HL Deb 10 February 1988 vol 493 cc247-75

5.52 p.m.

Lord Rodney rose to call attention to the effect of pseudo-religious cults on family life and young people; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am often asked what constitutes a cult. This may be an over-simplification but I believe that cults have three main common denominators. First, there is someone in charge who may be called a guru, a master, a father, a leader, or whatver he chooses to be called. Secondly, the prime objective is to achieve complete subjugation of the devotees so that they conform without question to the rules and regulations of the leader. In the end this means complete power over their mental and physical faculties.

Thirdly, having achieved this control, devotees are persuaded to sever all their contacts with their families, friends and past pursuits and devote themselves entirely and blindly to the cult, carrying out menial, unpaid work; recruiting new members and fund raising. This is supplemented by surrender of all their own resources when they join the cult in the first place.

I do not know whether noble Lords find this devastating, but if they have met parents whose children have been seduced by one of these cults, if noble Lords have seen their hopelessness and helplessness, wondering where their children are, questioning why they have decided to leave home and live among strangers, giving up all their past pursuits, then noble Lords will begin to understand the harm these cults inflict on family life and young people's futures.

Much attention and publicity have been given in recent years to drug abuse and its effect on family life. I believe that joining a cult is equally destructive to the family. Strangely enough, the symptoms are very similar: an air of secrecy; alienation from the family and friends; frequent requests for money; a general attitude of lack of interest; and finally departure from the home. Happily, there is one important difference—that recruits to cults seldom turn to crime. However, the effect on parents is almost equally devastating. They cannot understand what is happening to their child; they are at their wits' end to know what to do. I accept that numerically the problem of cults is not comparable with drug addiction, but I hope I have succeeded in convincing noble Lords that the effects are almost as bad.

There are of course those who argue that the children are of age, that they are free to follow their own inclinations and that they join the cults of their own free will. But what match is an 18-year-old against the artful and insidious recruiting techniques of these cults? Should not the children be forewarned and should not their parents be made aware of the indications of danger? There is something definitely sinister and underhand about the way recruiting is carried out. I met an ex-Moonie a little while ago who told me that she was hooked—if one can use that expression—over one weekend spent at one of their hospitality sessions.

I could use the whole of the 15 minutes which I am allowed inveighing against these cults, but before passing on to other matters perhaps I may clear up one possible misunderstanding. When bringing these cults into question, I am in no way attacking the established churches or their faiths. It will perhaps have been noted that in my Motion I refer to "pseudo-religious cults" and I stand by that description. Whom do the Moonies revere or possibly worship: God or Moon? Who was the Scientologists' prophet: Jesus Christ or Hubbard? What relationship does the teaching of the Children of God have to Christianity, with their free sex and other abominable practices? I could wish that the established churches took a more robust line and disowned these cults utterly as being in any way kindred churches. Here perhaps I may say, and I am sure I speak for your Lordships' House, how much I am looking forward to the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford. I am delighted that he has chosen this occasion and I hope he will be able to say something about the Church's attitude to cults.

I cannot conceal my disappointment that Her Majesty's Government and the authorities have not shown more determination in combating the insidious infiltration of these cults into British public life. The way in which Her Majesty's Government have instituted campaigns to inform people about the dangers of drug abuse has been gratifying. I had hoped that they might mount a similar campaign to expose cults. It is true that certain voluntary organisations such as FAIR and Cultists Anonymous offer advice and support within the limits of their very meagre resources, but it is very much a David and Goliath situation. It is quite certain that if real progress is to be made in exposing these cults, much greater resources are required and the Government must be directly involved.

I do not want to anticipate the speech of my noble friend the Minister, but I am sure he will be mentioning INFORM, which is in the process of being established with the support of £120,000 from the Home Office, spread over three years. I understand that the name stands for Information Network Focus on Religious Movements. It certainly has a reassuring sound about it, but I can tell my noble friend that many of us are very worried about how it will perform. Unlike some people, I do not believe that the Government have backed a Trojan horse, but that they have backed the wrong horse.

From conversations which I have had with members of INFORM's board of directors, I believe their approach will be what I can only describe as an intellectual, sociological approach which will be of little use to a distraught mother who has lost her child to a cult and wants advice and counselling and possibly help in discovering to which country this child has been whisked away.

Originally I had not intended to say anything directly critical of INFORM, but after the statement by the new director reported in The Times last Saturday, my view has hardened very considerably. Perhaps I may quote it: The Reverend Brian Jenner said 'We are not convinced the Moonies are involved in activities which should result in the removal of their charitable status"'. Another disturbing factor is the welcome given by the Moonies to the establishment of INFORM. In one of their news briefs, which incidentally pre-dates the statement I have just mentioned, this is what was said: INFORM aims to provide an independent and objective source of information about new religious movements". That means cults. In the past parents have been alarmed by sensational media stories as their only source, and clergymen have been given wrong information and have thus been liable to give wrong advice". Is it surprising that one is worried about an organisation welcomed by the Moonies and apparently supportive of them and yet financed by Her Majesty's Government and the established Churches?

For a long time, I and many others have worked to achieve government support for an organisation which would genuinely aim to restrain these cults. One must ask why Her Majesty's Government decided to back a completely new organisation rather than build on one which already had considerable experience and information. I hope my noble friend the Minister may be able to throw some light on the matter.

I and many others have been disappointed by the apparent attitude of laissez-faire by the Government and authorities vis-à-vis cults. The response one usually gets is, "Give us proof of law-breaking and we will act". I believe that if the authorities were really convinced of the anti-social aspects of these cults they would take a much stronger line.

Why are Scientologists and others permitted to beg and importune in the streets without a licence? Why is no action taken against the Children of God who practise child sex abuse and prostitution for recruiting purposes? Why do immigration authorities not carry out regular checks on overseas cult members who are often working here without permits? Why are no checks carried out on aspects of slave labour practised by many of these cults? They pay them virtually nothing at all. These are just a few pointers which a determined authority could follow up. I am sure there are many more.

In the few minutes remaining I should like to mention what is happening overseas. Some of your Lordships may be aware that there was an international congress in Spain at the end of November, the first of its kind, I believe. It was attended by some 200 delegates from 12 different countries. To the best of my knowledge all the European organisations represented, with the exception of the British, received some government support. From the reports of the different national organisations it is evident that actions taken in different countries to contain cults vary considerably. But there is mounting conviction that voluntary organisations on their own cannot compete with the large international organisations such as the Moonies and the Scientologists. Countries such as Spain and Austria devote considerable resources to these problems, but I should like to see a more co-ordinated international effort, possibly under the auspices of the European Parliament or the Council of Europe.

Finally, I must express my disappointment that my right honourable and learned friend the Attorney-General has had to drop his case against the Moonies' charitable status. Of course I respect his decision. It is a victory for them financially—although I doubt if they need it—and psychologically. They have already issued a press release expressing their appreciation of the Attorney-General's courage and integrity. However, I am encouraged to read that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister is to take a personal interest in the review of the charity laws. I could have hoped that she might extend that interest and attention to the whole question of cults. It is our experience that where she shows concern action follows. I beg to move for Papers.

6.5 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I am sure the House is grateful to the noble Lord for giving us an opportunity to discuss this very complex and sensitive subject. I hope that what I have to say will not divert the debate from the noble Lord's principal complaints and observations regarding the activities of these pseudo-religious cults. I regret that I cannot follow the noble Lord in that because I have never been a member of a pseudo-religious cult. Indeed, not for many years have I been a member of any religious group or cult at all.

The background to the noble Lord's speech came in his concluding remarks regarding the recent action of the Attorney-General in relation to the case that was still pending after several years relating to the Unification Church. I regret that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, is unwell and unable to take part in this debate today. Some of us can well imagine what he might have said about the Moonies, because in every debate on charities the noble and learned Lord has introduced the subject. That long-drawn-out litigation under the Charities Acts has been brought to an end with the Attorney-General having to admit with reluctance that he cannot proceed further.

