Membership of the freemasons in Britain runs to some 400,000 people. Many, probably even most, of these individuals are honest citizens. Nevertheless, questions - some well-founded, some anecdotal - continue to be asked about the effects of freemasonry on standards in public life.
In a report published earlier this year, the House of Commons Committee on Home Affairs found there to be a "great deal of unustified paranoia" about freemasonry. But it also concluded that "nothing so much undermines public confidence in public institutions as the knowledge that some public servants are members of a secret society one of whose aims is mutual self-advancement." It went on to recommend that the concerns about freemasonry justify a requirement that membership of the organisation among the police and judiciary should be entered on a register open to the public. The Government has promised a response by the end of August.
In principle, there is no reason why that recommendation should not extend to other public bodies, and particularly those with regulatory functions. There is a legitimate public expectation that public servants, paid by and acting on behalf of the public, should carry out their duties without reasonable suspicion that their private interests may lead them to act in a manner contrary to the public interest. A body such as the Environment Agency, whose officers are more familiar with and closer to the businesses they regulate routinely than organisations such as the police, and who enjoy a good deal of discretion in how they apply the law and Agency policies, has a particular duty to ensure that freemasonry among its employees does not give rise to conflicts of interest.
Judging by its responses to questions put to it by ENDS about the issue, the Agency's top management appears to have little awareness of the extent of freemasonry among its staff or the implications for public confidence in their impartiality. It is also far from clear that the organisation has effective arrangements in place to ensure that internal appointments are made and personal advancement is achieved solely on merit (see pp 3-4 ). At a time when the new Government is expressing qualms about both its accountability and effectiveness as a regulator, the Agency would do well to act before it is seen as being forced to do so.
Ultimately, however, the solution to public concern about freemasonry is for freemasonry to reform itself. Disclosure and openness, as the Home Affairs Committee suggested, would form one step towards alleviating public worries - but the more fundamental change should be to bring the oaths sworn by masons into line with contemporary public expectations.