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Baroness Denton of Wakefield: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the way to create the minimum use of plastic baton rounds would be for there to be no rioting or violence on the streets? If that were to happen there would be no need for plastic baton rounds.

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Lord Dubs: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that question, and of course I very much agree with what she says. Since the troubles in Northern Ireland, nearly 1,000 members of the security forces--that is, police and Army--have been killed, and over 14,000 have been injured. Their lives are on the line every day.

Lord Marsh: My Lords, without underestimating the seriousness of the problem, is it not a source of some congratulation that this is probably one of the few countries where civil disturbances of this seriousness are put down by rubber bullets rather than live ammunition?

Lord Dubs: My Lords, yes. We use plastic baton rounds because they are less harmful than any other weapon available to the security forces.

The Earl of Carlisle: My Lords, what research is being conducted into producing a new round which does not have such an incapacitating effect as the plastic bullet?

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I do not have the answer to that question. Over time significant improvements have been made in the safety of plastic baton rounds and I assume that that continues. However, I shall write to the noble Lord with an answer to his question.

Lord Monson: My Lords, does the Minister agree that a petrol bomb is a lethal weapon and that therefore the security forces should not be inhibited from using plastic baton rounds against those who throw petrol bombs?

Lord Dubs: My Lords, yes, petrol bombs represent a serious risk to the lives of members of the security forces. We will look to the new guidelines to ensure that the security forces have plastic baton rounds at their disposal. However, they will continue to be trained to use them in limited circumstances when it is necessary to do so.

Lord Stallard: My Lords, is the Minister prepared to accept that plastic bullets have been proved to be counter-productive and that throughout Northern Ireland there is massive resentment against their use? Communities on both sides have been almost alienated from the security forces by the use of such bullets, which are lethal weapons. It is a bit much to say that they are necessary to protect property in case it is damaged when they are not used to protect property anywhere else in the United Kingdom.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I repeat that we would like not to have to use them and would not do so if the circumstances in the streets of Northern Ireland were such that that would be a safe course to take. They are used by the security forces only in extreme situations, normally when there is a risk to life or to property of some importance; for example, the homes of people when they are threatened. I hope that there will soon come a time when we do not have to use them.

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Freemasons: Disclosure of Membership

3.1 p.m.

Lord Waddington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is their policy towards the freemasons; and what are the implications of this policy for the United Kingdom's adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, the Government have a policy in relation to openness and transparency about members of the criminal justice system who are freemasons. This policy is consistent with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. Did not the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor argue against judges being required to disclose membership of the freemasons not least, no doubt, because once the Home Secretary has said that people might think that a freemason would not act impartially, the logical next step is to ban freemasons from the Bench entirely and end our tradition of making appointments on merit alone? If the Home Secretary is right, as he said in his press statement, that membership of secret societies--in the plural--can raise suspicions of partiality, how can he justify picking on one such society, demanding that it produces lists of members, and trying to argue that in spite of that blatant discrimination there was no breach of the convention? Does not the Minister feel just a twinge of unease at this attack on the freemasons when he recalls that one of Hitler's first acts was to ban the freemasons in Germany?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the decision which was reached by the Government was based substantially on the 3rd Report of the Home Affairs Select Committee of the Session 1996-97, during which time the committee had a Conservative chairman during the currency of the previous regime. The freemasons are not being picked on. The committee stated that a better solution lies in the hands of freemasonry itself by openness and disclosure. I know of no other secret society--perhaps because it is secret--which has caused the kind of concern that freemasonry has caused. The Home Secretary and the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor have stated firmly that for new appointments to the criminal justice system, including judges, whether full time or part time, a necessary precondition of appointment will be the requirement to register yes or no to the simple question, "Are you a freemason?".

Lord Monkswell: My Lords, does the Minister agree that bearing in mind the experience in living memory of virtually all the Continental countries being subject to a police state, requiring secrecy on the part of people in working together to oppose the regime, and bearing in mind that the Combination Acts in this country were abolished in the last century, it cannot be part of our British way of life to tolerate secret societies in our midst?

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Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, two separate points are involved. First, is any man--most members are men--entitled to join the society he wishes? It seems to me anyone is entitled to join and be a member of a lodge if he wishes. Equally, as regards such sensitive areas, the public are entitled to know whether practitioners in the criminal justice system are freemasons. The other place has a register of interests and so does your Lordships' House. I see no difficulty about that.

Lord Henley: My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the Home Secretary has had a meeting on this subject with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham, Britain's most senior judge? Can he also confirm that the noble and learned Lord, when giving evidence to the Select Committee, stated:

    "No one has ever been able to suggest that there has ever been a vestige of evidence that any judge in any case ever in this country has been diverted from his duty by any conflict arising from freemasonic association"?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor have constant contact with the Lord Chief Justice on appropriate areas of common interest. This morning I read in the newspapers what the Lord Chief Justice is reported to have said. Of course, as it was in the newspaper as it was undoubtedly 100 per cent. accurate. My proposition is that perception is extremely important. If people feel that they are not being dealt with openly by police officers, magistrates, prison officers, probation officers or judges they ought to have their suspicions, even if groundless, put at rest. Openness is a useful corrective to wrongly based suspicion.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford: My Lords, for the avoidance of doubt, as lawyers would say, can we assume that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, as the holder of the most senior legal office in England, would have to declare whether he was a member of any secret society?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has no secrets of any kind.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, the Minister referred to the Home Affairs Select Committee. Is it not correct that that committee originally concluded that there was no need whatever to register membership of the freemasons; that it was only after the general election that the new Labour chairman sought to use the Labour majority to change the conclusion; and that the conclusion reached does not connect in the slightest degree with evidence given to the Select Committee?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord is wrong. The committee's report made the principal recommendation that police officers, magistrates, judges and Crown prosecutors should be required to register membership of any secret society. If there is nothing to hide, if there is nothing to be ashamed of, why not be open?

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Tyne Tunnels Bill

3.8 p.m.

Read a second time, and committed to an Unopposed Bill Committee.

Business of the House: Debate this Day

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Richard): My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the debate on the Motion in the name of the Lord Puttnam set down for today shall be limited to five hours.--(Lord Richard.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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