HC Deb 14 May 1984 vol 60 cc124-30

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Major.]

11.19 pm
Mr. Richard Needham (Wiltshire, North)

This debate follows the death of Mr. Doubtfire and would not have been necessary had it not been for the fact that he became involved with the extraordinarily unpleasant organisation called the Exegesis Programme. It would not be wrong to call it a cult. It is run by a Mr. Robert D'Aubigny—although that is not the name that appears on his birth certificate.

Mr. D'Aubigny set out his aims in a statement which says that: His concepts were first tested early in 1977 when 19 friends and family members gathered at a house in Surrey to talk about how their lives could be fundamentally changed. After 5 days of the most intensive kind of discussions and activities, those 19 men and women emerged from their experience with a totally new view of life. Little by little he began introducing other techniques and training methods to enhance the experience as well as the impact of his gathering. It was also not long afterwards that D'Aubigny decided to constitute the Exegesis Programme to offer training on a regular and formal basis to the general public". A year later, those poignant words led to the death of my constituent.

What are the training techniques that the programme uses on its so-called students? For £240 one can be effectively locked up for two days; windows are blacked out, one's watch is removed and, except for the needs of nature, one cannot leave. The cult uses techniques of deprivation. It induces a sense of fear, and then one is abused and frightened.

A journalist from the Sunday Telegraph attended one of these courses. He wrote: Jeff marched up to one of the students and flung a pair of shoes on the floor in front of him. 'Your integrity stinks', he screamed, staring the hapless and now nervous student in the eye. 'You broke an agreement not to leave things in the room during a break. You can't even cope with little things in life, let alone the big ones. Time is running out for you. Do you want to remake the agreement'? Now began a familiar aspect of many such psychological seminars—the public confessional. Individually, students sat on a stool in front of the group and described their life and problems, losing all reticence as they were provoked by Kim's sneering abuse. There was a moment of extreme tension when an accountant, so nervous he could only whisper, was made to stand against a wall with his arms outstretched while Kim ordered three assistants to 'push, push, push'. This so-called course is designed to attract people who lack self-confidence and want to find leadership, confidence or the ability to do better than they have done previously. Naturally, it attracts the very people who lack self-confidence and do not have strong characters, which is why they attend such a course. They hope that, as a result, their characters will become stronger. Because of the nature of the cult's techniques, they are most likely to be at risk from having to suffer the abuse that I have described.

One person who went on such a course was my late constituent, Mr. Ashley Doubtfire. It is true that he had a psychiatric problem when he was 18. It is also true that he seemed to be over it, that he had built a successful career as a hang glider and a manufacturer of hang gliders, that he was recently married to a nurse, and that both of them decided to attend a course. However, having followed this course in this darkened room, Mr. Doubtfire became a complete schizophrenic, and for the following 18 months he was in and out of mental hospitals, until finally, at the beginning of last year, he died at the age of 34.

Another student who came to my notice as a result of the publicity surrounding the case was a young lady who, returning from a course, spent two weeks in the home of one of my constituents curled up in the foetal position, gibbering like an animal. Although she recovered for a time, she is now back in a mental institution. I have further evidence of others, mostly youngsters, who have been on those courses and whose happy family lives, especially their relationships with their parents, have been ruined as the children turn on their parents, using language and abuse similar to that heaped upon them during the seminars.

If one could say that the Exegesis Programme was designed to build character, to foster responsibility, and to improve people's chances of getting on in a competitive world, one would have reason to believe that the programme organisers would be more careful about the candidates whom they choose, and that they would at least ascertain whether prospective students were capable of understanding the sort of pressure to which they would be subjected.

I must tell the House that last July I committed a slight misdemeanour in telephoning the Exegesis Programme and asking one of its contacts to come to talk to me. I suggested that, being the chairman of a company, I had a sales director whom I thought might undertake a course that would be character-building and would restore his confidence. One of its represenatives—I use the word "representatives" with some caution, since he was careful to tell me that he was not paid by the organisation and, therefore, not employed by it—came to discuss what the seminars were and how they operated.

I gave him details of this mythical sales director—I should say that notes were taken of our conversation—as a possible contender for the programme. I explained that my sales director was outwardly confident, but inwardly not, that he had suffered a nervous breakdown and had been divorced. I was told that that description met the pattern common to many of those attending. I said that I had heard that the programme imposed shock, and that this had worried me because I did not want my sales director to come out of the programme worse than when he went in. I was told that that was very unlikely. It was admitted that people were shouted at, but that this did not usually break anyone. I was told that people were very strong, resilient and tough, and that they would go much further after this sort of self-examination. He said that the seminar did not teach limitations but provided an environment for about 60 peole to discover themselves.

