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Mr. Deputy Speaker: I ask the Serjeant at Arms to investigate the delay in the Aye Lobby.

The House having divided: Ayes 14, Noes 0.

Division No. 169
[1.52 pm


Baldry, Tony
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W)
Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice)
Gale, Roger
Heald, Oliver
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)
Lansley, Andrew
Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Paterson, Owen
Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Stunell, Andrew
Swayne, Desmond
Wardle, Charles

Tellers for the Ayes:

Mr. Eric Forth and
Mr. James Paice.


Tellers for the Noes:

Mr. Andrew Dismore and
Mr. Andy King.

It appearing on the report of the Division that fewer than 40 Members had taken part in the Division, Mr. Deputy Speaker declared that the Question was not decided, and the business under consideration stood over until the next sitting of the House.

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30 Mar 2001 : Column 1261

Secret Societies (Registration of Membership) Bill

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:

30 Mar 2001 : Column 1262

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

this is the crucial part--

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.

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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 freemasonry. When people did get in touch, the first comment was that they had found nowhere else to raise the subject or 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.

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