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The Countess of Mar: My Lords, is the Minister aware that, as a member of the Immigration Appeal Tribunal, I received one of these questionnaires? My reply to it was: "No, I have been trying for years and cannot understand why no one will accept me." However, on a serious note, can the Minister say whether it was common practice to send such forms to women? If so, was it not a bit of a waste of time and money?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I never wanted to be a Freemason either in a male or female lodge. A large number of questionnaires from the Lord Chancellor's Department were sent out to the professional judiciary. Indeed, 5,290 were sent out. Those who declared that they were Freemasons included three women. Therefore, it was not entirely a waste of time.
Lord Burnham: My Lords, perhaps I may not actually declare an interest as such, but state that I am a Freemason. My saying so demonstrates that there is no reason why any Freemason should not say so. Can the Minister say what steps the Government are taking to ensure that anyone who declares membership is not in any way damaged in his employment by result of that membership?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, both of the noble Lord's points are of great validity. Indeed, it is very important for someone with the scruples that he has to make that bold statement and demonstrate by example. There are quite delicate internal questions involved. I repeat: anyone in a free society is entitled to be a Freemason. It would be quite wrong, and wholly against any policy that this Government would stand to, for anyone to be prejudiced in his or her employment by virtue of membership of the Freemasonry.
Lord Hoyle: My Lords, my noble friend the Minister said that there had been a good response to the questionnaire. However, can he say whether that applies in respect of all sections? For example, can he give the House the different percentages in each case?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, as I said, 5,290 questionnaires were sent out from the Lord Chancellor's Department. The response in 4,744 instances was a declaration by those consulted that they were non-Masons. In respect of "No reply received", the number was 213, with 65 males and five women not declaring their status. As regards the Police Service, the Home Office asked the ACPO to send out a letter. That letter went out on 7th April and, as I said earlier, we expect the response by October.
As regards the Attorney-General's Department, disclosure forms were sent out in September of last year to 2,097 lawyers. Nine said that they were Freemasons, although two of those declared themselves to be lapsed,
Lord Marsh: My Lords, as someone who is neither a Freemason nor a lawyer, perhaps I may ask the Minister a simple question. Surely any of the people in these categories would be guilty of an offence if they were found to be using any sort of influence improperly. Why then does it matter whether they are Freemasons as opposed to people with a particularly strong religious view or with strong party political views, neither of which they would have to declare?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, says that he is neither a Freemason nor a lawyer, but, after all, no one is perfect. It is important that the public have confidence in the criminal justice system and believe that it is even-handed. The point at issue is that there is a perception that the Freemasons' loyalty is owed to other members of the craft. Noble Lords will say--rightly in most cases--that that is not the case. However, we have to bear in mind that there is a deep-seated perception that that may be so. I go back to what a noble Lord said originally. He is proud and content to declare his membership. I respectfully suggest that it might solve many problems if others adopted the robust view which the noble Lord indicated.
Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether these public servants will also be asked about their membership of other organisations where gossip suggests that deals are done and attitudes are formed, such as golf clubs or, for that matter, Amnesty International?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I have been a supporter of Amnesty International. I was required to swear no oath when I became a supporter. Never having been a member of a golf club, I imagine that one does not have to swear an oath in that case. There are differences in practice which sometimes lead to differences in perception. My own view is that the more open, honest and--to take the noble Lord's example--honourable and scrupulous one is, the less doubt there can possibly be in these delicate areas.
Lord Swansea: My Lords, I must declare an interest as I have some pride in being a Freemason for more than 40 years. What action will be taken with regard to those mentioned in the Question who are required to disclose their Freemasonry membership, or those who decline to answer the question? Is the Minister aware that this demand will be regarded by those concerned as a gross invasion of their privacy and an unwarranted intrusion into their spare time activities? Have not the Government better things to do than conduct a witch-hunt against an honourable institution which has existed under royal patronage for nearly 300 years?
Baroness Sharples: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that somewhat encouraging reply. Is he aware that the new driving licence is a good step forward? Is he also aware that there is great concern about the increasing amount of fraud in this country? Perhaps we should hasten the introduction of a national identity card. What progress is being made as regards a pathway scheme to introduce a card in the area of social security?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am aware that a number of those who have expressed views on this matter share the views implied by the noble Baroness's questions. As regards the matters of fraud and the driving licence, they are slightly different from that of identity cards. The majority of those who responded to the consultation paper were in favour of an identity card. Not all of those who were in favour were also in favour of compulsion. There are civil liberties implications. I know that some continental countries have identity cards on an obligatory basis, but we do not. As regards the more general question about smart cards being issued to those who come into contact with government departments, that matter is being given even more active consideration, partly on the basis that the noble Baroness identified.
Lord Mason of Barnsley: My Lords, in view of the fact that most European countries have adopted schemes of identification, either voluntary or mandatory, and that it is likely that we shall adopt one of those schemes in due course, is not this form of harmonisation eminently sensible, especially as regards the growing problems at border controls and the numbers of asylum seekers?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Mason of Barnsley is quite correct; most countries in continental Europe have identity cards. Four of them have nothing at all; namely, Denmark, Ireland,
Lord Dholakia: My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a serious concern which will remain as regards matters of civil liberties, data collection and identity checks? However, does he not also agree that ample information about individuals is now collected on store cards, credit cards, driving licences and will be collected on passports when they are computerised? Is it not proper therefore for the Government to issue a consultation document to enable an informed debate to be held on this subject?
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