I should like to remind your Lordships that the Unification Church secured registration as a charity, claiming to be a religion, and it was registered by the Charity Commissioners. There was a public outcry about some of the practices of that church, and in the end the Government decided to require the Charity Commissioners to cancel the registration. The Charity Commissioners, relying on their statutory responsibilities, refuse to obey any such request from the Attorney-General or from the Government. The litigation that followed has been, in form, an appeal to the courts to declare the Unification Church unfit or unqualified to be registered as a charity and to direct the Charity Commissioners to cancel the registration. All that has collapsed. I read this morning that the Government are paying all the costs, which will amount to at least £50,000. Now that church against which so many complaints were made remains a charity and no court can change it. Now it will depend entirely on Parliament whether the conditions for registration of charities are changed.

All religions are organisations, and in our approach to this matter we must remember the basic freedoms: freedom of association, freedom of religion, freedom to worship and freedom of speech. We must bear all those in mind when we challenge the right of people to espouse causes and to proselytise beliefs and religious doctrines which we may feel are contrary to public policy. I suggest that Parliament alone can deal with this, and even Parliament has to have regard to the charter of human rights and other covenants concerning freedoms to which we have subscribed over the years.

It should also be borne in mind that registration as a charity is an enviable position because the privileges of charities are considerable. The financial benefits of registration are enormous and are growing. The Government are putting fresh opportunities in almost every Budget for additional claims to be made upon the Revenue for charitable relief. Now we have contributions to charities which are deductible under pay-as-you-earn provisions and allowable for tax purposes. We must look very closely indeed at the question of charitable registration.

With the present consideration of the position of charities relating almost wholly to administration, financial control, accountability, and matters of that kind, we have left aside, for the time being, any review of the conditions of registration of charities. Therefore, we are not likely to consider those matters for some little time, although the Attorney-General has said that he will pass on to the Home Secretary the feeling of disquiet which was expressed in another place about the decision which he announced. No doubt he will be saying something in due course about the Government's view of the conditions for charitable registration.

As regards religious charities, I suppose that all charity had its beginning in the religious belief and approach to life. Therefore, religious bodies were in the front row when the state and parliament came—and the monarchs came even earlier—to look at the statutory position of charities. Religious charities probably get on the register more easily than any other type of charity. A religious body does not have to prove to or satisfy the commissioners that it is contributing to the good of the community. All other charities must be able to show that what they are doing is for the good of the community, whether in the fields of education, ethical values, care of animals or in dealing with poverty, as was set out in the Act of 1501.

Religious bodies do not have to do anything of that kind. All they have to prove is that they believe in a supernatural being of over-riding power, authority and responsibility. If they show that they worship a divine being who is over all mortal conditions of life and death, that is a religion. Of course, that definition has been brought lower down the scale of belief and values by politicians. I believe that Nye Bevan said: "Priorities is the religion of socialism". We have heard at different times that Marxism is the religion of communism. However, it does not qualify for registration under charity law. Belief qualifies for religious registration, and not good works.

If anyone is thought to be operating against public policy, then it is not the charity commissioners who can deal with that matter. It is Parliament and Parliament alone. I am bound to say that Parliament will have some very difficult drafting problems to face if it tries to define what group, cult or association of free citizens represents a menace to society in general. When we come to consider charity law, we shall be in a hornet's nest.

The main proposal for changing the registration of charities has been up to now that a charity shall not claim registration and the benefits of being a charity on belief in a divine being alone. Preaching and doctrine alone are not charitable because those are not necesarily good for the community, even though such groups may claim that they are religious and God-given. They are not necessarily good for the community, and in order to qualify for charitable status we look to religious bodies to do good works as well. In other words, such bodies will have to qualify under the condition that they are contributing to the good of the community. I know that many churches think they are contributing in that way. However, not all of us believe that they are. We do not have to drift very far in this debate before beginning to discuss some very large religious cults—not pseudo-cults but real cults of great antiquity with great power and influence in the world.

I should not like to spend even what short time remains to me in telling your Lordships what life was like in a household with a father who was a dissenter. He dissented on religious grounds against almost anything that claimed to be religious. That led the family into serious difficulties. He refused to pay the education rate when contributions were required for the upkeep of the Anglican Church. He went to prison rather than pay. As a schoolboy, I used to meet him outside when he came home. That was the state of my family for years before the First World War. I therefore know what dissent means. I was never christened because my father would not have me christened; that was dissent. He would not have me vaccinated when that became compulsory; that was dissent. I know a good deal about dissent, and I know what price can be paid for it.

I have described to your Lordships the great problem which the noble Lord, Lord Rodney, has raised. It encompasses almost everything that makes for complexity and controversy. I do not think that there is any simple remedy for the complaints which he makes. However, I hope to hear more about the reform of charity law in order to take part in that debate. I shall be pretty hard on religious cults which claim that they act for the good of the community.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Hampton

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Rodney, is to be thanked for raising this important subject. I congratulate him on his introduction, which has stirred up our debate, and led to the interesting contribution of the noble Lord. The more the whole subject is brought into the open, the better. If I were preaching a sermon—heaven forbid!—I should use those well-known words of Jesus in the Gospel of St. John: Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free". Perhaps I may also say how much I look forward to the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford, who I suspect will say some of the things which I shall attempt to say but will say them much better.

I start by raising the matter of freedom, as that is at the heart of the problem. As long ago as October 1984 my honourable friend Mr. David Alton introduced a Bill in another place, to control the activities of religious sects and cults". He made an eloquent speech, after which the Bill was read a first time. However, it made no further progress and was lost in the way Private Members' Bills so often are, despite its obvious merits.

Mr. Alton made it clear that the Bill had one simple aim and provision: to allow parents and next of kin rights of access to relatives who have joined religious cults". He went on to say that he was not codifying the respective merits of different groups and—an important point—he accepted the need to guarantee fundamental religious freedom. The aim of the Bill was to provide worried parents with legal redress where access to next of kin was denied.

We have all read heartrending stories of how young people have been virtually kidnapped, brainwashed and kept from their families. All too often, those who follow a cult are taught that ordinary relationships are evil and that they must never see their relatives again. I believe that the right of access is one of the key issues in our debate and that cult members should be approachable at all times. Otherwise there is tragedy, and, if individuals become social and mental wrecks through involvement in cults, society should not turn its back on them.

Perhaps the noble Earl, when he comes to reply, can tell the House whether there has been any improvement in the arrangements for access over the past three-and-half years since the Bill was tentatively introduced. Certainly the more the media and Members of both Houses of Parliament can expose the dangers of cults, the less potent they will be. I understand that membership of undesirable cults falls dramatically under the light of publicity. In a famous declaration loved by liberals, John Milton said: Let her [truth] and Falsehood grapple! Who ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter? Where there is nothing to hide, no cover-up is necessary.

A week ago the Attorney-General made the statement about the charitable status of the Moonies to which the noble Lord, Lord Rodney, referred. It would be interesting to know what action the hard-pressed Home Secretary, to whom the buck seems to have been passed, will now take to reform the charity law. I believe that action is required.

Your Lordships will recall with deep sorrow the death of Sonia Martin, an ex-cultist found hanging from a signpost in Devon. At best—although that is hardly an appropriate word to use—she committed suicide. At worst, some say that she may have been murdered before she could give evidence as a key witness against the Unification Church. That is a serious allegation, and we need to know the truth.

We need also to consider the European position, which has already been touched on. As long ago as 1983 Mr. John Hume called for the removal of charitable status from the Unification Church. He referred then to what he called: the complacent and obstructive attitude shown by the Chief Charity Commissioner". I do not believe that that criticism holds water today, but there are difficulties with the present law and current needs of society.

In 1984, Mr. Richard Cottrell published his report to the European Parliament on new religious movements in the EC. In that preliminary report, which noble Lords may know, he accepted that different sects could have widely differing levels of acceptability. He stated: To describe the majority of the cults as inspired by genuine humanitarianism is facile. Some may well be deeply and insidiously dangerous. If individuals become social and mental wrecks, that is the concern of any caring society: if people are parted from their money, goods, or their property by misrepresentation, those same concerns apply. Breaking the law should certainly be punished. We need to ask how far the law needs to be changed.

