HC Deb 28 May 1982 vol 24 cc1165-73

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

9.39 am
Sir Timothy Kitson (Richmond, Yorks)

I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise in the House this morning the activities of the Unification Church. For some time now, I and other hon. Members have been pressing for some inquiry into the workings and operation of the Moonies.

The activities of the Unification Church were first drawn to my attention some three years ago when a young Durham university student, whose parents lived in my constituency, fell into the clutches of the Moonies while travelling in America. He was taken to one of their camps in California. I saw all the distress, anguish and despair of his parents, and I was shocked by the difficulties that they encountered in seeing their son, even though they went to California a number of times.

As I started to make inquiries, I was amazed at the size of the problem and at the numbers of people involved. In the last three years I have had letters from over 400 families from seven different countries, and I have talked to a small number of ex-Moonies who had experience of living in Moonie camps. I have met those in America who specialise in helping parents to retrieve their children from the Moonie organisation and who try to return them to family life. The size of the problem is much greater and more disturbing than most people realise.

At Prime Minister's Question Time, I asked the Prime Minister if she would give some thought to the anxieties and sufferings of many families due to the growth of religious sects in this country, and the Moonies in particular, and whether she would consider setting up a Royal Commission or some form of inquiry to investigate their entry, their activities, their fund-raising methods and their charitable status in the United Kingdom. In her reply, the Prime Minister said: I note that my hon. Friend is obviously very concerned about the activities of the Moonies, as indeed are many of us. He will be happy to know that the Charity Commissioners are reconsidering charitable status. The Attorney-General has also considered what action might be appropriate to take in relation to trusts. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services has asked his officials to examine the evidence as presented, as far as it relates to mental health and family life. These are three very positive things that are already taking place. I shall, of course, consider my right hon. Friend's suggestion with regard to the other matter."—[Official Report, 21 May 1981; Vol. 5, c. 415.] It is now a year and a week since that statement was made.

On 20 January this year, the Prime Minister wrote to me stating that she had been in touch with the Home Secretary, and she continued: I fully appreciate your concern at the length of time this matter is taking. I believe the Chief Charity Commissioner has already said to you that the Charity Commission are equally anxious to see this matter resolved and have worked on it with all possible speed. The current position, as you know, is that the Commission are considering the Attorney-General's formal application for the charitable status of the Unification Church to be reviewed. To help them in this task, the Commission need to have detailed particulars of the evidence which led the Attorney-General to make his application. Those they need will inevitably take some time to provide, since they involve, among other things, re-examining the complete transcripts of the six-month libel trial which finished in April last year. The Attorney-General's Office is giving this as much priority as possible, but it is a major task and you will appreciate the importance that they should get it right, not least because the decision which the Charity Commissioners ultimately take may be subject to an appeal in the High Court. It is for these reasons, arising from the nature of this particular case, that the matter has taken so long and not, I believe, because of any defects in the law or the procedures arising from it. On 7 April 1981, a number of us from both sides of the House visited the Charity Commission and met the then Chief Commissioner, Mr. FitzGerald, to express our concern about the charitable status of the Unification Church. The chairman of the Charity Commission wrote to us on 8 April 1981 to say that he had been carefully studying the legal position, and that the Commissioners hoped to meet before Easter—that is, Easter last year—to look at the case again. He went on to say that he would be in touch with the Attorney-General's office and that he hoped that the outcome of the Attorney-General's consideration would help to restore matters one way or the other.

On 13 October 1981, the Chief Charity Commissioner wrote to me in reply to a letter I had sent to him expressing my great concern at the delays in a decision being taken, saying that he quite understood the views of Members of Parliament but that not a moment had been wasted by the Charity Commissioners since our meeting on 7 April.

The position now is that the new Chief Charity Commissioner, Mr. Peach, wrote to me on 30 April this year to say that he had been trying to get further information from the Attorney-General's office, and that it had invited him to provide further and better particulars of the grounds for his formal application for the removal from the register of charities of the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity and the Sun Myung Moon Foundation. He added that as soon as it received the information requested it would consider the matter as quickly as possible.

I have quoted those statements and extracts from letters because I think they demonstrate the delay that is taking place in coming to some decision about the activities of the Moonies in this country. For those of us who have had to deal with many of the tragic cases of families who have been split up because of the activities of the Unification Church, the delays are very depressing and frustrating.

