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UK House of Commons Inquiry into Freemasonry and the Judicial System - Minutes of Evidence

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House of Commons Session 1997-98
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Home Affairs - Minutes of Evidence

Here you can browse the Minutes of Evidence which were ordered by the House of Commons to be printed 17 February 1998.




Members present:

Mr Chris Mullin, in the Chair

Mr Richard Allan

Mr Martin Linton

Mr Robin Corbett

Mr Humfrey Malins

Mr Ross Cranston

Mr David Winnick

Mr Gerald Howarth

Examination of Witnesses

RT HON JACK STRAW, a Member of the House, Secretary of State for the Home Department, and MR DENIS EVANS, Grade 7, European Union and International Unit, examined.

Question Number
Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)




  25. Thank you. Freemasonry. After a lengthy period of gestation you have this morning replied to the Select Committee's report on freemasonry in the police and judiciary. Would you like briefly to say what you are proposing, Home Secretary?

  (Mr Straw) I will and, if I may, I will refer back to the investigation—

  26. Feel free.

  (Mr Straw)—by the Committee in the previous Parliament. I am just trying to remember who apart from yourself was a member of that?

  27. I am the only survivor.

  (Mr Straw) In that case only you will recall that I wrote on 10th February of last year—

  28. I remember it well.

  (Mr Straw)—to that Committee when I was the Shadow Home Secretary, this is quoted at page 139 of volume II of the third report of last year, to say: "In order to sustain public confidence in the criminal justice system, we"—that is the Opposition—"believe that membership of the freemasons (and any other similar organisation) should be a declarable, and registerable interest. We went on to say that we also believe that any such requirement should apply equally to all those who play a key role within the system and we would not support arrangements that would apply to only one group, eg the police and not others. We added that: "We accept there are important and sensitive questions about how any register should be maintained, and the criteria for access to this. We look forward to considering the detailed recommendations of your Committee on these questions in due course." As you know. Mr Chairman, you made your report and the report said: "We recommend that police officers, magistrates, judges and crown prosecutors should be required to register membership of any secret society and that the record should be available publicly." It went on: "However, it is our firm belief that a better solution lies in the hands of freemasonry itself. By openness and disclosure, all suspicion would be removed and we would welcome the taking of such steps by the United Grand Lodge." What I have submitted to the Committee this morning is the Government's response in the light both of your evidence to the Committee last year and of that recommendation, I ought to make it clear the arrangements I am setting out apply to England and Wales and it is for the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Northern Ireland to consider whether similar—

  29. On that point have you discussed the issue with your colleagues?

  (Mr Straw) I have consulted with them, but my responsibility is for England and Wales.

  30. I understand that, yes, thank you.

  (Mr Straw) What we have said is this: we accept the recommendation that was made by the Committee and we propose to implement it in this way: first of all, we have decided to widen the categories of criminal justice employees so that it covers not only police officers, judges, magistrates or crown prosecutors but also probation officers and staff of the Prison Service. If it is going to cover the system it might as well cover the system as a whole. As far as magistrates are concerned the Council of the Magistrates' Association has commendably been ahead of other groups here. They have decided that magistrates' benches should be required to declare they are freemasons on the application form and your Committee recommended that the Lord Chancellor's Department should alter the wording of the application form accordingly and that is going to happen. As for paid appointments, we are proposing that all new appointments to the judiciary, the magistracy, the police, legally qualified staff of the CPS, Probation Service and Prison Service shall have as a condition of appointment a requirement to declare membership of the freemasons and obviously any later admission to the freemasons if that takes place after appointment. There is an issue about what is a new appointment. This not only applies to somebody coming into these professions de novo but someone moving from one employer to another. Plainly, if a police officer moves from one police force no another that is a new appointment. Other services are organised differently. For example, there is only one Prison Service and if someone is promoted in the Prison Service is that a new appointment? If the judge moves from being on the High Court bench to the Court of Appeal is that a new appointment? We have got to consult the body concerned although it is partly a matter of employment law. For those who are already serving in those categories, we accept the view of the Home Affairs Committee that the better solution, in the words of the Committee, lies in the hands of freemasonry itself. Accordingly, I propose to make a formal request to the United Grand Lodge that they provide on a regional basis consistent with the regional structure of the lodges, the names and identifying occupations and other necessary details of those who are or who become freemasons in the specified professions and occupations. I do this, and I read the evidence very carefully, because the freemasons said on a number of occasions they were not a secret society, they were simply a society with secrets. I think it is widely accepted that the secret they should not be keeping is membership. There are other aspects of their work that no one is going to seek to scrutinise. If what they say is correct they are not a secret society but simply a society with secrets, we believe it is consistent with the approach of your Committee, that they should be the people who provide the names and occupations and other identifying details of the people involved in the criminal justice system. I hope that request produces a positive response from the United Grand Lodge. If it does not, either because they are unwilling to comply or because they are unable in terms of the data they have to comply then we will make arrangements for registers to be open for all specified professions and occupations. All existing employees and office holders would be invited to register. Although at this stage a failure to return information would not of itself be a breach of condition of employment nil returns would be shown as such on the register. We are going to consult on where the register should be available but plainly they should be publicly available and there is no point if they are not. The question is whether they should be available just in public libraries or in other areas. The last point is that if these arrangements do not work satisfactorily then we will look at the need for legislation having regard to the extent of compliance with the voluntary registers once established, although plainly we hope that they will work.