In his report, Cottrell refers to recruitment techniques. He says that those most at risk are aged between 18 and 25 and are often second and third year university students. Some of what Cottrell says is surprising and disturbing. He states: Most come from stable, largely traditional middle-class backgrounds, where there is generally an acceptance of Christian belief: there are rarely financial or marital problems within the family. Most recruits appear to demonstrate a healthy idealism common to the young and a willingness to consider and discuss new ideas. Clearly we have to see that idealism and intelligence are not warped but are wisely directed.

So far, I have dealt with what may be considered the negative side of the matter—evil practices, and how they can be stopped. I now turn to what is being done positively to improve the situation by two organisations, one called Housetop and the other INFORM, to which the noble Lord, Lord Rodney, has already referred. Both are glad to offer advice and seek understanding rather than indulge in fruitless confrontation or, as it has been termed, "cult-bashing"—replying in some cases to evil with evil.

Dr. John Wijngaards, a Catholic priest with some 16 years' experience of living and working in India, heads the Housetop organisation. He makes the following points about someone who has turned to a cult for help (because that is what such people are often doing). First, your friend is searching for something valuable. Secondly, at all costs keep in contact, even if you get no response (something is indeed very wrong if contact is prevented). Thirdly, it is inadequacies in our own Christian response that have given the new religious movements an unprecedented chance to flourish. Fourthly, there is an enormous variation between them; some indeed are positive and can be beneficial. It is therefore important to take the trouble to study the movement in question. Lastly, he emphasises the importance of prayer with your friend, in the conviction that the truth will indeed set him or her free from special emotional problems.

The other counselling service about which parents and children caught up in religious cults should know is INFORM, which the noble Lord, Lord Rodney, has attacked. As he says, it stands, rather ponderously, for Information Network Focus on Religious Movements. It is often depressingly difficult to obtain objective information, and I believe that this organisation offers one way of doing so. INFORM was launched in September last year at the London School of Economics by the sociologist, Dr. Eileen Barker. She said: I realised that cults can give rise to a lot of anguish and even tragedy, and objective, value-free science is not going to help if it is not made available". An article in the Guardian of 16th September said that Dr. Barker was one of the few people to be able to retain a sense of humour in "this highly charged area". As has been said, she has won support from the Government, with a start-up grant of £120,000; the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury is a patron and the Church of England contributes £3,500 a year. Catholics and Nonconformists are also helping. Doubtless the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford will comment on the matter. The article ends: Now, thanks to Dr. Barker's diplomacy, governments, churches and academics can act together and settle down to some serious cult-watching and counselling with no vestige of cult-bashing". I end as I began, by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Rodney, for giving us the opportunity to discuss potential evils and possible remedies.

6.26 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford

My Lords, I believe that we are greatly indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Rodney, for proposing his Motion calling attention to the effect of pseudo-religious cults on family life and young people.

There can be few Members of your Lordships' House who are unaware of that problem and, indeed, of particular instances where deep pain and sorrow have been caused through the activities of some of those cults. The noble Lord has described desperate cases and doubtless others will be cited in the debate.

Many of those movements have received adverse publicity for far too long and public concern has rightly been aroused, most recently through the report of proceedings in another place. Both in my last diocese and in my present one, I have had personal experience of speaking with distraught parents, as well as with the devastated spouse of someone who disappeared from the family scene as a result of being brought under the evil influence of one of the most notorious of those cults, which rejoices in the name of The Children of God.

It is hardly surprising that politicians and clergy are besieged with requests to "do something" about this problem, and that we feel the urge to respond. But what can we do? To answer that question we must ask, "What is this phenomenon, and why has it happened?"

We are told that in the United Kingdom there are some 500 new movements which have sprung up in recent years, which may with varying accuracy be referred to as "religious". Most of them have their origins either in Eastern religions or in Christianity. Some have linked those traditional faiths with particular strains of modern philosophy, psychology or therapy. Some of those are genuine religious movements containing insights and spiritual practices of considerable worth; some are superficial, while others are dangerous in their teaching, using dubious, not to say illegal, methods of attracting adherents. Some of those new movements are open, free, and have an infectious joy about them, while others, such as those referred to by the noble Lord in his Motion, are secretive and tyrannical, dividing families and causing deep pain.

We are told that in total probably fewer than 15,000 people belong to such groups in the United Kingdom. Your Lordships may feel that that is not a menacingly large number, but I have to say that the teaching and methods of some of those movements are a shame to those who perpetrate them and cause distress out of all proportion to the numbers involved.

If one looks back into history one finds that it has happened before, particularly at periods of social and cultural upheaval. We should not be surprised. What attracts people to such movements? Evidence suggests that it is not usually their teaching, which is sometimes bizarre, but rather their offer of a new purpose in life, their enthusiastic commitment to a cause and their warm supportive groups. They appeal to idealistic young people who are seeking a cause and an alternative community to which to belong. They attract a middle-aged man when the bottom falls out of his world and he seeks to roll back the years of what seems to have been a pointless life. So, what are we to do?

Desperate situations often lead people to adopt desperate remedies. Your Lordships will have read of young people who, through the efforts of their families, have been kidnapped in order that they might be de-programmed. Whatever the rights or the outcome of such action, surely we cannot see in that an answer which can be of general application. What are we to do? Are we to attempt to legislate against these movements? There are Members of your Lordships' House who are better qualified than I to pass judgment on the practicability of such a course of action.

The British Council of Churches has rightly pointed out the huge problems to be encountered in any attempts to legislate against religious movements as such, even when they are regarded by the orthodox churches as being in grave error and by society at large as either potty or dangerous, or both. Whether one likes it or not, one immediately comes up against the universal Declaration of Human Rights. One could be in danger of playing into the hands of those atheistic regimes in Eastern Europe which are seeking to justify their suppression of religious freedom.

However, if legislation concerning religious movements as such is problematical, we can and must watch that they do not contravene the existing law and infringe the rights of others. Moreover, when such infringement occurs, the law should be firmly applied.

I believe that there is room for tightening up in this regard—for example, in the application of the law against soliciting in the streets, which is engaged in openly and frequently by the cults. It may be that new legislation is called for. The present state of the laws governing charitable status certainly warrants some drastic action. The churches have not been and will not be unwilling to help in any consideration of this matter, but of course we must note and accept that such legislation must apply equally to all, whatever their religious beliefs. I noticed this afternoon that tabled for debate in the General Synod is a private member's motion deploring the charitable status of the Unification Church.

However, for the ultimate answer to these pseudo-religious cults it is not sufficient to look only for new legislation. The ultimate answer to these movements is a revitalising of society and a renewing of the Christian Church and the other older religious movements. Very many of the adherents of these cults have been disillusioned with a materialistic, self-seeking and individualistic society and, I have to admit, disillusioned with a Church which appears to be at odds with itself and lukewarm in its commitment. The best antidote to such movements would be an enthusiastic and idealistic church made up of supportive groups of Christians. Where such a church exists, other groups have limited scope.

It is our task in the Church to work for such a renewal of the Church and I believe that that is going on. Moreover, I believe that all of us together have to commit ourselves to seeking to create a society which is not about the pursuit of an and materialism but is a society in which ideas and ideals can flourish; a society where whatever things are true, honest and just and whatever things are pure, lovely and of good report may be safeguarded, nurtured and allowed to fill the thoughts and aspirations of those in all age groups who look for purpose, direction and meaning.

In conclusion, I want to report that the bishops, working with Christians of other denominations, have recently decided to appoint advisers in each diocese who will provide clear information and advice on all matters arising from these movements and who will be ready to put those who need counsel in touch with those who can counsel them. Our initiative has been greatly assisted by what I believe is a unique experiment—a coming together of academics, voluntary agencies, the churches and government to establish an independent body whose task will be to provide objective information on the teaching and practice of these movements and about available counselling. This body, which is called INFORM, has itself recently been the subject of criticism in some sections of the press. The noble Lord, Lord Rodney, has voiced his own misgivings. I am reliably informed that much press criticism is largely due either to a misunderstanding of the role of INFORM or a misguided desire to undermine its work. That is often the fate of organisations which are called to work on the perimeter of the safe and the known. However, the churches intend to work with that body and continue to contribute to its work their own experience and insights. I commend the Home Office for its financial support and continuing interest.

