HC Deb 24 October 1984 vol 65 cc707-10 4.18 pm
Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to control the activities of religious sects and cults. The Bill has one simple aim and provision—to allow parents and next of kin rights of access to relatives who have joined religious cults. It does not seek to codify the respective merits of different groups, it is not a theological measure, and it accepts the need to guarantee fundamental religious freedoms. It is a trigger mechanism, which aims to provide aggrieved and worried parents with the opportunity to seek legal redress where access to next of kin is denied.

That it should be necessary at all to introduce such a measure surely says something about those organisations that have curtailed access to loved ones by families.

The Bill has sponsors throughout the House, and has the backing of Members in the other place who intend to raise this issue again there if it is given a First Reading today.

One of the most remarkable social developments of the past decade has been the explosive growth of cults, sects, or "new religious movements." Nowadays there are hundreds of these organisations operating in Britain, with a membership well into the hundreds of thousands. Hon. Members will have heard of most of the well-known groups, and it is not necessary to catalogue them now. However, I should like to quote from two letters that have been sent to me by worried parents. I am sure that other hon. Members will have received similar letters. The first letter states: We are both old age pensioners (72 years of age) and have an only son 29 years old. Nine years ago he went to college to train as a teacher and was approached in the street by one of these people (the Moonies), the consequence being he left the college to join them. He freely admits they are responsible for ruining his chances of any career and because of their indoctrination he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, but insists he can't dispel them from his mind … My husband and I have lived in misery through this last nine years, but of course we are very much more concerned about the future of our son when we won't be around. The second letter is from a retired clergyman, with a married daughter, who says that she joined the cult about two years ago. He says: Within the year she had given up her job and paid £4,000 for a residential course … During that year she was subjected to some very damaging techniques, including sensory deprivation, hypnosis, physical stress etc. … My wife and I have always maintained that we would not try to force our attitude and religious outlook on our own children … we have seen our daughter change out of all recognition in those two years. I have read similar disturbing accounts in many other letters that I have received. If they were merely the complaints of parents who did not understand their children, we would be entitled to ignore them. However, they are more than that. There is ample evidence of excessive pressure being exercised during recruitment, usually on the young, the lonely and the vulnerable. Some unemployed young people who arrive in London from the north of England, Scotland or Wales in search of jobs are tempted by a hot meal or a bed for the night. Young people are lured in that way to the cults. The tragedy is that many such young people are so vulnerable that they do not know what they are letting themselves in for. Indeed, if the demands of the group were made clear to the prospective members, it is unlikely that they would join the cult.

Once in the cult members may be deliberately isolated from friends and relatives. Letters and telephone calls may be intercepted. Simple requests from parents as to the whereabouts of their children may be met with insults or evasion. Frequently, cult members are taught that ordinary family relationships are evil and that they must never see their relatives again.

There are many instances of university education being interrupted and of undue influence being exercised to secure the inheritance or assets of new recruits. Members who decide that they want to leave an organisation are often harassed and intimidated. On a note of caution, I add that I do not mean to imply that every cult is guilty of such behaviour, but I am sad to say that all too many of them are.

Hon. Members will be aware of previous attempts to express concern about these issues. On 5 April this year FAIR — Family Action Information and Rescue — organised a lobby of Parliament. Many hon. Members will have heard from some of the 100 parents and grandparents who participated in that lobby. The Leader of the Opposition was among those who gave them a sympathetic hearing.

On 14 May the hon. Member for Wiltshire, North (Mr. Needham), whom I am glad to see in his place today, in an Adjournment debate raised the problems caused by the organisation Exegesis Programme after one of his constituents involved with ii had died. At that time, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, who is also in the Chamber today, said: I am firmly convinced that the sinister activities of some of the groups must be exposed by every means possible and most vigorously discouraged." — [Official Report, 14 May 1984; Vol. 60, c. 127.] I agree with that.

On 22 May the European Parliament adopted a report on the activity of new religious movements within the Community drawn up by Mr. Richard Cottrell, the Conservative MEP for Bristol. He proposed a system of voluntary guidelines for the cults as an aid to their integration within society and honest respect by them for the freedoms which our society confers upon them. The resolution adopted by the European Parliament called for action by the Council of Ministers, the Commission and member states in a co-ordinated European response. Five months later we are still waiting. We have waited long enough.

Of the many complex issues that can be raised, I wish to concentrate on one—access. Ideally there should be freedom of access to cult members at all times — a freedom which is all too often denied. The right to know where a child is and to have access, alone, to him or her could be a great advantage to grieving parents. Such visits from family or friends are often denied by the physical removal of the cult member to an entirely different location, which is sometimes concealed from relatives.

The House should insist on requiring any organisation to state the location of its members, especially any organisation which enjoys charitable status. I heard of a man who left the Moonies and who spent three years looking for his Moonie wife. Thankfully they are now reunited, but, if rights of access has existed, that man would have been spared three years of anguish and heartache.

Ultimately the problem in relation to charitable organisations, such as the Moonies, will have to be tackled. The definition of a charity includes the provision that it must be beneficial to the community. Religions are generally assumed to be a public benefit. But it is open to any cult to call itself a religion to achieve charitable status and thereby to double its income through tax-free interest on investments and tax repayments on covenants.

The Select Committee on Home Affairs should turn its attention to these issues. The provision of information about different organisations and cults is relevant. Many former members of cults have stated that if they had been aware of just what membership entailed, they would never have joined. Some cults use techniques, such as deception, to recruit members and solicit donations, often without revealing their true identity until much later. The dissemination of information is perhaps a job for the British Council of Churches—an eminent organisation—which is investigating the possibility of developing a network of individuals trained to spread information, advice and help. However, it is too short of resources to carry out the work effectively. Parliament should consider providing practical assistance.

I have mentioned only a few of the many issues that could be raised in connection with the activities of so-called new religious movements. I hope that I have been of some help by drawing hon. Members' attention to them. I hope that the Select Committee will decide to take up these complex issues in a comprehensive inquiry. I have written to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs requesting him to do that. Among other things, that would allow the cults to state their views. It would go a long way towards allaying the feelings of paranoia and persecution from which many of them, sometimes unjustifiably, suffer. Some have their own grievances against groups, such as FAIR, but through a Select Committee inquiry they could air those views objectively and they would be properly examined.

I have been accused by some groups of seeking to interfere with religious freedom. Nothing could be further from the truth. At best, it is an honest misunderstanding. At worst, it is a deliberate ploy to drum up sympathy and distract attention from the real issue. The real issue is denial of freedom. If individuals become social and mental wrecks through involvement in cults, society cannot turn its back. If people are parted from their sons, daughters, family or friends, that cannot be ignored. Surely we in the House must not turn away.

I emphasise once more that it is not the theology of the cults with which I am concerned, but the harmful actions resulting from that theology. Let us never forget that freedom becomes oppression when the liberty of a single individual is taken away. Queen Elizabeth I, speaking in defence of religious freedom, talked about opening windows into men's souls. For many members of these cults there are no windows—either into their souls or into their minds. They are shuttered and barred. I ask the House to do nothing more than to draw back the bolts.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Alton, Mr. David Atkinson, Mr. Patrick Cormack, Mr. Julian Critchley, Mr. Sean Hughes, Mr. Kevin McNamara, Sir Anthony Kershaw, Mr. Fergus Montgomery, Mr. Charles Morrison, Mr. George Robertson, Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith and Mr. Robin Squire.