  31. Can I thank you for that, Home Secretary, and can I say what you have announced today is a big step forward and I am sure will be widely welcomed. As I am sure you will appreciate, we are up against some mighty vested £interests here and they may not recognise words like "voluntary" and therefore we have to prepare for the possibility that legislation and other measures and enforcement will be required. You are prepared for that, are you not?

  (Mr Straw) Yes, it says so in paragraph 10 of this statement. I hope very much that freemasons will recognise that the work that you have done. This, as I recall, was an All-Party report, a unanimous report.

  32. It was not quite unanimous. It certainly attracted support from Members on all sides.

  (Mr Straw) I am sorry, it is not a partisan report. It is important for the same reasons as Members of this House declare their interests that those who are in positions within the criminal justice system and who have important professional discretions that they exercise, should not only act fairly but should also be seen to act fairly and declaration is a way of achieving that.

  33. Do you have in mind a timetable? You have said there have got to be consultations with those professions that are affected.

  (Mr Straw) I want to get on with this as quickly as possible. I recognise that you particularly have shown great patience in awaiting this statement. I am grateful to you for that. I cannot give a precise timetable but we do want to move ahead pretty quickly. We do not believe that these initial changes require legislation. The letter to the United Grand Lodge will be going off in the next two weeks.

  34. That is very good. We would not wish to give anyone the impression that there will be a further period of prevarication which will lead us into the next General Election and thereafter, who knows what?

  (Mr Straw) There is no suggestion whatsoever of that. You will recall, it is a matter of record in this document, that as a constituency Member of Parliament in Blackburn I had profound concerns about the activities of some freemasons which arose from a case in my constituency some years ago, the Callis case which is well charted in there.

Mr Howarth

  35. Home Secretary, our Chairman of this Committee certainly has a very keen interest in this issue. Can you tell us what it is about freemasonry that you find so, if not offensive, something that ought to be declared? After all, freedom of association is guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights which we discussed yesterday.

  (Mr Straw) 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. They are a society which is very secretive at the moment and that has given rise to suggestions of improper influence. Not just to suggestions in some cases. The Callis case which arose in my constituency was a scandal, let us be clear about this. What happened, for those who are unfamiliar with this story, was that there was a father and son—Callis—who were business people from Leicester who were staying at what was then the Moat House Hotel in Blackburn. They were going up the stairs and met eight men coming down the stairs. The eight men were members of the local police freemasonry lodge. An altercation took place and the result of this was that the two Callis's, father and son, were charged with assault and the case went to Lancaster Crown Court. There the judge was quite explicit, he said that you either believe the police that two men going up the stairs started a fight with eight men coming down the stairs, in which case you will convict on the charges, or you will believe the Callis father and son, in which case you have to conclude that these police officers were lying and that they had got together to concoct a story. The jury acquitted the Callis's and they have since received a fairly large sum by way of compensation from the Lancashire Constabulary. It was a most unsatisfactory story. It also raised questions about the way in which in those days Lancashire Constabulary ran its disciplinary process. I used to get two line letters from the Deputy Chief Constable about what was happening. There is a reality here. The conclusion of the Committee last year in paragraph 49(f) was "there is a widespread public perception that freemasonry can have an unhealthy influence on the criminal justice system, and we certainly believe that one of the main reasons for freemasonry's poor public image is a perception that it is a secret society." We, as Members of Parliament, declare membership of all sorts of bodies and there is not the least suggestion that because we are members of this body or that body—I am a visiting Fellow of Nuffield College for example and there is no suggestion as a result of its association with me that it is somehow an unacceptable body. What is important, however, is that people should know that I am a visiting Fellow of Nuffield. I have a connection with them and have had for some years. If an issue arises about Nuffield people will say "hang on a second, why is the Member of Parliament for Blackburn saying this because he seems to be parti pris to that institution?" That is the point. If you have a situation where a whole sequence of people involved in the criminal justice system in one particular case are freemasons then people need to know that.