I said again that I was worried about the suitability of my example. I was told that I could be given the examples of any number of people who had come out successfully. I was also told that in certain circumstances people had been asked to leave, but that no one who had gone deeply into the seminar had left it. I was informed that no one had "freaked out", that many salesmen had improved dramatically after the course, that people discovered their weaknesses as well as their strengths, and that people discovered a call — whatever that might be — an incorruptible absolute call.

It is clear from that that no attempt has been made by the Exegesis Programme even to consider the effects of its seminars on those who attend them. After Mr. Doubtfire's death, Mr. d'Aubigny publicly stated that he was instituting means by which those joining the courses were checked for any mental history, but that is clearly not happening. At present, that cult is running a company called Programmes Limited, which is manned by former Exegesis students. It is equally clear from the information that I have that the pay is low and that the holidays are minimal. However, the exception to that is probably Mr. d'Aubigny, who flaunts a very large Rolls-Royce.

I hope that the House will agree that it is quite intolerable that members of the public, many of whom are anyway at some risk, should be treated in that way. In asking my hon. Friend the Minister to reply, I realise that he may not represent the only Department involved. I also realise that there are many other unpleasant cults around, but that will not stop me from raising the matter of this cult. I therefore ask my hon. Friend to authorise the Home Office to investigate the way in which that organisation and any other such organisations operate. Is he prepared to set up, or to help promote the setting up of an interdepartmental committee to bring home to the public the danger that such cults pose, and to ensure that any attempts to use such interrogation techniques are properly controlled?

I can understand that there are those who might benefit from such techniques, who may find some sense of purpose and who may find that determination to succeed that they previously lacked. However, there are others —and I suspect a considerable number of young men and women, including people such as Mr. Doubtfire—who, after attending such a course, may have entered the dark and terrible world of schizophrenia and paranoia, from which they may never return, as in the case of Ashley Doubtfire. They are my concern and I hope that the Minister can find some way of assisting them.

11.33 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Mellor)

My hon. Friend the Member for Wiltshire, North (Mr. Needham) has chosen to raise a very sad and tragic subject which is nevertheless important. The whole House will be grateful to him for having done so, and it is a sign of the concern felt by so many that several of my hon. Friends are present. I see my hon. Friends the Members for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson), for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden), for Swindon (Mr. Coombs) and for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) in their places. Many of us, as constituency Members of Parliament, have come face to face with the very real personal tragedy that this growing number of cults that now operate in Britain has brought to bear. I see this as a Member of Parliament and as the Minister responsible to the Home Secretary for the work of charities I receive a full postbag of letters about the activities of groups of the sort that my hon. Friend has described, most of them from distressed friends and relatives who are unable to grasp how intelligent young people with everything to live for and a real future, if directed in the right way, can become involved in, and ultimately dominated and sometimes destroyed by, such cults. I know that many hon. Members will have received similar letters. I should be surprised if there is a Member who has not.

Nearly all the letters that I receive ask for the Government to do something. The difficulty is to know what that something should be. The course so often proposed is the sort of direct intervention that, on mature reflection, might be thought to constitute too fundamental an attack on civil liberties, having regard to the fact that it is the very essence of a free society that people may often in their free time choose to pursue activities that, on the whole, may not be in their best interests and that many of us may not think desirable.

To say that the Government should stay their hand on some of the firmer action that some correspondents ask to be taken does not mean that we believe that nothing can or should be done. On the contrary, I am firmly convinced that the sinister activities of some of the groups must be exposed by every means possible and most vigorously discouraged. However, given the restraints of the free society, a society which the Government are determined to uphold, there must be a limit to what the Government can do directly.

Let no one be in any doubt about our views on this matter, the importance we attach to it or the extent to which we applaud the work which so many have rightly carried out in exposing to public view the activities of some of these entirely undesirable groups.

I shall take first the specific case of the Exegesis Programme about which my hon. Friend the Member for Wiltshire, North has spoken with such eloquence and contempt. I set on the record my personal view that on the basis of what my hon. Friend has said, on the correspondence that we have had and on the contents of the excellent investigation that was carried out by Mr. Andrew Duncan in a thorough piece of journalism, which was written up in his article in the Sunday Telegraph Sunday magazine, the contents of the Exegesis Programme seem to be puerile, dangerous and profoundly wrong.

It may interest the House to know that we have been keeping the programme's activities under careful scrutiny for some time. We have asked the Metropolitan police and the Avon and Somerset police, in whose area the Exegesis Programme has also been active, to let us know of any evidence that criminal offences have been committed by the organisation, its offshoots or its members. The police have recently updated their reports and they confirm that there is no such evidence. We shall continue to keep a close eye on what it is doing.