I have not only been concerned by the question of the Moonies enjoying charitable status in this country; it has to be said that they run a number of dubious fund-raising operations. They are generally discreetly hidden under names which are misleading. They have about 40 cover names, such as New Hope Singers, Ocean Fresh Limited, which has two trawlers in the West Country, United Family Enterprises, which raised over £400,000 in 1978, God's Light Infantry, and the Kensington Garden and Art Society.

The Moonies' fund-raising methods and corporate structure are complicated. People are often approached in the streets by youths selling literature, and it is often not apparent that they are Moonies. The American-based church claims to have millions of followers around the world, and it has had a rapid growth in this country. It has 100 centres in the United Kingdom. It has an impressive headquarters in the former Norwegian consulate in Lancaster Gate. It owns farms in Wiltshire, a former convent in Chislehurst, and a large country house in Dunbar. It claims between 1,400 and 1,500 full-time members.

It is interesting to note that since 1968, when the two charities—the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity and the Sun Myung Moon Foundation—were registered, their income has soared from £10,000 to more than £1½ million in 1979, and there is little doubt that their income has probably increased substantially since then.

It is obviously in the best interests of the Unification Church to keep delaying any decisions in regard to its charitable status. I understand from the Attorney-General that, following the Associated Newspapers case, which has been taken to appeal, a hearing has been set down for 15 November this year. This, of course, will mean further delay, and I have little doubt that, if the case were to be lost on appeal, it might very well go to the House of Lords, with even further delays in a decision being taken.

When Mr. FitzGerald wrote to me on 4 March 1982, he said: I can quite understand your views and those of other Members of Parliament concerned. To say that the case proceeds at a snail's pace would be to insult the snail. However, the responsibility for this does not rest with anybody in this office, not even with myself'. He then went on to set out the reasons for delay.

However, only last week, on the front page of The Times, it was reported that Sun Myung Moon was found guilty by a United States federal court of conspiring to avoid paying income tax on assets that he claimed belonged to the Unification Church, and a chief assistant was also found guilty. At least the American authorities are taking action against the Moonies. I believe that if the Unification Church lost its charitable status, it would have a considered effect on its financial position in this country. The state of Connecticut has disallowed Moonie fund raising.

When I first raised the point with the Prime Minister and suggested that a Royal Commission should be set up, I recognised that it would take a considerable time but hoped that we might make some progress. I hoped that the Home Affairs Select Committee would look into the activities of religious cults and make recommendations. I recognise all the difficulties that an inquiry would encounter. The organisation's charitable status, fund raising methods and systems of entry into the country should be considered.

This week I received an irate letter from a parent telling me that two weeks previously her son had telephoned from London and told her that he had married a Japanese Moonie girl on 15 March. The letter states: I asked him why he had not cared to write to me before the marriage. The answer was that they had been in a hurry to get married because if not the girl would have been deported from Britain. She had come on a tourist visa which was overstayed. She had got a prolongation, but now there was no other possibility. I am told that there are other Japanese moonies who did the same thing to escape the law and that British authorities would like to be informed about them. Apparently, there is a surplus of Japanese moonie girls. She also enclosed a note about her son and his bride. The letter continued: Another thing he told me on the phone was that his business is called United Carpet Cleaners. He did not tell me the address. He is now giving his address as Lancaster Gate. That is the Moonie headquarters. The letter concludes: It is a pity that our children are used in such a way. I am afraid they could be made to break the law in other ways and even much worse. I shall send those particulars to the Home Office.

The United Carpet Cleaners employs Moonies. It is another front organisation. It cleans businesses, especially pubs, at night. It was set up in the winter of 1980–1981 to raise funds for the Moonie organisation.

Last year a spokesman for the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Dean of Windsor said that they would support an investigation into the activities of the Unification Church. Dr. Donald Coggan, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has said that the Unification Church is not a Christian organisation and is not connected with the ecumenical movement.

An organisation called FAIR—Family Action, Information and Rescue—includes relatives of Moonies. It has asked the Home Affairs Select Committee to investigate and set up an inquiry.