The Centre for New Religious Movements in Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham, the Centre for New Religious Movements in King's College, London, the Roman Catholic Missionary Centre in London entitled Housetop, Family Action Information and Rescue, are all agencies at work in the bewildering complexity of the new religious scene. We wish them well and we trust that from this debate in your Lordships' House there will come a strengthened resolution to seek to bring to light hidden things of darkness and to offer hope and practical help to those who find themselves caught up in what can prove to be for them an experience of confusion, pain and grief. There is an urgency about the situation. I believe it demands the best endeavours of us all.

6.38 p.m.

Lord Sandys

My Lords, we have been privileged to listen to a most distinguished and authoritative maiden speech from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford. I am sure that the whole House wishes to join with me in congratulating him on his speech. Flanked as he is by his brother bishops on this occasion, he has spoken out on a matter which has so clearly been brought to our attention by all previous speakers, especially by my noble friend Lord Rodney, to whom we are much indebted.

There is a figure absent from the Chamber this afternoon, and that is my noble and learned friend Lord Denning, who unfortunately is ill at the present time and unable to be with us. He has indicated to me a particular matter upon which, although I feel most inadequate correctly to interpret his comments, I feel I shall do well to follow his advice. He suggested that the debate should examine carefully the statement given in reply to question No. 89 on 3rd February in another place by my right honourable and learned friend the Attorney-General, Sir Patrick Mayhew. I shall quote only that part of the reply which refers particularly to the Unification Church. The Attorney-General said at col. 977 of the Commons Hansard: Whatever view may be taken of its tenets, the Unification Church must, as a matter of law, be regarded as a religion. In English law there is a strong presumption that any trust for the advancement of any religion, without distinction, is charitable unless the contrary is proved by evidence admissible in court proceedings. Teachings that are in their very essence contrary to morality would be an example. It is for any challenger to bring forward such evidence: the burden is on him". Your Lordships will be well aware that the particular interest and repugnance of Members over the situation as it stands today gave rise to no fewer than 12 supplementary questions. I feel that this authoritative statement by the Attorney-General must be based on the four classifications of charity given by Lord Macnaghten in 1891. This means that it is nearly a century old. It lays emphasis most particularly on the need that your Lordships examined as recently as 27th January when, on the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, we considered a very important report by Sir Philip Woodfield on the supervision of charities. Perhaps I may be permitted—I do not wish to weary your Lordships—to quote what the noble Lord said at col. 668: Although the scale of misdoing is easily exaggerated, the public is entitled to believe that there are safeguards against misuse both in fund-raising and in actually running charities". The theme was taken up by the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, who said at col. 674: Therefore, I must reiterate that the public have a complete right to know what goes on in charities in order to forestall any possibility that they may be used for evil purposes". Several noble Lords have asked what we should do now. With great diffidence perhaps I may suggest that in discussing the subject one should relate it to the debate that we had two weeks ago and draw attention to three recommendations that Sir Philip Woodfield brought forward. The first is recommendation No. 8, that a graded system of submission of annual accounts with a narrative report under existing legislation if possible should be carried out. This is most important as it is one of the few recommendations in the report that would not require legislation, so far as Sir Philip Woodfield could discover. I wish therefore to draw this fact to the attention of my noble friend Lord Ferrers before proceeding further. Recommendation No. 12 unfortunately requires primary legislation because it deals with the deregistration of charities. Recommendation No. 13, however, does not. It is that the commission should require registration as a precondition for dealing with any business from a registered charity. Any business can require a whole range of matters to be taken into consideration. This is the very tightening-up of the law suggested by many noble Lords, including the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford.

I hope that these are practical matters, some of which could be put in hand at a very early date. I suggest that recommendation No. 8 falls into that category because it is very clear from what your Lordships have said this afternoon that the urgency is far greater than our ability to reform charitable law as it stands.

6.45 p.m.

Lord Thurlow

My Lords, it is indeed useful to open the window wider to let in to this difficult and complex subject more fresh air. I pay tribute to the powerful statement of the right reverend Prelate, which was filled with valuable facts and presented with great force. I hope that we shall hear often from the right reverend Prelate.

We all share the general revulsion at the deplorable abuses of their opportunities by a minority of scandalous organisations. We should all like to see strong measures taken to intervene to make it impossible for this small number of powerful and strongly financed organisations to exploit their members. However, we have to accept, as the noble Lord, Lord Rodney, said, that we deal with a complex set of phenomena stemming in great part from the breakdown of the capacity of traditional values and institutions to satisfy the needs of the younger generation, who have experienced the global communications revolution and cross-cultural interchange. There is an authentic desire for self-betterment in many young people, who have an urge to explore what is new and unusual and to see whether there are any clues for them.

I hope that we do not overreact to the notorious abuses of the minorities. We have to maintain a sense of proportion. How grave is the scale of abuse and how great is the risk of increase of such abuses. Compared to the central threats to society—drugs, crime, violence, alcoholism and rampant materialism—many of the cults are pretty harmless. I would not particularly want to see any of my children dancing down Piccadilly in orange tunics, but they do no particular harm and they give some mild amusement. I recall a respected elderly cousin years ago when I was a youth who had become involved with a group that believed that the end of the world was about to break. The practice at intervals—I think about every six months—was to go on what was supposed to be the next appointed day for this catastrophe to a particular place in Bedfordshire where they donned white clothes in order to be ready to be taken up to heaven. She gave a lot of money to this cult, but it did neither her nor anyone else any harm.

As to the scale of the problem, we hear that 15,000 individuals—I was very interested in this figure— may be exposed to some of these grave abuses. In the context of the major ills of society we have to keep the cult in proportion.

I sympathise deeply with the bewildered parents, unable to get a response from their blinkered and deluded sons and daughters. I hope that it may be possible, by legislation if necessary (as the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, reminded us) to introduce a legal right of access. But there is no easy way to rescue those who have been brainwashed. We are dealing with a psychological condition. I was interested in what the right reverend Prelate had to tell us about the new institutions that the Church has set up to help the captives or those who are related to them. I am sure that that will be of great importance and value.

There is a limit to the extent to which force can usefully be applied in countering force. It will not necessarily change the individual. A zombie can perhaps be converted into another kind of dependent zombieism by modern psychological techniques, but he or she still remains immature, vulnerable and unable to accept full self-responsibility. Only to a limited extent can the problems be tackled by legislation.

By all means may the authorities use all the powers at their disposal now to catch up with and prevent the crime that already gets away with it. But, as noble Lords have pointed out, I am not sure that it is best to look to the Government for anything like direct restraint. One gets into deep water on human rights. It is too difficult to draw the line between harmless innovative groups and those that exploit, dominate and corrupt. Nor do we want to encourage anything like vigilante groups within the community to start making life difficult for these movements. This kind of thing would be bound to lead to cult-bashing and misdirected witch hunts. The media would take it up and gallop away with it.

Those of us who supported Clause 28 last week discounted the risk of witch hunts in the context of the Bill, but in this field—which after all is the classical area of witch hunts—we really have to be very careful. After all, Socrates was condemned to death in a free democratic society for the simple reason that he encouraged questioning of accepted views. There is a lurking monster in every society. We all react against the unfamiliar. We have a tendency to attack and suppress what is different and anything we do not understand.

Tolerance is, we all in this House agree, one of the most rare and fine flowers of human civilisation. There is little enough of it in the world. We tend to underrate it in this country because we probably have more tolerance than any other nation. Outside the former British Empire, United States and Western Europe there is precious little tolerance left.

How is it that young people who see themselves as honestly seeking truth at a higher level than it has previously been presented to them can be trapped? Is it the glamour of different ideas or the need to belong to a group for identity? How is it that, having been sucked in, they close their minds and take a defensive stand against those trying to help them? I think the answer is depressing. The causes are built into our present society: the abdication of parents and too many teachers in schools from their duty to discipline and guide, itself the result of lack of true values and faith. Where children grow up in materialistic and permissive homes and attend weak and uncaring schools they are vulnerable to specious and plausible offers of an alleged path of self-fulfilment and higher values.