  36. As a judge said on the radio this morning—he is a mason—there is no way he as a judge sitting on the bench and as a member of his masonic lodge could know if somebody before him was also a mason, but if he did know that somebody before him was also a mason he would be in no different a position from a judge who saw an acquaintance before him. If it was an acquaintance he would obviously have to declare it. The court would not otherwise know unless he declared it. I do not quite see why freemasons are so special?

  (Mr Straw) I listened to that interview too. The question in my mind was if there is nothing to worry about why not have a register? There plainly have been things to worry about in the past. The previous Committee did not devote all this time and attention to the issue just to create a confection. The case in my constituency was something to worry about. It just was. In the police service many senior police officers, and not just senior police officers but many police officers, will say now that there was a most serious problem of freemasonry in the police in years gone by. I do not believe it is anything like as serious now by the way. It is very difficult to tell the exact extent. If you talk to police officers who served in the Metropolitan Police for 20 or 30 years they will tell you that in their view the principal way in which you could at the margin gain promotion was by being a member of the freemasons and this was unacceptable. It was made less acceptable because the freemasons were a secret society.

Mr Winnick

  37. Do you consider it desirable in itself, Home Secretary, for judges and police officers to be members of freemasonry societies?

  (Mr Straw) I think it is entirely a matter for them. I am not a mason, which I imagine may now be reasonably clear.

  Chairman: You surprise me!

Mr Winnick

  38. While you have declared—

  (Mr Straw) I was about to play Groucho Marx on the subject as well!

  39. Is it also your view that when it comes to declaring membership as such that it should also apply to Members of Parliament and all members in the Government?

  (Mr Straw) It is my personal view. This was not within the scope of this inquiry, let me say. What is a subject for declaration in this House is a matter for Parliament and not for me. I just want to go back to answer your principal question and in the same way to pick up Mr Howarth's answer. People in this country have an absolute right to belong to any lawful society that they wish to choose and I defend that right. I defend the right of people to join the freemasons. They have got a right in terms of our society's norms as well as the European Convention. That is not the issue. It is whether being a member they should declare it.

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)



  40. I take that point entirely. There is a difference, is there not, between a right, which I share with you, that no-one should take away in a democracy the right to belong to such organisations, but is it desirable, that is my basic question? Is it desirable for a judge to sit on the bench carrying out his role being a member of a secret society?

  (Mr Straw) It is desirable that a declaration is made. It is not undesirable that people are members of freemasons. If I was to say that I would be denying the point I shared with Mr Howarth. People have got an absolute right to belong to these societies. If they have then it is a matter for them to make that decision. There are many, many freemasons, I am absolutely certain, in each branch of the criminal justice system who perform their duties with absolute fairness and impeccably, no question about that. The proof that people are able to combine their membership of the freemasons with membership of one or other of these branches of the criminal justice system is there for people to see. There is no doubt about that. The issue is is there something to be worried about? Yes, because of its secretiveness. That was brought out by this inquiry last year. Should we do something about it? Yes, we should make it a declarable interest in the way which we propose.

  Chairman: We are going to turn to the prevention of terrorism. Mr Winnick again.

Prepared 8 May 1998

Resource: House of Commons

Further Reading:

Pillars of the Community

UK Freemasonry in the News, have the 'Brethren' finally met their Waterloo?