The Daily Mail libel case did a great deal to draw to the public eye the activities of religious cults. With so many young people falling into the hands of the Moonie organisation year in and year out, it is tragic that we sit and talk and allow it to continue to operate, enjoying certain respectability through its charitable status

Some organisations have taken action. I have been impressed by one or two universities that give leaflets to all new undergraduates warning them about the activities of Moonies in university compounds and of the dangers of getting involved. Aberdeen university has an excellent poster warning its new students of such dangers. It finishes by saying: Don't be fooled. If in doubt, consult your minister or priest. The French Government are highly worried about the Moonies' activities and are likely to take action in the near future. The Americans have undoubtedly started to put pressure on the organisation. Moon recently said that he was thinking of withdrawing the Unification Church from America and taking it to new headquarters in the Pacific. In this successful fund-raising operation large sums of money are made and some of the Moonies in America live in luxury on funds raised by Moonie workers. There is an article in The Times today dealing with the point.

I am worried about the lack of knowledge and understanding of some of the Moonies' activities. Many local councils are not aware of the cult's activities, although some now check all bookings for civic meetings placed by groups with religious-sounding names. They consult the local FAIR organisation so that they can carry out a policy of not letting premises to Moonie front organisations. There are still many people who do not know what the Moonies are or what they stand for.

When I started to raise the problem in the House I believe that some of my colleagues thought that the Moonies were a rock group. I say to my right hon. Friend that it is not good enough to let matters drift. Either the Home Office should set up an inquiry or the Home Affairs Select Committee should proceed without further delay to inquire fully into the activities of religious cults in this country. We owe it to the young to alert them and warn them of the dangers that can lie ahead.

9.57 am
Mr. Charles Morrison (Devizes)

I should like to add a few words to the remarks by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Sir T. Kitson). In this country we tolerate and are amused by eccentricity. As long as it is within the law we see nothing wrong in one person taking another for a ride. If one person can con another that the earth is flat, so be it. The rest of us can have a quiet life.

We have law covering charitable status based on the assumption that certain organisations are for the public good. It provides for privileged tax treatment at the public's expense, in the belief that that is to the public's overall benefit. We have a Charity Commission to decide whether an organisation satisfies the criteria. If an argument arises from that ruling a decision can be made in the High Court. That sounds simple and straightforward.

We are discussing an organisation about which there has been maximum controversy. It has caused great unhappiness amongst many families. Many of its activities are questionable. One's doubts about it are increased when one reads the report about the leader of the organisation having been found guilty of conspiracy to avoid paying income tax in the United States of America.

The Court of Appeal has still not considered the libel case that took place over a year ago and the charitable status of the Moonie church. That is not good enough. Given the concern that has been expressed about the Moonies, it is high time that decisions were made about their status.

There is a great deal of muddle about charity law. Reports and recommendations have been made on that subject. Action is needed by the Government to bring our charity laws up to date.

In the meantime I hope that my right hon. Friend will put maximum pressure on those involved to ensure that decisions are made at the earliest opportunity about the Moonies' charitable status.

9.59 am
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Timothy Raison)

The House is grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Sir T. Kitson) for giving us the opportunity to debate the activities of a body that has caused a great deal of understandable anxiety. He described the situation in graphic terms. My hon. Friend has been to the fore in alerting the public to the need for wariness. The more that the public is sceptical and circumspect in its dealings with that and other fringe sects the fewer people will unwittingly be drawn to them.

Understandably, the theme of my hon. Friend's speech has been to inquire about action by the Government and others whose responsibilities bear upon the Unification Church. He referred to a number of specific areas and events, on which I shall respond. But I should first set the context of our approach to that and similar bodies. It has traditionally been the view in this country that people should be free to come together and propagate views that others may find misguided, provided that in doing so they do not break the law. Some organisations and views may be thought more questionable than others. But there is no obvious principle, other than whether the law is infringed, on which the Government can distinguish between them.

It is sometimes alleged that the activities of the Unification Church involve breaches of the criminal law. Where specific points are raised that fall to be investigated, we have taken necessary advice from the police. With only minor exceptions concerning street collections, the police have found little evidence of criminal activities by the sect or its adherents in this country. Were the police to receive further allegations they would investigate them most carefully.