The only way a victim can rise above the condition of his entrapment is, I suggest, to acquire the capacity to question his beliefs with an open mind, to grow out of the need for dependence and group support and to make up his mind for himself.

How are we to achieve this? Once a young man or woman has succumbed to his or her weaknesses, it is not easy to rescue that person but it is perfectly possible to inculcate against these infections by the method that most of your Lordships have unwittingly followed. Hence the emergence of your children as good citizens. Young people must be endowed by their training to have such strong and free intellects and such independent and responsible characters that they cease to be vulnerable.

Your Lordships may fairly ask: what is the hope for such a far-reaching transformation of our sadly degenerated society? That is quite right. There is no quick way out. Action against the symptoms of Western social sickness cannot be taken effectively and rapidly, but we can start. The cure lies in better education at home and in schools. If we acknowledge our target and direction and commit ourselves to work for them, there could be a transformation belying our most ambitious dreams.

6.58 p.m.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, Members of your Lordships' House and people far beyond will, I am sure, be very grateful to my noble friend Lord Rodney for introducing the debate, however short, this evening. Before I go on I should like humbly to congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford on what I consider to be an absolutely brilliant maiden speach. In my opinion, he spoke more for the Church than we have heard in your Lordships' House for a very long time.

For far too long the cults have been escalating in this country and all over the world. My noble friend Lord Rodney is quite right to call them "pseudo" because they are fake and they are phoney. Unfortunately it is the word "religious" that appeals to some of our young people. Often these young people have grown bored with the established religions in this country. They are easily snared into trying something else. The something else might just as well be drugs, drink or crime, so long as it is different.

Many cults are extremely dangerous, both psychologically and morally. Their well-organised and well-trained tentacles reach out and grab the inexperienced young person. Before he is aware of it the child has been indoctrinated and hooked by these organisations. One father, who is a Member of your Lordships' House, has asked me to say that so severe is the indoctrination given by some of the cults that a child can be hooked within 24 hours. If parents then wish to remove their child from the organisation they must also do so within 24 hours. Once hooked, it is the same as having an insidious disease which is almost impossible to cure or shake off.

One thread which seems to run through the teaching of most of the cults is that the family as a unit is wrong. The victim is taught that all the past must be left behind and that the future must be blind obedience to the guru and those in authority.

In this country the concept of the family is one of the fundamentals of society. When parents have brought up their children with care and love it is cruel in the extreme to watch and see them snatched by one of these pseudo-religious cults. The letters which I and other noble Lords have received are tragic and pathetic. They are tragic because of the great unhappiness which is caused to the parents and they are pathetic because the parents are so helpless.

It is about time we actively discouraged these cults, and certainly we should not give them charitable status. We were so grateful when last week, in answer to a Question in another place, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said that the law in this regard needs to be looked at.

Meanwhile, we must do our best through education to warn school-leavers of the dangers of the cults, as the noble Viscount, Lord Thurlow, has said. That means talking to the parents as well as to their children so that both are aware of the perils they may face. The recently formed organisation called the Cult Information Centre is ready and willing to go to schools by invitation to talk to some of the pupils about the meaning of being a member of a cult. Those who go out from that organisation have themselves been members of cults. I should like to ask the Minister about the organisation called INFORM. I hope that one of its objects is to educate and inform people, as I have tried to suggest.

Today I received a letter, among several, which I should like to read to your Lordships. It states: Our 25 year-old daughter, Mary, was recruited into Scientology during her fourth and final year at music college and as a result failed her final examination due to the demands made upon her by Scientology. She has summoned her 72 year-old partially-sighted father to appear at the High Court early in 1988 to answer to charges of wilful restraint. We cannot afford a lawyer; he will have to defend himself. The law as it stands is unable to deal with these cults and many people long for something to be done. Any support that you can give in this direction will be greatly appreciated. I hope that as a result of this all-too-short debate people will wake up to the great difficulties faced by many parents and young people due to the present increase in the cults in our country. I should like to express my grateful thanks to my noble friend for having introduced the subject this evening.

7.5 p.m.

Baroness Lane-Fox

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Rodney deserves the gratitude of the whole House for initiating this debate. It is a subject which knows no party boundaries. I should like to say how much I appreciated the wise and invigorating maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate.

Much is known about the leading cults: the Unification Church, Scientology, the Children of God and Hari Krishna. We are told that approximately 500 others have been established in this country. Frequently none is recognised until a recruit finds himself subjected to the well-known and incredible discipline and strictures. Families are anguished to lose contact with the loved one because the recruit is taught to despise his home and parents and all the familiar home contacts which are said to be evil.

It is not difficult to find a cult. A walk down Kensington High Street soon shows one that; it abounds with folk eager to interest one in their strange ways of life. A 21 year-old Austrian girl whom I knew, and who was usually very levelheaded, suddenly announced that she had fallen hopelessly in love with a young fellow who had talked to her in the High Street. He emphasised to her all the details of the Book of Genesis and after a week she decided to take him home to see her parents and then to marry him.

A visit to his headquarters in Ealing revealed to her several hundred others with his beliefs to be found around the area living under their interpretation of Genesis. It was all very exciting until a telephone call came from his shepherdess reporting that he was sick and unable to recover quickly. Suddenly, in a flash of understanding, my friend became convinced that the cult was wrong. Her sensible mother had been in touch with her from Germany and, mercifully, that was the end of the interlude. My friend was lucky. Those less fortunate who, by devious means, have finally returned to their families are in great need of support and re-introduction into the real world.

Some people wonder how others can be prey to such organisations. If your Lordships will allow me a short anecdote I can give an illustration of how they approach more widely those living around them. One evening there was a knock at my fifth-floor flat. At that time we were having difficulty reaching the fuse of an electric gadget hung high on the wall. Our caller turned out to be a good looking, tall, fresh-complexioned young American. He asked if there was any job we wanted doing around the house. I immediately directed him to our little local difficulty. With immaculate efficiency he carried out the repair. Over coffee it transpired that he was a member of the Church of Unification. When I said that that must mean he was a Moonie he was indignant and told us that we had obviously been duped by the press. His description of how he lived sounded like fairyland where money played no part and much was wrapped in mystery.

The young man said that he had left his parents—his father was a dentist—and family. He had turned his back on a very happy home saying that he was convinced that he had never found real happiness until he met this cult. The mind boggles to think of those who loved him who were so freely thrown overboard.

We can have no illusions about what is happening to youngsters in our midst. For a decade or more we have tried to ignore and forget this potential threat to the family. This debate seeks to recognise and highlight one of today's most insiduous and cruel assaults on families and individuals.

7.11 p.m.

Lord Craigmyle

My Lords, although we are accustomed to short speeches, I am very happy that that has not caused us to drop the custom of first of all thanking the noble Lord who opened the debate and congratulating a maiden speaker. All I can say to the right reverend Prelate is to remind him that Chelmsford is not very far from Westminster and I hope that he will be with us frequently.

I believe it is common ground to all of us that young people who become involved in these cults are seeking something. Presumably they are seeking something good and if they join one of these cults they must—at least at the time of joining—assume that what they have found is good. The question then is how to forewarn them so that they do not take up something as good which everyone else knows to be evil, or once they have made the mistake, how to recover them.

One of the difficulties is that although we speak of pseudo-religious cults—and it is a very useful phrase that my noble friend has used for the purpose of this debate—where does one draw the line? When is a cult pseudo and when is it not pseudo? People can dress up in funny clothes, give themselves funny names, do the most extraordinary things and march around the streets. Does that make them pseudo? If it does, then we could find ourselves condemning the Salvation Army. One has only to mention such an example to see the absurdity of that. Is a cult pseudo simply because it splits up families? It is the tragic splitting up of families to which my noble friend has particularly drawn attention; and some dreadful examples have been given, not least by the two noble Baronesses who have just spoken. However, I remind your Lordships that Jesus himself prophesied that his teaching would split up families: two against three; three against two. That was in a long and emphatic passage, and we know how truly he spoke. We have seen and heard from friends the anguish of Jewish families when one of their members becomes a Christian. Therefore, we are not dealing with a simple matter. Because we can see something to be awful which has appalling results, do not let us believe that we have an easy task in defining it. It will be incredibly difficult.

