In a letter to the Commons home affairs committee whose report on masonry in the judiciary and police was published yesterday, Mr Straw said that "in order to maintain public confidence in the criminal justice system, we believe that membership of the Freemasons should be a declarable and registrable interest".
As revealed exclusively in The Independent last week, the committee has recommended that "police officers, magistrates, judges and crown prosecutors should be required to register membership of any secret society". The all-party group of MPs wants the record to be publicly available and called on the United Grand Lodge of Freemasons to do this voluntarily so that legislation would not be needed.
However, in his written evidence to the committee, Mr Straw goes further saying that he would like virtually all participants in the judicial process and the administration of law to declare their membership including "the police, members of the judiciary and magistrates, counsel and solicitors, CPS prosecutors, probation officers and staff of the prison service". He adds that Labour would not support arrangements which applied to one group only.
Mr Straw's strong position has possibly been influenced by a case described in the home affairs committee report as a "quintessential masonic police scandal" which occurred in his Blackburn constituency. Two businessmen, Shaun and Sydney Callis, entered a private function at a hotel which subsequently turned out to be a "ladies night" organised by Victory Lodge and at which a number of Lancashire police were present. A fight ensued and the two were charged with assault. When the case came to court they were acquitted and in 1995 were awarded damages of pounds 85,000 plus costs in a civil action mainly against the police.
The Commons inquiry, while recommending more openness concluded that such incidents were relatively rare.
It says: "We do not believe that there is anything sinister about freemasonry, properly observed, and are confident that freemasonry itself does not encourage malpractice."
The inquiry reveals that there are 349,213 freemasons in England and Wales, down from 575,000 thirty years ago, in 7,835 lodges. But the committee found fewer masons than expected in key roles in the judiciary and police. For example, there are no law lords, two out of 39 Court of Appeal judges and one out of 96 High Court judges. While only one out of 75 judges in the Midland and Oxford Circuit is a mason, a quarter of the 64 judges in the North Eastern Circuit belong to lodges.
The Freemasons' Grand Secretary Commander, Michael Higham, said: "As a lawful and law-abiding society, Freemasons will be disappointed by this hasty conclusion, a recommendation which if implemented would interfere with a fundamental right in British life.
"There is no basis for saying that one of Freemasonry's aims is mutual self-advancement. Freemasonry is not to be used to advance interest, and that is very clearly understood by every Freemason."
Freemasonry in the Police and the Judiciary; House of Commons Home Affairs Committee; Stationery Office; pounds 6 20.Reuse content