Freemasons face the threat of having to lift their traditional secrecy before the Nolan inquiry into standards of public life and an all-party committee of MPs.
This would be the first time that an official body of Nolan's standing has probed the secretive "craft", which has an estimated 300,000 male members, many of them in senior positions in the police, Whitehall, judiciary, City, Lloyd's, politics and other areas of the Establishment.
Their influence extends to the Royal family, House of Lords, Court of Appeal and the boardrooms of some of Britain's biggest businesses.
The United Grand Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons, whose members are dedicated to helping each other, is divided into more than 8,000 lodges, some dedicated to individual employees or professions, has long been the focus of suspicion and controversy. One lodge draws almost all of its members from the Ministry of Defence procurement department, army officers and executives from arms manufacturers.
A spokesman for the Nolan inquiry said yesterday that the influence of the masons "is a relevant matter and something we will have to take into account". He said that Lord Nolan, the law lord, and the other members of his committee could raise the masonsduring sessions devoted to appointments to quangos, in a few weeks.
Once the first part of the inquiry is complete, there is nothing to stop the committee, which has a three-year initial remit, examining the role of the masons and their alleged grip on the Establishment, as a subject in its own right. Neither Lord Nolan nor his committee are masons, the spokesman said, adding: "he is interested in it, certainly."
Lord Nolan held private talks with Chris Mullin, the Labour MP and campaigner for greater openness about masonic membership, on Thursday. Their meeting followed a letter from Mr Mullin highlighting the incidence of freemasonry in his Sunderland South constituency. "In Sunderland, according to the Masonic Handbook for County Durham, we have about 1,700 masons, which represents a fair swathe of the professional middle class. We even have a Civic Centre lodge. In Stockton, I notice there is a Justice lodge, which presumably consists of members concerned with the impartial administration of justice."
Another threat to masons comes from the Commons Home Affairs Commitee. Labour members of the committee, who include Mr Mullin, will press for an inquiry into masonry's penetration of the courts and police, when its agenda is set shortly. They have sounded out one Tory member and are optimistic of obtaining a majority to force the hand of the committee, chaired by Sir Ivan Lawrence, who is not a mason.
In the House of Commons, noted Mr Mullin, "there are several lodges catering variously for members, servants of the House, police officers and even, it is alleged, some members of the press gallery. A Tory member, who had previously been a member of a county council in the south of England, told me 35 of the 39 members of the Tory group on the council were masons." Mr Mullin told Lord Nolan he was not saying masons were corrupt, but "nothing so much undermines public confidence in public institutions asthe knowledge that some public servants are members of a secret society, one of the aims of which is mutual self-advancement".
Because free-masonry is secret, noone can be sure if one mason is not favouring another. It is secret membership, rather than their love for ritual, strange handshakes and costumes that is at the heart of the problem.
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