This is the nub of the problem. However much we sympathise with the anguish of those who are affected, we owe it not least to them to make them recognise that, and while we are deeply disturbed about the way in which cults alienate members of families and clearly exercise an unhealthy impact on many vulnerable and impressionable people, their known activities do not appear, more often than not, to be unlawful. I emphasise that I have used the term "known activities" and I urge any member of the public who has evidence that the organisations involved, or their members, are breaking the law to inform the police immediately, who will give the matter their closest attention. They should not be afraid to raise their voices if they know that something discreditable and unlawful has taken place. That applies to any evidence that my hon. Friend or any other hon. Member may have.

My hon. Friend will appreciate that for the Government to consider taking action against organisations on grounds other than that they have broken the law—for example, because their activities may be socially undesirable— would raise major issues of the sort that I raised at the outset of my reply because the principle of civil liberty would be at stake.

As I have said, some organisations and views are deeply repugnant to most sensible people and profoundly wrong-headed and damaging to those drawn into the web of their activities. Nevertheless, unless and until those involved actually break the law, it is difficult for the Government to set their hand against them.

I wish to draw particular attention to the problems of charity law in this respect. The status of bodies such as the Unification Church—the "Moonies"— has rightly been raised on many occasions. When I enjoyed the freedom of the Back Benches I took the strong view, which I still hold, that it was inappropriate that such groups should enjoy charitable status and thus bring the entire concept of charitable giving into some disrepute.

That is not a relevant consideration in the case of Exegesis as that organisation is not a registered charity. Indeed, many of the most sinister cults are not charities. They make too much money out of what turns out to be an extremely attractive business ever to seek to qualify as charities.

Mr. Needham

If my hon. Friend asks the Department to look into the matter, I think he will find that one of the organisations associated with Exegesis is in fact registered as a charity.

Mr. Mellor

I did not know that, but I will certainly look into it.

Broadening the discussion somewhat, the House will be glad to know that my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General is persisting in his desire to institute proceedings in the High Court to remove from the register the two charities connected with the Unification Church.

The greatest weapon in the hands of the Government and of individuals such as my hon. Friend who are deeply troubled by the activities of these pernicious groups is to ensure that the truth about them is fully and properly exposed. All too many of those who become involved in cults do so naively and in appalling ignorance of the nature and activities of the organisations concerned. The more that the media and Members of Parliament can expose the dangers, the less potent they will be.

In that context, I congratulate the Daily Mail on its courage in exposing the truth about the Unification Church and taking on appalling financial responsibilities in one of the longest-running actions in the history of the British High Court. The Daily Mail did its public duty in exposing the truth about that group, and after such a long trial it took the jury only a few hours to find the essential truth of what it had asserted.

Other publications, too, might be mentioned. Private Eye exposed the dubious activities of the Emins group which, I am sad to say, has its headquarters in my constituency where its presence is greatly resented by me and by many other local residents.

The families of those who have become or risk becoming attracted to such cults particularly need advice and support as they are most likely to be able to warn against and, if necessary, resist the influence of those organisations. For that reason, I pay particular tribute to the valuable work of FAIR—Family Action Information and Rescue— a voluntary organisation which aims to help families whose children become enmeshed in cults and which has recently come to prominence as a sure sign of how wide and deep the concern about these matters runs throughout the community. I am sure that the House will welcome the fact that officials from the Home Office, the Department of Health and Social Security and the Department of Education and Science have met representatives of that body, and we intend to keep in close touch with them.

I should also mention the long-running work of the Deo Gloria trust in informing the public about the activities of these sinister groups.

I am sure that much can be achieved by this kind of public discussion and debate, especially if the media are prepared to take on board, as so many have successfully done in the past, the duty to expose with clarity and vigour the reality of what goes on in some of these groups. It is surely no coincidence but, indeed, a most hopeful sign that membership of the Unification Church in this country is said to have diminished dramatically in the past two years during which an unflattering spotlight of public attention has been focused on it.

Moreover, hon. Members will have heard of new initiatives in the European Parliament connected with a report from a committee on youth culture, education, information and sport. We shall await with interest the outcome of the Parliament's debate on the report. It shows once again that groups of the kind with which we are dealing are not limited to one country; many of them are unwelcome imports from the United States of America. Many other countries on the continent of Europe are equally concerned about the problem, and it is appropriate that the European Parliament should take an interest. We welcome its decision to do so.

In a free society those who abuse that freedom, but do so within the law, have to be tolerated. Clearly the implications of deciding whether an organisation of an ostensibly religious kind should be banned by law goes to the very heart of the arguments about personal freedom. The Government are in no sense complacent. We are very concerned that vulnerable people, such as poor Mr. Doubtfire, are not put at risk from irresponsible groups. We intend to keep the activities of these cults under the closest scrutiny. I assure the House that we share to the full the deep worry expressed by my hon. Friend, which I know is widely felt outside the House.

While Ministers will not shirk the tasks that properly fall to them, I am convinced that the answer has to be found through publicity and persuasion, not through proscription.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes to Twelve o' clock.