I hope that my hon. Friend and others will recognise that to seek to take action on the ground that activities, although not unlawful, may be socially undesirable would raise major questions of liberty in our society. We must be careful that, in responding to anxiety, however understandable, about particular organisations or philosophies, we do not encroach on the freedom of organisation and expression, provided that they are exercised within the law. We must also remember that there is a limit to the measures that the Government can take, or ought to seek to take, to protect adults from themselves.

It is against these principles that we have considered the calls for an investigation into the activities of the Unification Church and other religious sects. As my hon. Friend reminded us, in May last year he asked my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to consider whether a Royal Commission or some form of inquiry should be set up to investigate the church. As he says, my right hon. Friend explained in reply that she very much shared the worry about the activities of the church and that action was already in hand in respect of it. She said that it would be premature to institute further inquiries. That remains our view, since, as my right hon. Friend noted, we were taking account of each of the areas of anxiety to my hon. Friend. These areas are those of immigration, activities including fund raising and charitable status.

Immigration legislation is not used to prevent the propagation of religious beliefs provided that the law is not broken. But there is a firm immigration policy towards the Unification Church and other fringe sects. We have decided, and the church has accepted, that its overseas members who are subject to immigration control do not qualify as missionaries or ministers of religion under the immigration rules. They may be admitted as visitors if they satisfy the requirements of the rules. That enables them to come to the United Kingdom for an initial period of six months, provided that their maintenance is assured, and normally limits them to a maximum period of stay of 12 months. It prevents individuals from establishing themselves here permanently.

As for Mr. Moon himself, he has been advised not to travel to the United Kingdom without first seeking an entry clearance. If he were to apply for an entry clearance, it would be necessary to consider whether leave to enter should be refused on the ground that his exclusion is conducive to the public good. Relevant information, from the United States or elsewhere, would be taken into account.

My hon. Friend referred to the attitude of other countries to members of the church. The Home Office is not at present aware of specific policy in respect of members of the church undertaken or planned by the French authorities. Any contrast with other countries must in any event take account of the possibility of different principles, as well as arrangements, not least in the matter of immigration. But in considering any suggestion that we are unduly benign, we might take account of reports that the church is in fact transferring its major operations in Western Europe from this country to West Germany.

As to marriages by members of the church here, I note that my hon. Friend will be sending the particulars of the cases to which he referred to the Home Office. For the present, it may be helpful for me to explain the general position. Any applications to remain here on the basis of marriage to a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies have to be considered in accordance with the immigration rules. These require that a man admitted in a temporary capacity should be allowed to stay only if, among other things, there is no reason to believe that the marriage was entered into primarily to obtain settlement here and the wife is a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies who was born here or one of whose parents was born here. In the case of a woman admitted in a temporary capacity who marries a man settled in the United Kingdom, she should, on application, be given indefinite leave to remain.

As to people who are admitted here, when I began this reply to my hon. Friend I referred to the question of criminal activities by the Unification Church and its adherents in this country. I repeat that the police have found little evidence of such activity, but would carefully investigate further allegations.

My hon. Friend mentioned also the Prime Minister's reference to action taken by the Secretary of State for Social Services. Following the judgment of the High Court in April 1981 in the libel case brought by Mr. Orme of the Unification Church against the Daily Mail, my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for Social Services announced that he had asked officials to examine the evidence as far as it related to mental health and family life. I understand that officials in the Department of Health and Social Security have been examining the evidence. But, following Mr. Orme's appeal against the judgment, the matter is now effectively sub judice. I understand, as my hon. Friend said, that the appeal is to be heard in November. Once the legal position is clear, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services will no doubt consider in due course whether further action by him is necessary.

My hon. Friend devoted much of his speech to describing the consideration which has been given to withdrawing the charitable status of the two organisations linked with the Unification Church since the Daily Mail libel case last year. I am not sure that the former Chief Charity Commissioner is correct in implying that a snail would have progressed quicker. A great deal of work has been done on the case, but no decision has been reached. But that is not a matter of bureaucratic buck-passing.

