the current Parliament. However, I hope that it will at least put down a marker, even if not every Member considers it appropriate.

A report on freemasonry published by the Select Committee on Home Affairs a few years ago found that suspicions about the influence of freemasonry were damaging, and that the main cause of those suspicions was the secrecy that surrounded freemasons. I think I am right in saying—provided that there is time, the Minister will no doubt correct me if I am wrong—that the Government have taken steps to bring about the establishment of a register of freemasons for the police, the judiciary, magistrates and other categories of public official. I understand that there has been some resistance from the Police Federation, which has involved the Human Rights Act 1998; but it may be significant that the Association of Chief Police Officers thinks there should be a register of all those in government who are freemasons or members of similar organisations in cases in which a conflict of interests could arise. Inevitably, both in local government and in Parliament, there are numerous potential conflicts of interest, and I think that that fortifies the argument for my Bill.

To set an example to other public officials, members of the Committee on Standards in Public Life have established their own code of practice, requiring them to register any private interest which might influence their judgement or which"— this is the crucial part— could he perceived (by a reasonable member of the public) to do so The inevitable conclusion must be that, sooner or later, the need for openness and accountability in public life that I cited to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury will lead to legislation embracing that principle.

I have mentioned the Committee on Standards in Public Life. I wrote to its chairman, Lord Neill, asking whether, in view of paragraph 9 of appendix 2 of the committee's report, he or any of the committee's male members were freemasons. I received an oblique reply, in which the noble Lord said he believed that all members of the committee had complied with the requirements they had set themselves. Beyond that I was told absolutely nothing, which may come as no surprise.

For the avoidance of doubt, I should tell the House that I am not and have never been a freemason, nor have I sought to become one. Only in the past year have I developed a greater awareness of things masonic. It began with what I suppose was a mildly amusing cartoon in Private Eye, which lampooned me for having signed up to the employ of a well-known emporium in Knightsbridge. I did so, I may say, with the full clearance of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

The cartoon featured some masonic symbolism. In the same spirit of satire, I sat down and wrote a letter to Private Eye in which I said that I was not and never had been a freemason, but some of my ex-best friends were. It may surprise some Members that, as a result of that little exchange, I began to receive messages from constituents disclosing their concerns and reservations about freemasonry—constituents whom I have known for years, and whom I trust. One is a former mayor of Bexhill, an experienced former district councillor. He invited me to his house and told me that he had been a freemason most of his life, but was concerned about some practices. That increased my awareness of the subject. Until that Private Eye correspondence, no one had approached me about problems with freemasony. When people did get in touch, the first comment was that they had found nowhere else to raise the subject of to seek redress and would I help. I suppose that that provided the beginnings of the Bill.

All those revelations persuaded me that, if I were to be successful in the ballot for private Members' Bills—

Mr. Baldry

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Wardle

I will in a moment. I know that my hon. Friend will make a speech if there is time. I hope that he will let me just finish this point. All those revelations persuaded me that, if I were to be successful in the ballot, I should like to draw the subject to the House's attention.

Mr. Baldry

My hon. Friend says that there is nowhere to seek redress. Part of the Bill deals with local government. He knows that there is a local government ombudsman. Would it interest him to know that, over the past five years, the ombudsman has investigated some 76,951 complaints, that of those just 24 alleged some improper masonic influence, and that of those he upheld just two? Therefore, over the past five years, the ombudsman has out of 77,000-odd complaints upheld just two—that is 0.001 per cent.—as having anything improper to do with freemasons.

Mr. Wardle

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. I have no idea whether the ombudsman is a freemason. I do not in any sense cast aspersions at the ombudsman, but, if my hon. Friend, as a freemason himself, does not understand what the Select Committee on Home Affairs said some years ago—that the secrecy is worrying to members of the public—and that that fear of secrecy, that apprehension, prompts many people not to ask questions and not to make a complaint because they do not know who will react and how they will react, I fear that he has buried his head in the sand on this important subject. I am sure that that really is not the case.

I give some general illustrations of what I mean and why it is important that there should be a statutory requirement. One of the points raised with me by my constituents, including constituents who are themselves freemasons and let me know that they are, was that, of the five main committees on Rother district council, four were chaired by freemasons. Good for them. I have absolutely no doubt that they were the most suitable choices for those jobs, but what is important and pertinent is that just one of those four chairmen had previously registered his masonic interest. Two of the others did so only when the local Member of Parliament began to ask questions about the subject—questions raised by other constituents. They then put their names on the voluntary register. It is right and proper that there is a voluntary register. The other, who is chairman of the planning committee, to the best of my knowledge did not and has not yet registered his masonic interest, even though he is a past master of a lodge in, I believe, Battle.

I stay with that individual and talk about another situation that throws up the sort of conflict of interest that worries people who do not know enough about the subject and are nevertheless concerned. The individual to whom I have referred is also a member of the governors of the local high school: Bexhill high school. He was part of the process, as he should have been, in recruiting a new head teacher. I have absolutely no doubt that he approached that matter with evenhandedness and fairness, and I have no doubt at all that the governors made an excellent choice when they decided on the next head teacher. However, the fact is that that head teacher, who is doing a thoroughly good job—as is the councillor to whom I referred and who was a member of the governors participating in the selection process—was also a past master of a nearby lodge, in St. Leonards I think, just outside my constituency.

