A wealth of unsubstantiated anecdotes surround freemasonry.

By the time the home affairs select committee of the House of Commons finishes taking evidence in its inquiry into freemasonry in the police and the judiciary, all its members will probably be sick of hearing sob stories and conspiracy theories from individuals.They will also have received a mass of information from respected bodies along the lines of the Law Society's written evidence, submitted to the inquiry at the end of last year.

The Society said that judges and police officers should not be freemasons, not because it had any evidence that being a member had affected any individual cases, but because there was a public perception that it might do so.Chris Mullin, the Labour MP for Sunderland South, who is the driving force behind the government inquiry, doubts that the inquiry will prove the connection.

'It's the first shot in a long struggle because the freemasons will resist to the bitter end,' he says.

'One of the things that undermines public confidence in our legal system is the knowledge that many members of the legal profession are members of a secret society.

They may all be honourable people but that is not the perception.

The simplest solution would be for freemasons as a whole to end this obsessive secrecy.

Freemasonry should not be banned, but masons should disclose their membership.'When the inquiry was announced there were calls from the Association of Chief Police Officers for senior police officers to reveal their membership of the freemasons.

The Association o f Women Barristers has also recommended to the government inquiry that judges declare and preferably give up their membership.

It is also conceivable that this could be followed by calls for senior members of the solicitors profession, such as Council Members or senior partners of firms to disclose membership -- it has been alleged that some City firm partnerships are exclusively masonic.However, Diane Burleigh, who compiled the Law Society's written evidence to the inquiry and heads the Society's court business team, does not think this would be necessary.

Speaking personally, Ms Burleigh says: 'I do not think solicitors are powerful enough to have to disclose their membership.

When you are lower down the system, there are already checks and balances in place.'However, for solicitors freemasonry has not traditionally been a means to gaining power at the heart of government and the High Court, but a way of winning work and status in their local communities.

There have always been far more solicitor freemasons in the provinces than in London.

Mr Mullin believes that about half the solicitors in one Northern town, where there are 29 lodges, are freemasons.

In the days before solicitors could advertise, it was a way of meeting businessmen.

Freemasons still meet at the premises of some local law societies.Alison Parkinson, the chairwoman of the Association of Women Solicitors, which submitted evidence to the government inquiry, experienced the importance of getting work through contacts when she was in a two-woman practice in Shropshire.

'The town was dominated by the Round Table [not a masonic organisation],' she says.

'Women were not allowed to join and it affected my practice in terms of getting business clients, but there was nothing I could do about it.

I do not think it is right to pick on the freemasons, as long as other exclusive organisations continue it will have a discriminatory effect.'However, there was a public outcry when it was suggested in the 1980s that the Law Society was riddled with freemasonry.

Walter Merricks, now the insurance ombudsman, recalls: 'The then president and numerous council members were determined to break the power of what they saw as freemasonry in the Law Society.' Now two thirds of the staff of the Law Society are women, effectively dismissing any further claims that the freemasons have any power in the Society.

President Tony Girling is keen to stress that he is not a freemason.When evidence to the parliamentary inquiry, which began in December last year, renewed last month, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, said that he considered freemasonry to be a private matter.Freemasons certainly consider it private.

In their initiation to the first degree, they swear to have their tongues torn out by the root and buried in the sand at low water mark if they reveal masonic secrets.

A spokesman for the United Grand Lodge, Julian Perry, emphasised that fears of freemasons networking secretly and supporting each other were unfounded.

'Freemasons aren't supposed to use freemasonry for their own advancement,' he said.

'Freemasonry isn't about networking, it is about learning plays off by heart.

It can be very satisfying to act them out and get involved in handing down this tradition.' Mr Perry said freemasons were reluctant to disclose their membership because they feared discrimination against them.' Hitler hated freemasons because of their ideas about equal rights and put them in concentration camps,' he says.A woman solicitor from Hertfordshire who is a member of an International Co-Freemasonr y lodge, told the Gazette: 'People are prejudiced against freemasons but there is no cause for concern.

In no way has it advanced my professional career.

But the esoteric aspects have helped me and inspired me to qualify as a solicitor.'