Minister drops military block on Freemasonry

Author: By Paul Waugh, Deputy Political Editor

A government move to prevent Freemasons from recruiting among members of the armed forces has been blocked after claims that it contravenes the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Ministry of Defence issued a little-known order in 1999 banning the “encouragement or promotion” of membership of the secretive organisation within the navy, army and air force.

However, John Spellar, the Armed Forces minister, has now withdrawn the guidance after the Freemasons threatened legal action, claiming it would undermined their privacy under the European Convention.

The decision comes as the Home Office’s own plans to create a compulsory register of Freemasons in police forces are likely to be dropped in the face of similar challenges under European law.

The legal challenge also highlights the Masons’ decision to be more aggressive in promoting their cause. Last month they hired a public relations firm to bolster their image.

The MoD order, titled the Joint Service Defence Council Instruction 88/00, stated there was “no intention or policy to preclude Service personnel from membership of any lawful and benevolent organisation”. But it warned: “Involvement in organisations of a secretive nature, such as the Freemasons” could undermine the unifying ethos of the Forces.

Membership “carries with it the risk of establishing disparate loyalties which may have a destabilising influence on the chain of command, not least by the perception of preferential treatment and undue influence”, the order said.

Serving personnel were not to promote membership among colleagues, hold Masons’ meetings on MoD premises or do anything “to further the aims of the organisation”, it added.

In a written parliamentary answer, Mr Spellar said he had authorised the temporary withdrawal of the order pending a review “as a result of concerns that the MoD’s policy towards membership of societies such as Freemasons might not be fully compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights”.

A spokeswoman for the MoD said it had received a legal challenge from the organisation. She said the ministry stood by its belief that membership of a secretive group could undermine unity in the armed forces but the policy would have to be reviewed.

Gordon Prentice, the Labour MP for Pendle, who asked Mr Spellar the parliamentary question, has put down further questions to discover who exactly had complained to the MoD. “I think the European Convention is being used as a cover to say individual rights are being undermined. They are not. It’s all about progress for greater openness and transparency. The idea that the MoD premises should be used for Freemasons’ lodge meetings beggars belief,” he said.

The Home Office set up a voluntary register of Freemasons for the police, judiciary and magistracy, but to date just 36.6 per cent of police officers have responded and of those only 1.1 per cent said that they were members.

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