Police may be forced to declare masonic links

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The Independent Online

Nearly two-thirds of Britain's police officers haverefused to co-operate with a government-backed voluntary register to declare whether they are Freemasons. Widespread public suspicion over the influence of the secret society in the criminal justice system has left the police now facing a compulsory register.

Nearly two-thirds of Britain's police officers haverefused to co-operate with a government-backed voluntary register to declare whether they are Freemasons. Widespread public suspicion over the influence of the secret society in the criminal justice system has left the police now facing a compulsory register.

Ministers had hoped the voluntary system would allay public fears. However, only 36 per cent of officers in England and Wales responded to the survey, compared with 96 per cent of judges and 87 per cent of magistrates.

The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, said he would consultpolice representatives to see how to obtain a "satisfactory" solution. Responding to a Commons report about Freemasonry, Mr Straw said the judiciary and magistrates had demonstrated that registration could be sufficiently achieved "on a voluntary basis and without legislation.

"However, this has not so far been the case in police forces, and the Home Office will therefore be consulting the police service about how to achievea satisfactory response rate, whether through changingthe way in which voluntary registration is conducted, or through legislating to require registration."

Mr Straw acknowledged the Home Affairs Select Committee's conclusions that there was "a widespread public perception" that Freemasonry could have an unhealthy influence on the courts.

"The Government is committed to ensuring public confidence in their Police Service," he said.

The Home Office said that among judges, 5 per cent declared they were Masons, 89 per cent declared nonmembership, and 1 per cent declined to say whether they were members. Among magistrates, 5 per cent were Masons, 80 per cent were non-Masons and 2 per cent refused to say.

Of those that responded to the voluntary system operated by 32 of the 43 police forces in England and Wales, 1 per cent of police and civilian support staff declared they were Masons, 89 per cent declared non-membership, and 9 per cent refused to say.

Last month The Independent disclosed that seniorpolice officers, including detectives, had established a new masonic lodge despite official disapproval and public fears about the influence of the secret society.

The Commons Home Affairs Select Committee ran an inquiry into Freemasonry in 1998-99. Its MPs resorted to a formal parliamentary order to force the United Grand Lodge to disclose information about police members in the controversial West Midlands serious crime squad.

One of the members of the select committee, the Labour backbencher Robin Corbett,recently said that the voluntary register had failed. "We now believe that a register needs to be mandatory and public."

There is no legal bar to police being Freemasons and any new restrictions put to Parliament would have to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Paul Whitehouse, the Chief Constable of Sussex, who is spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers, said: "Acpo welcomes further consultation with the Government on the issue of registration of Freemasonry."

The consultation will seekresponses by the end of December, with a view to confirming the way forward by the end of February next year.

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