The question of an organisation's charitable status is a matter, not of opinion, but of law. It is based on a categorisation formulated at the end of the nineteenth century which has been continuously elaborated and refined in case law and which continues to develop. Charitable trusts are established in perpetuity. To obtain charitable status, a trust must be shown to fall within one of the four heads of charity—the advancement of education, the advancement of religion, the relief of poverty and other purposes beneficial to the community. But once it is on the register of charities, it cannot be removed as a simple administrative action. It would first have to be established, as a matter of law, that the purposes of the trust no longer fell under any one of the four heads of charities.

Of course a trust may have very bad trustees, in which case the clear duty of the Charity Commission is to remove them and appoint others. To prove that its aims are not what the organisation claims them to be, and that they are not charitable in law, is another matter. It requires, to begin with, detailed evidence about the organisation. I cannot comment in detail on the case of the Unification Church. As I said, it has lodged an appeal against the decision in the Daily Mail case which will be heard in November, and is sub judice. But I do know that a great deal of time has been spent sifting through what is known about it and its activities in order to establish what would be relevant to consideration of its charitable status in this country. I understand my hon. Friend's impatience at this, but I am afraid there has been no alternative. He might like to remember that consideration of the Unification Church trust deeds last year without any additional evidence led the Commission to confirm its charitable status. Its trust deeds are immaculate.

I can also understand my hon. Friend's annoyance at the further delay caused by the Unification Church's appeal against the libel decision. Whether it is a delaying tactic or not, we cannot deny it that right, and he cannot reasonably expect a decision about its charitable status to be reached while the appeal is pending. For the reasons I have explained, the removal of the two trusts from the register of charities would be an exceptional step and one that would be likely to be challenged in the High Court. If they were to take any further action while this appeal is pending, it is likely that there would be an immediate challenge in the courts. It must be remembered that the trial and verdict of the jury played an important part in he history of the matter.

I have had to explain the legal complexities, and they are very real. I think hon. Members can, however, take some comfort. In my view the question of charitable status is considerably more important for charity law than it is, at this stage, for the church itself. Of course I understand the sense of public disquiet that the church should enjoy charitable status when more worthy organisations do not, but I feel that the practical benefits which it can give to the church are exaggerated.

Charitable status confers a number of benefits, of which two are relevant here. In the first place, it gives an organisation a seal of public approval of its aims, which must be of value when it solicits help. I find it difficult to imagine, however, that loss of charitable status will give the Unification Church a worse public image than it has now. Similarly, if it retains its charitable status I fail to see how its credibility will be restored.

Secondly, charities can enjoy valuable tax exemptions in relation to their income. Again, I would share the general dislike of subsidising an organisation such as the Unification Church from the public purse, but I must stress that charitable status does not guarantee tax exemption. It is only given to trusts that satisfy the condition that they should be established for charitable purposes only and thereafter that the charity's income is applied for exclusively charitable purposes. As hon. Members will, of course, appreciate I cannot comment on the tax affairs of any person or organisation. This information must remain confidential. I also cannot comment on my hon. Friend's question about any implications of the conviction for tax evasion of Mr. Moon in the United States.

My final reservation about the effects of the loss of charitable status is that I cannot see how it will prevent young people from joining the sect or persuade them to leave it. There is no evidence that it plays a significant role in attracting adherents or that its loss will act as a deterrent.

I hope it is clear from what I have said that the Government continue to take most seriously the concern about the Unification Church. Our approach is that the sect and its adherents here should be dealt with within the framework of the law and general policies on particular areas of activity. We believe it right for them to be put to those tests, and not to seek to distort the law or policy in ways that would undercut the principles of our society. It is, I believe, in part a measure of the correctness of this approach that the standing of the Unification Church in this country is so low, but that in any attempt to improve its image it cannot point to Government discrimination against it.

My hon. Friend suggested that the Select Committee on Home Affairs should conduct a full inquiry into the activities of all cults in this country. That, of course, is a matter for the Committee itself, and not one for the Government. My hon. Friend and other hon. Members are, no doubt, aware that the Committee considered this in 1980. It announced in December that year that it had decided not to launch an inquiry, but I imagine that the Committee would take careful account of requests from hon. Members that it might reconsider that decision.

For the Government's part I can, in conclusion, assure my hon. Friend and the House as a whole that we shall continue to think very hard about developments in respect of the Unification Church here, and are ready to take any action that is appropriate.