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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 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:
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.
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
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 person 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?
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.