HL Deb 13 January 1998 vol 584 cc933-4

2.53 p.m.

Baroness Sharples asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will encourage schools to make use of advisers to raise awareness among secondary pupils of the techniques used to involve and retain young people in religious cults.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, a number of schools already invite people with relevant experience to talk to pupils about religious cults. It is for schools and local education authorities to decide whether and, if so, how this should be done.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. But is he aware that many families are suffering extreme distress because youngsters in such cults are often ordered to disconnect themselves from their relatives outside and, even if they leave the cult, they may be followed and intimidated? What can be done about that? Will the recent Protection from Harassment Act help?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, this is a worrying problem and one sympathises with any family that is broken up by the activities to which the noble Baroness refers. It seems to the Government that if a child is involved—that is, someone under the age of 18—sufficient protections are available at present. If the person involved is over the age of 18, there is the possibility of civil injunction or, as the noble Baroness rightly observed, using the protection against harassment legislation. If criminal acts are evidenced, I would urge anyone with knowledge of them to bring them to the attention of the appropriate authorities.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether the Moonies, as they are known, are on the increase, whether their numbers are static or whether they are, happily, declining?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I simply do not know. They seem to have mass weddings, so perhaps they are on the increase.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a growing body of evidence that some of the recruiting methods of such cults are causing great disquiet not only to those who look on from afar but also to the families and the young people involved? Although persons aged over 18 may be involved, is it not a good insurance policy to warn young people before they reach the age of 18 that such techniques exist? When I was a Home Office Minister, I found great reluctance in the Home Office to take this matter seriously.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am sorry to hear that the noble Baroness experienced that in the Home Office. When she was a Minister, the noble Baroness answered a Question—I happen to have a copy with me—about related problems and rightly commented on the difficulty of definition, in that one man's religion is another man's cult. There are undoubtedly dangers for young, impressionable minds and it seems to the Government that it is appropriate in the relevant part of the syllabus, such as religious education, religious instruction and discussions on different religions and cults, to warn young people of the dangers. Again, there is a difficult balance to be drawn between the teaching of mainstream religion and the activities of proselytizing cults. Local education authorities, head teachers and those who provide religious instruction should be alert to that. By and large, I am in agreement with the sentiments expressed by the noble Baroness.

Lord Milverton

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that the danger of some of these so-called cults and religions is that those who are taken in by them lose their minds, in that they lose the capacity to reason and to think? That is a danger which all mainstream religious bodies and schools should point out. No person, young or old, should be forced to lose their mind or their capacity to reason and to think intelligently about matters of religion.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I agree with the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord. Apart from the responsibility of those who teach young people in schools, mainstream religion equally has duties which the noble Lord doubtless discharged in his pulpit in past years.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, does the Minister know how many cults are currently operating in this country?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

No, my Lords. It is not a question that is capable of a rational answer because one man's religion is another man's cult and one man's orthodoxy is another man's doxy. I really do not think that I can offer a sensible or helpful answer.