Concern about the possible corrupting effects of freemasonry on public life has waxed and waned over the past few decades, but the tide of opinion now appears to be flowing in favour of making membership of the organisation a declarable interest in at least some parts of the public service.
In March, the House of Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs published a report on freemasonry in the police and the judiciary. In its key recommendation, it said that police officers, magistrates, judges and crown prosecutors should be required to register membership of any secret society, and that the record should be publicly available.
The Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life has not addressed freemasonry directly. But its latest report on local government, published in July, made it clear that "public perception of impropriety [in public bodies] is as important as the existence of genuine misconduct."
The report recommended that local authorities should have public registers of councillors' interests, including non-pecuniary interests "which members of the public might reasonably think could influence a councillor's judgement." An existing code of conduct for councillors highlights membership of the freemasons as a potentially declarable interest. The report also recommended that council officers should declare non-pecuniary interests on the same terms as councillors but did not go as far as the Select Committee, suggesting that since officers are employees there was no need to make their disclosures public.
ENDS' interest in freemasonry in the Environment Agency was triggered last year when we were seeking information from it in connection with a libel action (see p 13 ). In July, we asked its Chief Executive, Ed Gallagher, to inquire whether masonic connections may have influenced the handling of our request in the Agency's Anglian region, and particularly the possible involvement of two senior officers.
Mr Gallagher responded promptly, asking Operations Director Archie Robertson to look into the matter. In his report to the Chief Executive, Mr Robertson says that he found "no reason to believe that freemasonry has played any part in the Agency's dealings" with ENDS. However, he conceded that he had "not undertaken a detailed investigation," and his report failed to answer several specific questions put by ENDS. The Agency said at the end of July that it is seeking further information to answer these.
Further inquiries by ENDS have suggested that significant numbers of Agency staff are freemasons, and indicate a potential for real or perceived conflicts of interest.
One officer estimated that around 400 Agency staff are masons. Another source put the figure higher at 700-800 - close to 10% of its total staff.
Particularly large numbers of masons came into the Agency from the former HM Inspectorate of Pollution. "It's very much part of their culture," commented one official who said that local masonic lodge meetings had been openly advertised in the Inspectorate's office in Bedford.
A significant number of freemasons are understood to have been appointed to the Agency's top regional and area manager posts. Concern about their influence is centred in part on the Anglian region - one official commented that "it is widely said throughout the Agency that Anglian is known to be an area where freemasonry counts" - but also on a masonic lodge in Huntingdon.
At least two of the Agency's regional general managers are believed to be masons. Reliable sources have told ENDS that both attend the Huntingdon lodge along with senior managers of the main water companies in their regions and other Agency officers. According to four separate sources, a member of the Agency's board also attends the Huntingdon lodge, but we were unable to confirm this before we went to press.
This information is not itself evidence of any impropriety, although it does at least raise concern about whether the Agency's relationships with the two water companies are at arm's length.
However, ENDS has been told by reliable sources of two events which give clearer cause for concern. In one case, an officer who had applied for a senior regional post let slip to a colleague that he had been offered the post before any interviews had taken place. Both he and the interviewing officers who took the decision on the appointment are believed to be freemasons.
In the second case, a serious breach of Agency policy was committed by a senior officer in respect of a local business. Both he and several top managers in the business are believed to be masons. ENDS is not in a position to divulge further information about this incident but is confident in its source.
ENDS asked Mr Gallagher to clarify how the Agency regards and addresses possible conflicts of interest arising from freemasonry among its employees. In his reply, he pointed to the Agency's code of conduct for staff, which requires them to declare to their managers "any personal interest which might impinge, or be reasonably thought by others to impinge on an employee's impartiality."
Responsibility for eliminating actions contrary to the public interest, Mr Gallagher added, lies with line managers, with checks being made through the Agency's matrix management structure and its internal audit function.
However, Mr Gallagher omitted to answer several specific questions. In particular, he failed to say how many staff have declared membership of the freemasons in the light of the code of conduct, or how many Agency board members are masons.
On board members, Mr Gallagher pointed in general terms to legal requirements and a code of conduct concerning disclosure of personal interests. ENDS obtained a copy of one entry in the Agency's register of board members' interests, and found that it contains no section requesting them to disclose non-pecuniary interests.
The Government's policy on freemasonry will be clarified in August, when it is due to respond to the Home Affairs Committee's report. While in opposition, the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, told the Committee that membership of the freemasons should be a declarable and registrable interest.