Members of the United Grand Lodge, the Freemasons' ruling body, were warned that they faced possible charges of contempt of parliament and reprimands after they refused to provide any names to a Commons select committee.
They also indicated that they would ignore a request by Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, to provide a list of their members in the police and the judiciary, and would give only lukewarm support for a voluntary register.
The dispute centres on a request by the Select Committee on Home Affairs last summer for the Grand Lodge to identify masons in a list of about 165 people connected to three scandals. That follows allegations that masons were at the heart of a series of miscarriages of justice.
The cases involved 96 members of the disbanded West Midland Serious Crime Squad between 1974 and 1989; seven officers connected to the John Stalker affair, in which the deputy chief constable of Greater Manchester was suspended as he was completing his investigation into whether the RUC was operating a shoot-to-kill policy; and about 60 people, including journalists, involved in investigating the Birmingham pub bombings.
The lodge's grand secretary, Commander Michael Higham, said so far seven West Midlands officers had been identified as masons, but gave no names.
Chris Mullin, the committee chairman and a campaigner against injustice, including the case of the Birmingham Six, said: "It is obvious that the powers of the committee are being challenged and we owe it to ourselves and to parliament to rise to the occasion."
The refusal to reveal details of their membership is the biggest ever clash between the "brotherhood", who have about 500,000 members in Britain, and parliament.
In a heated public hearing of the Commons Home Affairs select committee, the Freemasons of England and Wales admitted that they did not trust the MPs to keep secret any information they might give. The committee voted to ask the Serjeant at Arms, Peter Jennings, to demand the list of names within 14 days. Cmdr Higham also declined to show committee members the masons' secret handshake.
There were signs last night that their resolve was weakening when the lodge's communications officer, John Hamill, said that it was "probable" they would comply as they did not want to break the law.Reuse content