How should we begin to look at these cults to see whether they really are evil or whether perhaps there is some good in them? I suggest that we bear in mind the saying of St. Francis de Sales: True devotion never causes harm". It may be that the harm that false devotion causes may not show up for quite some time and there may be difficulty in applying that motto; but it is worth bearing in mind. Then I think we can look at the antecedents of a movement. Some spring from esoteric practices like magic, and I do not believe we need concern ourselves too much with them. Some come from the oriental religions and philosophies; and the difficulty there is that very few of us know anything about oriental religions and philosophies. Some may be genuine upsurges and attempts to bring those philosophies into a western picture. Others may be degenerations from them. Then there are the rather quaint human potential cults. I do not think we need waste much time with them. Some of them verge on the ridiculous like little green men from outer space and things like that. However, the greater number of the cults are derived in their origins from Christianity and there are, as has been said, hundreds of them. The majority are quite harmless. That is another great difficulty. If we say that all these pseudo-religious cults are taboo then we shall find ourselves banning quite a lot of comparatively harmless matters as well as the small number of viciously damaging ones.

We can also look at the qualities of the founders and leaders of these groups. Their lifestyles give one some sort of indication of the quality of their philosophies. For example, one thinks of poor Jonah who was so terrified of being told to preach in Nineveh that he ran away to sea. We Christians think supremely of the agony of Jesus in the garden as he prayed for strength to accept the horrors that would come upon him in the next 24 hours. I have never read any text in the Bible or elsewhere where God encourages a budding prophet, "enrichez-vous." However, some of these gurus are among the richest men in the world. That seems to me a tell tale sign of a thoroughly pseudo-religious cult.

The last characteristic I mention is their secretive nature. In ancient times many religions including Christianity kept much of their religious practice secret. I believe I am right in saying—and there are plenty of right reverend Prelates here to correct me if I am wrong—that in the very early church even the catechumens were put out before the mysteries were celebrated; and, unlike the present Church, they would not put up notices outside saying, "all are welcome." Nowadays, if we find that cults are very secretive about what they do and what they believe, then I believe we have good grounds for being suspicious of them.

Those are some of the indications. However, we are still left with the great difficulty of telling the gold from the fool's gold, or the sheep from the goats. How to win back someone who has been taken into a bogus cult is quite obviously a problem of enormous human difficulty. Surely the key word is "love". I believe—to revert to one of the sub-plots of this debate—that INFORM have probably the right solution to this rather than the cult-bashing answer. Keep contact, and never fail in love, supported by prayer. Wherever possible—and one of the reasons why INFORM has been criticised so much already, though it is hardly off the ground—is that it does this, and I am sure it is a good thing to do. We must keep in touch with the cults themselves. The extreme cults will not allow that contact, but the more moderate and sensible ones will. That seems to me to be the method of thought of 20th century ecumenism, whereas mere cult-bashing is the line of thought of the 17th century religious wars. We shall make no progress that way. Above all, let us not lose hope that truth will prevail: Magna est veritas, et praevalet.

7.20 a.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, the House always expresses its gratitude to noble Lords who have tabled Motions for debate which are of great public concern. With this Motion we have more reason than usual to be grateful to the mover. The noble Lord, Lord Rodney, has raised a topic which has created much anxiety and to which at the same time there is clearly no simple solution or antidote.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford, in an admirable and remarkable maiden speech, gave the whole size of the problem. It was interesting to hear how enormous has been the growth of these movements. He also described the responsibility that the Church is taking on in this regard.

Previous speakers have fully covered the different elements of this subject. All have come together in agreement regarding the pain and anguish that families undergo when their young have been seduced by the more reprehensible of these pseudo-religious cults. Like many other noble Lords, I have received letters from parents whose anger and bitterness and particularly their feeling of powerlessness, has been brought to bear. I have been struck by the way in which the letters describe how the child has suffered a personality change, how he or she has become quite incapable of independent thought. They describe how a young person, once tempted and separated from the reality of his or her natural framework and isolated from the world outside, becomes open to conversion.

One letter from parents in Wales described how, more than eight years ago, their teenage son was picked up by the Moonies while on holiday in America. The letter describes how he is still there, married to a Japanese stranger, who was able to enter the United States on his green card obtained by Moonie lawyers. The whole set-up, says the writer, seems to be a gigantic immigration racket. From what we have read of the Moonies that seems to be quite true.

As I said, there is agreement on the pain caused, but what is more difficult is how to inform and protect vulnerable young people while at the same time drawing back from condemning as a cult everything other than the established church. There is undoubtedly a serious definitional problem. That has been brought out by, in particular, the noble Lord, Lord Craigmyle. I am sure that many of us have been approached by religious groups who are very worried about being lumped together with those who employ malpractices. However, all those who work towards alleviating the present situation agree that objections to cults are not concerned with beliefs but with practices. Among those practices deception, exploitation and manipulation of the mind are foremost.

Therefore, in my few minutes I should like to make some comments on what is at present being done in this field and what more could be done. First—a point raised by every speaker—why should the Unification Church have charitable status? My noble friend Lord Houghton gave us a full account of the case and made it clear how unreasonable this seems. He also made it clear how this reflects a weakness in our charity law. The Attorney-General, making the announcement of the withdrawal of the case concerning the Unification Church, said that charity law is in the domain of the Home Secretary and that he was unable to speak on the subject. However, I hope that the Minister replying to this debate, who is responsible for home affairs, will be able to make some comment on this extremely worrying subject, which is also topical as the announcement was made only last week.

I should like to repeat what was asked in another place; namely, that if our present law prevents us from taking action against the Moonies, is there not an urgent need for the review which the Home Office is carrying out, following publication of the Woodfield Report, to include strengthening the powers of the Charity Commissioners to prevent organisations whose objectives and tactics are clearly not regarded as charitable by the majority of British people from continuing to enjoy charitable status? The noble Lord, Lord Sandys, made a very good point in the part of his speech relating to that matter. It is extraordinary to all of us and, I am sure, to everybody outside this House, that nothing can be done to alleviate this problem. As I said, I look forward very much to hearing what the noble Earl has to say.

What is being done to inform and counsel young people as to the dangers of the cults and what is being done to assist parents of cult members? First, as the noble Lord, Lord Rodney, said, there is Family Action Information and Rescue; a family-based organisation which clearly gives as much information and guidance as its means permit. However, those means are pitiful. It has extremely little money and what it does is done out of concern and anxiety because so many of its members have themselves suffered from these cults. The organisation receives no assistance from the Home Office. In a letter to me, Mrs. Martin describes FAIR in the following way: FAIR, like Amnesty International, has always striven to be neutral and impartial. I think it is fairly successful in this, since it is subjected to criticism both from the families it helps—who often consider it is too sympathetic to the cults—and from the cults—who see it as 'anti-cultist'. Then there is the organisation which, again, every speaker has mentioned. INFORM has Government funding but was only set up in January of this year. Therefore it is too early to discern exactly how it is to carry out its work. What seems to be clear is that it has already attracted a great deal of suspicion and mistrust, both from FAIR and from other organisations working in this field. Therefore, whatever are the rights and wrongs of INFORM, there seems to be little doubt that it needs immediately to acquire a good reputation if it wishes to carry out the important work that the Home Office expects it to do.

I agree with the right reverand Prelate that there may be a misunderstanding of its role. I understand that the Home Office describes INFORM as a cult awareness, rather than an anti-cult, organisation which has been set up to provide high quality specialist and objective information on cults and to provide a counselling service. Therefore, it informs rather than warns. It is perhaps that misunderstanding that has been a worry. Perhaps it would be right for the Government to examine its composition and aims more closely and give some support to the closer harmonisation of the efforts of groups working to inform, educate and indeed warn young people of what cults are actually doing. As I said, if these organisations work against each other, it bodes ill for those young people who might be prevented from becoming embroiled and those others who clearly need counselling and treatment when wishing to become disentangled.

