Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, yesterday called on the United Grand Lodge to publish a list of its Freemasons and threatened to introduce new laws to force members of the secret society to be identified if details were not released. The Freemasons indicated that they are unlikely to co-operate.
The Home Office plans appear to have been watered down by the refusal of judges to reveal whether they are Freemasons. Lord Irvine, the Lord Chancellor, has been fighting a rearguard action against the Home Office and has argued that a register would be an infringement of the judiciary's privacy and individual rights.
Yesterday's announcement follows an inquiry into secret societies by the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, which called for a register to be set up and made publicly available.
The chairman of the committee yesterday criticised the judiciary and said it was a "nonsense" to suggest the Government could not force all members of the criminal justice system to disclose their membership of a secret society.
Action against societies, in particularly the Freemasons, whose 500,000 British members are divided into about 9,500 lodges, was demanded after decades of concern that members of the society, particularly police officers, are abusing their membership of the "brotherhood".
As revealed in The Independent in November, all future recruits to the justice organisations in England and Wales will have to register their membership of the Freemasons. The Home Office is also considering whether members who are transferred or promoted will also have to declare membership. The Home Secretary has written to the United Grand Lodge requesting the names and occupations of members working in the criminal justice field.
But John Hamill, spokesman for the Lodge, said yesterday it would be extremely expensive and difficult to provide a list. He added: "The general feeling is why are we being singled out. The idea that we are going to be forced to do something sticks in the throat of a lot of Freemasons."
If, as expected, they refuse the Home Office intends to set up a voluntary register of about 250,000 criminal justice workers which will be made available to the public. Anyone who refuses to disclose whether they are a member or not is likely to be considered a Freemason. The final sanction, if the voluntary list is unworkable, will be legislation for a compulsory register.
Chris Mullin, the Labour chairman of the Home Affairs select committee, while welcoming the announcement as a step in the right direction, was highly critical of the judges for holding back the reforms. He accused them of having "a sense of their own self-importance".
He added that it was "nonsense" to suggest that existing employees, such as judges, could not be forced to register, pointing out that MPs and councillors already have to declare their interests.
Alan Beith, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman said that judges should not be allowed to hide Masonic links.
But one senior judge, Lord Justice Millet, who is a Freemason, yesterday bitterly condemned the new rules.
"There is no sense in it. It's an unwarranted interference in our private lives and it doesn't achieve anything," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
"What are people supposed to do? You can't choose which judge will try your case, so what's the point?"
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