There is nothing wrong with any of that. However, it does raise a question on which I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury and the House will reflect. Should not the other governors, the teaching staff and the parents have been told that both those gentlemen belonged to that particular society? I am not suggesting for a second that they colluded in any way; I am sure that they did not—they are both honourable and capable men. Nevertheless, they did not report the fact and most of the parents are not aware of it. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury is sitting on the edge of his seat, but he will have to be patient. He has already had a big chunk of the time available for this debate, and I am sure that he will understand it if I want to make some progress.

I discussed the matter with the head teacher, and he said that some of the parents and some of the staff were aware of the fact because they had come along to ladies' nights. Although that is wonderful, the point is that not all the staff and all the parents had gone along to ladies' nights. It would have been so simple, in a spirit of openness, to declare the fact—to which, I am sure, no one would have batted an eyelid.

When I was successful in the ballot, I asked the grand secretary of the united grand lodge—I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury will correct me if I have that wrong—to lunch at Westminster. As I had this Bill in mind, I said to him, "Let us have some lunch and discuss it." He gave me a little booklet, which states on page 9: In circumstances where a conflict of interest might or be perceived to exist, or when freemasonry becomes an issue, a freemason must declare an interest. As I understand it, freemasons argue that it is up to individual freemasons to decide whether a declaration of interest is necessary. However, as Lord Neill's Committee on Standards in Public Life advises that a person must register any interest that might influence or could be perceived (by a reasonable member of the public) to do so". one has to ask how reasonable members of the public are to form a view if they do not have that information at their fingertips. The interest needs to be declared.

One of the arguments used against my proposals is that such declarations are not pursued by many other clubs and societies, such as golf clubs. People often say that golf club membership does not have to be declared to the council. However, I beg to differ. If a member of a local authority planning committee is a member of a golf club and discovers that a friend and fellow club member is presenting a planning application to the committee, he had better declare it or there will undoubtedly be difficulties. Openness and accountability are the order of the day.

Mr. Baldry

They are the order of the day also for freemasons.

I do not know whether my hon. Friend has addressed himself to the national code of local government conduct under the Local Government Act 1972, but it is perfectly clear and refers to freemasons. The councillor in those circumstances must obviously declare an interest.

Mr. Wardle

I hope that my hon. Friend will not mind me reminding him that I have told the House that the chairman of the planning committee of Rother district council is a freemason, a past master of his lodge, and has not registered that fact on the voluntary register that the council, quite properly, keeps. If my hon. Friend was trying to suggest—I am sure that he was not▀×that in the many years that this responsible councillor has been on the planning committee and has, indeed, been its chairman, there have been no applications from other freemasons who have not declared the fact, he and I have a different grasp of reality.

The grand secretary of the united grand lodge also had some comments about self-regulation. He assured me that freemasons deal with disciplinary matters involving wrongdoers that come up from time to time in any organisation. He said in the same breath that he would not know who was or was not a freemason in Sussex. I had asked about whether some individuals, whom I will not mention, were freemasons, and he said that he had no way of knowing, to which I replied, "If you do not have a central list of members at your fingertips, how can you assert that you have t system that can regulate itself?".

The Bill has had a little publicity, so it came as no surprise to me that I heard not only from my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury but from the Sussex grand master, although I may have the appellation wrong. He is a very important per on at the head of the organisation in Sussex. I do not know him, but he dropped me a line saying that if I knew of any cases of wrongdoing—that is not my purpose here today—would I let him know so that he could take action? If the grand master of the society in Sussex does not know about his own membership, or flock, what price self-regulation?

I am aware that time is running out, but I have been sitting patiently, so I shall use the time available.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I, too, have been sitting patiently, waiting to contribute to this debate. Although I very much welcome what the hon. Gentleman is trying to do, if there is a shortcoming it is that the Bill does not go far enough. For example, it deals with this place but not another place, which is part of the legislature. It deals with local authorities but not local authority officers. In my days at Westminster city council in the 1980s, there was a lodge specifically for the council, where senior officers and senior councillors met together. I thought that that was a very serious abuse.

Mr. Wardle

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's enthusiasm for what I am trying to do. A small step in the right direction may be the right way to start. A Minister in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, whose name I am not allowed to mention, introduced a ten-minute Bill on the subject several years ago and has provided me with some helpful information on the subject.

I mentioned earlier that there has been a little publicity for the Bill. I was intrigued at being approached, via a journalist I know, by Brian Boyce, a retired head of the crime squad from Scotland Yard. He said that he understood I was introducing a Bill on the subject. He is not a freemason himself, but my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury will be pleased that he was quick to say that in his work he found that many Metropolitan police officers who were freemasons never let that get in the way of their work.

It being half-pass Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 6 April.