Finally, I should like to comment on the EC inititative in this field which the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, mentioned. I believe that had it been pursued it could have been very useful. This was the Cottrell Report, which was commissioned by the European Parliament and published in 1984. The report dealt with the activities of certain religious movements within the European Community.

What has impressed me most is that in response the chairman of the Legal Affairs Committee at that time, Madame Simone Veil, gave this opinion when writing to the chairman of the Committee on Youth, Culture, Education, Information and Sport: At its meeting of 21st February 1984, the Legal Affairs Committee heard Mr. Cottrell speak at length on the activity of certain 'new religious movements' within the European Communituy. It shares the legitimate concern expressed by the rapporteur and in the legal sphere it fully endorses the reference made to Article 9 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights. This article provides an adequate legal framework for a Community solution to the problem raised since it guarantees the fundamental right to freedom of thought and religious belief, whilst specifying the limits which may have to be put on this right if the freedom and safety of human beings are at risk. That is a very important paragraph. The letter continues: Proceeding from this premise, it is also desirable and legally correct to develop political co-operation and try to find whatever kind of agreement may help to prevent acts which jeopardise human freedom, especially the freedom of young people. Unfortunately, although there had been a recommendation for the report to go before the Council of Ministers, this recommendation was rejected and the report has been dropped. Therefore the opportunity to use the European framework to try to solve a problem which certainly must exist in all the European Community member states has been lost for the moment. One wonders why this should not be taken up again or at least whether an ombudsman should not be appointed at European level to monitor and advise. I believe that a retired diplomat or a lawyer would be a more suitable person than someone who is intellectually and personally involved with this particular subject.

One asks whether we are doing everything we can in Britain. One wonders whether the British Council of Churches is fulfilling its responsibility. The right reverend Prelate asked himself this question. Should not the Government show their concern in more practical ways? There is a watchdog committee to watch over the well-being of farm animals. There should be a parallel body set up to focus on or watch over the activities of the pseudo-religious movements which it is clear bring so many human tragedies in their wake.

7.34 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, in concert with everyone else I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Rodney for having introduced this debate this evening. It has been of enormous interest and it is one which I believe has evoked the sympathy of the whole House. It is a debate about which everyone is unanimous in their concern for the way in which young people are brought up and for the way in which people can inadvertently stray or be pulled away from what most of us would consider to be the straight and narrow path.

It is not without a quirk of chance that this evening we have had two debates. The first was about the secret services and the second was on cults. It may be thought that there was a similarity of attitude over the latter one. There is a certain amount of secrecy and people do not know what is happening. At least this debate has given us the benefit of a maiden speech from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford which I believe was of great significance. It was a remarkable speech and a sympathetic one. It was clear, precise and a most moving speech. I was glad to hear from the right reverend Prelate of the initiative of the Church in setting up its own counselling services to try to help with this problem. I hope that the right reverend Prelate will be present often, as we all do, and that he will be able to give us his views in that same clear way on many other occasions.

It is not the first time that my noble friend Lord Rodney has raised the issue of religious cults and their effects on families. I am grateful to him for giving us the opportunity today to debate it and for me to explain the position of the Government. When anything is awry one always says, "What are the Government going to do about it?" I believe that most people recognise that this is a very tender area. Cults are not a new phenomenon. In the 1960s and 1970s there was a growth in their number. They are characterised by the elevation of a leader into divine or semi-divine status. To many of us their claims are ludicrous, but one cannot deny their general appeal to the young and the inadequate, promising as they do to build character and to improve the opportunities of their adherents to succeed in a competitive world.

As a result, wealth has often accrued to these leaders at the expense of their misguided followers, leaving people indebted and disillusioned. I believe that we are all alive to this sad and sometimes tragic experience. We are aware of the consequences which involvement with cults can have for people, particularly the young, and of the distress and alienation caused to parents. There are many distressed relatives and friends who have the experience of young people estranged from their families. We have heard of them this evening. They have been involved with and dominated— sometimes even destroyed—by such cults. Even those who escape may remain permanently scarred by their experience.

We have heard the bad examples given this evening by the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, and my noble friends Lord Rodney, Lady Macleod, and Lady Lane-Fox, besides others. My noble friend Lord Rodney referred to the Children of God and said that this was an organisation which encouraged prostitution and child sex abuse. Allegations have been made about these malpractices. No evidence has been forthcoming and, if there was, any investigation would be a matter for the police since offences of that nature would be against the criminal law. There is an argument for taking people to court if that happens because it is against the criminal law, but it is not an argument for banning an organisation. It may be wholly distasteful.

My noble friend Lord Rodney referred to the Scientologists with their begging bowls and the right reverend Prelate also referred to them. He said that they are people frequently seen with begging bowls, but in the cases which have been brought to our attention we have found that the devotees have in fact been in possession of valid house-to-house street collection or peddlers' licences which have been lawfully granted by local authorities. If my noble friend knows anything different I should be delighted to hear from him.

The noble Lord, Lord Hampton, referred to the registration of new churches under Mr. Alton's Bill. The proposal raises difficulties because it limits the freedom of religion guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights and it was opposed by the established Churches. He was also concerned about parental access to the members of cults. We have no information on which to judge whether access has improved over the past three years. To hinder access is unacceptable and can only increase the distress of the parents.

It is understandable that those whose children are involved ask the Government to do something and propose direct intervention. The problem is that we enter that difficult and dangerous territory where order has to be balanced against liberty and where the cure can sometimes be even more harmful than the evil it seeks to remedy. In this country we have a long-standing tradition of religious toleration. Religious freedom—including the freedom to change religion or belief, and the freedom to manifest religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice or otherwise—is guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights. My noble friend Lord Rodney said he was disappointed that the Government have not taken action against cults. I must tell him that it is a difficult area. My noble friend Lord Craigmyle put it fairly succinctly when he said that people are seeking something. What are they seeking? There is nothing wrong with seeking something. People are always doing that. My noble friend Lady Lane-Fox asked how people are caught up in these cults. We should all like an answer to that question. However, when one starts to legislate and say, "This one, that one and the other one are unacceptable but the other five are acceptable", one is moving towards a dangerous line of thought. Somebody has to be the arbiter. The Government cannot be the arbiter. It may be that the courts should be the arbiter, but then the legislation must be very clearly defined. That will be a difficult task.

The noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, said correctly that this would be a difficult area. He said that we have to be careful not to have a witch hunt. He is quite correct. If we are not careful, if we try to pursue this too far, we shall get into a minefield of problems and may end up with the position being worse than it is at the moment. I shall come on later to what the Government propose to do but I sympathise with what the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, said. It is a difficult area in which we find ourselves wishing, quite understandably, to move and to change.

However, in the end these are very much matters of personal conviction and of the way in which one brings up one's family and children. The Church has a great part to play in this, as do teachers and parents. I suppose that one can only look back on the words of Edmund Burke and say that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

We can keep a close eye on the activities of the cults. We have always urged members of the public who have evidence of any organisation or its members being involved in breaking the law to inform the police immediately. However, where there is no breach of the law we cannot take action against an organisation just because some people regard its activities as socially undesirable. The activities and the views of many organisations are deeply repugnant to most sensible people. That applies to a wider range of groups than those which are normally regarded as cults but we have to live with them. It would strike at the root of our system of law for the Government to attempt to take any action against them. Proposals for a system of voluntary guidelines were accepted by the European Parliament but were criticised not only by new religious groups but also by the established Churches, which considered them seriously to limit religious freedom and also likely to affect the established Churches.

