Councillors were debating the adoption of the new Local Government Association (LGA) Code of Conduct at a meeting of the full council last Thursday.
By adopting the code, councillors would only have to declare the membership of a masonic lodge if it were a body that has “charitable purposes” – but a proposal was put forward arguing that membership of any masonic organisation should be declared by members.
The motion was proposed by Coun Georgina Hill, who argued that councillors already must declare their interest in a wide range of groups in case it would have an impact on their work as elected members.
Speaking at the meeting, Coun Hill said: “We all declare all sorts of things. I declare that I’m a member of the bowling club I declare that I’m a member of – well I was – the committee of my former school in Scotland. I can’t think of any reason that would impact my council work.
“What’s people’s problems? Why not declare it? Particularly as these groups that swear oaths of allegiance to each other? I think it is particularly pertinent that these should be brought into light like everything else.”
The council’s monitoring officer, Suki Binjal, explained that the council had sought legal advice from the LGA and the organisation had said it would only require charitable organisations to be declared.
Further legal advice had also been sought by the council’s Constitution Working Group as to whether all masonic organisations should be included – but no response had yet been received. Due to this, Conservative councillors including Coun Richard Dodd and council leader Glen Sanderson urged Coun Hill to delay the motion until the advice had been received.
Speaking during debate, Coun David Bawn, who represents the Morpeth North ward, revealed himself to be a Mason and warned “conspiracy theories” could damage councillors’ reputations.
He said: “I am, and I’m going to declare this to everybody and the world watching, I am a member of a masonic lodge.
“But – there is a problem here. Members of the bowls club, members of the civic society, members of the tennis club – don’t have loads of internet conspiracy theories saying that they meet in secret to take over the world. Unfortunately, and very unfairly, Masonic lodges do.
“There are cranks out there who believe that there is some sort of grant conspiracy controlling the world and plotting, which is nonsense. The problem you’ve got is a determined bunch of people who are determined to feed that narrative and unmask the conspiracies.
“That is why it is prejudicial. If we force people to declare then we get internet trolls making up stuff and attacking integrity of members for joining something that has many purposes, all of them lawful. You have to promise to follow the law and the rules.”
Labour members were also concerned, with leader Scott Dickinson pointing out that he had worked alongside Masons in fundraising activities and questioned whether this would mean he would have to declare an interest.
Coun Sanderson proposed that a report should be compiled and the issue would come back to a future meeting, with all members given a free vote. This was supported by several Conservative members; however, Coun Hill branded the arguments “nonsense and pushed on with the motion.
35 members voted against the proposals, including all Conservative members present, independent councillor Anne Dale and Liberal Democrats Alan Sharpe and Jeff Reid. There were 20 absentions – all Labour members present abstained along with indepdent councillor Malcolm Robinson. Four members did not attend the meeting.
The eight councillors to support the motion were:
Coun Suzanne Fairless-Aitken (Hexham East – Liberal Democrats) Coun Georgina Hill (Berwick East – Independent) Coun Derek Kennedy (Hexham West – Independent) Coun Scott Lee (Cramlington East – Independent) Coun Nick Morphet (Humshaugh – Green) Coun Martin Swinbank (Alnwick – Green) Coun Christine Taylor (Bedlington Central – Independent) Coun Holly Waddell (Bywell – non-aligned)
Speaking after the meeting, Coun Hill said: “Some Tory members claim that there are conspiracy theories around freemasonry but, frankly, this strange resistance to a transparent declaration of membership of these types of organisations only serves to fuels these theories.
“It was strange and worrying to see the panic on show with various attempts to try to stop my proposal even going to the vote. Why are councillors not content and proud to declare that they are Freemasons? For some reason they seem to support secrecy over full and transparent declarations of interests”.