One in five male JPs is a Freemason

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ONE IN five male magistrates is a Freemason, according to the Government's first survey of the judiciary's membership of the secretive organisation.

Figures unveiled by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, showed that up to 19 per cent of male JPs and 4.9 per cent of judges were Masons.

Lord Irvine told the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee there was "no evidence" whatsoever that a judge or magistrate had treated a fellow Freemason favourably. However, there was a widespread public perception that such unfairness occurred and it was important for them to declare membership in the interests of openness.

The survey by the Lord Chancellor's Department of 26,000 magistrates in England and Wales found that 1,097 JPs admitted membership, with 867 refusing to answer the question.

As women make up half of the total and are not allowed to join the brotherhood, the number of male magistrates who have declared their membership works out at 13.6 per cent, with 5.4 per cent declining to answer.

With a further 2,030 magistrates yet to respond to the survey, the figure could be even higher than one in five, MPs said. A similar survey of all 5,300 judges in England and Wales found that 247 admitted they were Freemasons.

A public register of individual judges and magistrates who declared their membership will be published by the Government next year.

The Lord Chancellor accepted that the survey had been "highly controversial" among the judiciary but it was clear that all judges should declare their masonic links in court if a fellow member of the code appeared before them.

"Although there is no evidence that any judge who was a Freemason had acted falsely to his judicial oath, there still exists a public perception," he said. "I think what feeds the public perception is that Freemasons accept an obligation to assist one another in times of trouble and when people are in court they are in trouble."

Chris Mullin, chairman of the committee, said that it could be reasonably assumed that most of those who refused to respond were indeed Masons. "A figure of one in five male magistrates, with no doubt significant regional variations, is not unrealistic," he said.

Latest estimates put the number of Freemasons in the UK at 300,000, equivalent to just over 1 per cent of the male population.

Gerald Howarth, Tory MP for Aldershot and a member of the committee, said that the survey was "an appalling example of political correctness" that whipped up public prejudice against the organisation.

Mr Howarth added that the move was a "gross invasion of privacy".