It is not for the Government to adopt an anti-cultist approach. In fact they must scrupulously attempt to avoid being partisan. The public exposure of the true nature and activities of cults will help people to reflect more carefully before being involved. Such an approach, adopting a nonjudgmental stance, seems from the Government's point of view to be the most desirable. To adopt an anti-cultist approach would often, in any event, make matters worse, driving to more extreme positions those whom we would seek to help. We all know that, by warning that some action is wrong or dangerous, a parent or teacher can harden the resolve of the youngster to continue in his or her folly. We also know that the more militant activity of the anti-cultist involves kidnapping and "deprogramming", which can make the cure as distasteful as the disease, let alone being quite unlawful. While we sympathise with anyone who sees his child taken away into an organisation of which he disapproves, one cannot go around the world kidnapping people because they belong to an organisation of which one disapproves. If one has a child who happens to go into a monastery, perhaps against one's wishes, one cannot go and haul him out, especially if he has made that choice of his own free will. The Government are concerned to ensure that in any alteration of the law we do not make the matter worse than it is at present. We are concerned to ensure that all those organisations are alert to the methods and ways of keeping people informed about what these cults do.

The noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, asked about INFORM, which is the organisation the Government have decided to help and sponsor. We are currently providing some funds for INFORM, which stands for Information Network Focus on Religious Movements. My noble friend Lord Rodney was apprehensive about it, but INFORM will make available high quality and objective information about the activities of cults in this country. It will operate through a network of experts—mainly academics and churchmen—who keep in touch with the changing circumstances of cults. It is proposed that the information INFORM produces will be available to parents, teachers and to others who are involved with the pastoral care of young people, so that they may be alert to the dangers which exist, particularly for sixth-formers, school-leavers and university students. It will provide a counselling service.

I am sure that that will be welcomed but I am aware that some members of the anti-cultist groups believe that those who have been responsible for setting up INFORM are too closely involved with cults to ensure its objectiveness. One particular target was Dr. Eileen Barker, who chairs the working group responsible for setting up INFORM. Her researches have necessarily brought her into contact with the Moonies. She has attended conferences organised by them both to present papers and to further her researches. I was interested in what my noble friend Lord Craigmyle said. If I may paraphrase his words, he said that one has to understand what other people are doing and one has to be able to have access to these bodies. That is precisely what Dr. Barker has done.

Indeed she has said that it would be nothing short of professional irresponsibility for the sociologists not to attempt to observe and understand the Unification Church's perceptions at first hand. The great thing about INFORM is that the Churches—the Anglican Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Methodists and the Baptists—have all welcomed its establishment and have been represented on the working group. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury has agreed to act as a patron. The General Synod of the Church of England is providing funds and the Methodist Church Office is providing accommodation.

I welcome the involvement of the Churches. They have an important role to play in guiding and teaching. I have no doubt that the cults will flourish only where a spiritual and moral vacuum is left unfilled. I suggest that the Churches should assess their teaching so that they support and encourage those who are most vulnerable. I was glad to have heard from the right reverend Prelate that they are doing that work in the different dioceses. In that way, they should be able to help expose the falseness of the cults' claims.

We regard the establishment of INFORM as a significant step towards healing the harmful side-effects of the activities of cults. We hope that all those who are concerned about the effects of cults on family life, and I am thinking particularly of FAIR and others involved in support of parents and ex-members of the cults, will co-operate with INFORM and will regard it, not as an obstacle, but as a valuable tool in the work of exposing the unsavoury and unacceptable aspects of the cult movement. We shall watch developments carefully and will continue to keep cults under scrutiny. If there is any evidence of illegal activity, we shall ensure that it is referred to the police.

Many of your Lordships, including the noble Lords, Lord Houghton of Sowerby and Lord Hampton, quite understandably, honed in on the subject of charitable status. My noble friend Lady Macleod said that charitable law needs altering. The noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, also referred to the charity law. It may be helpful if I were to comment on one or two of those matters.

The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, said that religious charities should show public benefit. But he will know that one of the four limbs which are essential in order to obtain charitable status is the advancement of religion. Therefore, the proviso is that the organisation has to show that it is advancing religion. To show that something which purports to do that is not doing so is a difficult challenge to undertake.

As your Lordships will know, charitable law is based on common, rather than statute, law, and on precedent built up by the courts and the Charity Commission. An organisation has a legal right to charitable status if its objects are exclusively charitable in law. It follows that the High Court, or the Charity Commission acting in its stead, cannot deny an organisation which has exclusively charitable objects full status as a charity.

Reference has been made to the decision by my right honourable and learned friend the Attorney-General to discontinue his action in the High Court to challenge the charitable status of the Unification Church. My right honourable and learned friend gave a long exposition from which my noble friend Lord Sandys quoted. I should like to remind your Lordships of the reason for that exposition. My right honourable and learned friend said: I have now been advised by leading counsel that it is most unlikely that, if the appeal proceeded to trial, I should be able to dislodge that strong legal presumption of charitable status".—[Official Report, Commons, 3/2/88; col. 977.] In other words, however much people may wish that that should be the case, if the Government or my right honourable and learned friend had pursued the matter, the chances are that the court would not have found in their favour. If that were the advice given to my right honourable and learned friend, it would not have been prudent to pursue a case which at the outset looked unlikely to succeed and which would have involved much time and great deal of expense.

There is no doubt that the Unification Church must, as a matter of law, be regarded as a religion. In English law there is a strong presumption that any trust for the advancement of religion is charitable unless proved to the contrary. I remind the House that only two weeks ago, in a debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, there was unanimity that the Government should not open up the question of charitable law and charitable status. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, said that it would be a hornet's nest. I, too, think that it would be.

I can say three things which I hope will reassure those of your Lordships who feel disappointment and frustration that some of the organisations of the kind we have been discussing receive and retain charitable status. First, the Government have already announced that they are taking major steps to improve the monitoring and supervision of charities in line with the recent efficiency scrutiny report by Sir Philip Woodfield. The report recommends a number of ways in which the running of charities, their public accountability and their fund-raising activities should be much more closely supervised in future.

The Government have already announced that they intend, within the life of this Parliament, to strengthen the powers of the Charity Commission. We are determined to ensure that organisations which register as charities cannot take the public, the Government or the taxpayer, as it were, for a ride.

Secondly, just because an organisation has charitable status and becomes entitled to tax concessions as a result, those tax concessions do not follow automatically. The Inland Revenue has always had powers to scrutinise the way in which charities apply their income and to disallow for tax purposes expenditure on activities which are not fully charitable in law.

Thirdly, we appreciate how daunting a task it is to contemplate any changes in charity law; how long such changes might take to develop and consider; and how careful we must be—this is important—that in dealing with one mischief we do not create many others which are more problematical. However, in spite of all those things, I can assure your Lordships that we will look closely at all the suggestions which have been made during the debate to see whether there is anything more that can be done. I say that, not because I can see an easy way ahead, but merely in recognition of the unanimity of feeling which has been expressed by your Lordships.

I share the concern and disquiet that has been expressed by your Lordships from all parts of the House. That is why, as we consider the legislation which should be put in place to give effect to Sir Philip Woodfield's report, we will study carefully all the points which have been made to see whether any of them can help to improve the legislation.

7.57 p.m.

Lord Rodney

My Lords, perhaps I may first thank all those noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. I appreciate the fact that they have stayed until the end of the debate and have shown such interest in the subject. I should especially like to thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford for his reassuring and sympathetic speech. As so many noble Lords have said, I hope that we shall hear him more often in the House. I was most reassured to hear that the Church is to have its own people out in the dioceses to help counsel those who are in trouble with these cults.

I should also like to express my appreciation to my noble friend the Minister; he dealt fully and sympathetically with the subject. My noble friend has obviously taken a lot of trouble to go into all the aspects of the matter. However, I cannot honestly say that I shall leave the House full of joy. However, that was not the point of the debate.

The debate has demonstrated the genuine and deep concern that there is on all sides of the House about this problem. I appreciate that it is not a problem for which there is a simple and easy solution. But drawing attention to it and to the anguish caused by these cults can only do good. I hope that the whole question will not be forgotten but that people will continue to review the problem in order to find some solution for it.

We have heard some reassuring words about INFORM. I thought it only proper that I should express my worries. If it comes up to expectations and fulfils the role for which it is intended, I shall be the first person to acclaim it. I very much agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, said. I hope it will not only inform but also warn. With that, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.