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Freemason Secrecy to get a slap on the wrist

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Friday, February 20, 1998 Published at 08:48 GMT

image: [ Huw Edwards - Chief Political Correspondent ] Huw Edwards
BBC News 24's Chief Political Correspondent

Boring boring politics? Not this week. BBC News 24's Chief Political Correspondent, Huw Edwards, takes a look back at a fun-packed, tension-filled week in Parliament, which even included a visit from the Freemasons.

You think Parliament is boring? Most of the time, I'd agree with you. Very boring. Even numbing. And certainly tedious. But bear with me... it's not all bad. It can actually be exciting!

But hang on. I'm not talking about the cliche-ridden session that travels under the name of Prime Minister's Questions. This semi-scripted charade was extended to 30 minutes by Tony Blair, in the mistaken belief that this would yield a higher standard of debate than the previous twice-weekly 15 minutes.

There have been occasions when William Hague has been able to use his five or six interventions to telling effect, but for the most part this session is just a longer version of what went before. It consists either of cringe-making planted questions from friendly Labour backbenchers or of cringe-making planted questions from unfriendly Tory backbenchers. To pretend that this is a forum for exciting debate is a joke. Yes, there can be thrilling one-line exchanges, but even these are few and far between.

For the real fun, you have to climb one of Westminster's many grand staircases to what's called the Committee Corridor, and up again to the Upper Committee Corridor. This is where the action is these days. You think "The Titanic" is tense and exciting? You haven't seen the Home Affairs Select Committee in full flow! Especially when they're up against Britain's biggest secret society, that fascinating brotherhood known as the United Grand Lodge of Freemasons.

This week, we were treated to a duel between Chris Mullin, Chairman of the Committee, and Commander Michael Higham, Grand Secretary of that Lodge.

Mr Mullin and his committee have for some time been asking some awkward questions about freemasons within the police, the judiciary, and other public bodies. In particular, they have given the masons a list of more than 160 individuals, including police officers and journalists, who in various ways were connected with some of the great police scandals of recent years.

The question they ask is simple. Of those listed, who is or was a freemason? To date, the United Grand Lodge has refused to answer. Now, it has 14 days to do so. The Committee has threatened Commander Higham with contempt of Parliament unless he complies.

There is something quietly amusing about all of this. To be charged with contempt of Parliament nowadays is rare, and even if found guilty, the punishment is unlikely to be any worse than being summoned to the House to be reprimanded by the Speaker. In other words, a public slap on the wrist. Humiliating certainly, but hardly the grim punishment meted out to those guilty of this offence in centuries gone by.

And yet without an obvious big stick with which to beat the Commander, the Home Affairs Committee will in all likelihood get its way. The reason for this is that the Select Committees, widely televised, are seen to do their work efficiently. Some of them don't, but this one certainly does.

Holding people to account is the backbone of parliamentary activity. Parliament has suffered in the public's eyes because ministers are all too often seen to get away with evading proper questions. Ministerial question time, including Mr Blair's, is ineffective in this respect. The select committees are now the true upholders of this basic democratic activity. They're doing a great job, and they can be good fun too.

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