HC Deb 03 February 1988 vol 126 cc973-8 3.30 pm

The following question stood upon the Order Paper:

Mr. Tom Sackville (Bolton, West)

To ask the Attorney-General what progress there has been in relation to the charity proceedings now pending in his name in connection with the Unification Church; and if he will make a statement.

The Attorney-General (Sir Patrick Mayhew)

With permission. Mr. Speaker, I will now answer question No. 89.

Proceedings were instituted in the High Court by my predecessor in December 1984 in connection with two trusts associated with the Unification Church. Those trusts were respectively known as the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity and the Sun Myung Moon Foundation. Prominent among the objects of each is the promotion of the principles and teachings of Sun Myung Moon, described as the founder and world leader of the Unification Church.

In 1984 each of those trusts was, and each still remains, entered in the statutory register of charities maintained by the Charity Commissioners. That register properly comprises only those trusts whose objects are truly and exclusively charitable in English law.

The proceedings in the High Court were brought by my predecessor in the exercise on behalf of the Crown of its function as the protector of charity. He appealed against the refusal of the Charity Commissioners to accede to his request that they remove the association and the foundation from the register of charities. His grounds for that request had been that the trusts failed in particular respects to meet the requirements of English law relating to charity.

Whatever view may he 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.

The evidence available to my predecessor in 1984 properly led him, with the advice of leading counsel, to conclude that there were sufficient prospects of an appeal succeeding. That evidence included testimony of witnesses called for the successful defendants in a libel action against Associated Newspapers Group Ltd. tried in 1981. In addition, there were statements by former members of the Unification Church that had been offered when it came generally known that charity proceedings in the High Court were under consideration.

Since the proceedings were begun, the Treasury Solicitor has gone to immense lengths in seeking out additional evidence from those who have been associated with the Unification Church. Some further potential witnesses have approached him on their own initiative. Further statements have been taken from other persons, who had been closely involved in comparatively recent activities of the Unification Church in this country, and who had wanted to assist in the challenge to charitable status of the trusts.

The most careful analysis has now been made of the totality of the evidence available to me, set against the legal presumption to which I have referred. Some of it, when tested in the light of all the material now available, has proved to be insufficiently reliable. The remainder, when seen in the overall context, is shown to be of insufficient weight to rebut the legal presumption. 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. After the most careful consideration, I agree with that advice.

The trial is due to start on 12 April. It would last an estimated three to six months and occasion great expense. In these circumstances, I have decided to seek the court's leave to discontinue these proceedings, and the Treasury Solicitor has this morning so informed the defendants.

Mr. Sackville

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that his answer will come as a grave disappointment to many people, particularly to those families who have been the victims of the so-called Moonies, Scientologists, and other cults and who have experienced the ruthless methods and unacceptable behaviour of those cults! Does he agree that his answer should highlight the fact that it is time we stopped giving charitable status to such vile organisations, and that the fact that we do is an affront to natural justice and an insult to those whose lives haze been ruined and whose families have been torn apart by them?

The Attorney-General

I am naturally aware that my answer will come as a disappointment to many people. However, I hope that I have accurately and fully set out the basis on which I have felt obliged to accept the advice that I have been given. My answer is given exclusively in the exercise on behalf of the Crown of its role as the protector of charity. It is one whose content is dictated as a matter of law. It has no bearing upon the attitude of the Government towards any cult, and the question of any reform of the law on charity is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

Does the Attorney-General agree with the views expressed by his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor), who said: the sinister activities of some of the groups must be exposed by every means possible and most vigorously discouraged." —[Official Report, 24 October 1984; Vol. 65, c. 708.] Does the Attorney-General agree that it is regrettable that, nearly four years later, our charity law is wholly inadequate to deal with the Moonies? Will he now set about reforming the charity law quickly before more people are reduced to misery and destruction by the activities of the Moonies and others like them?

The Attorney-General

As I have already said, the reform of charity law is not for me but is in the first instance for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. The evidence available to my predecessor in 1984 justified his decision at that time to initiate the appeal and to make the allegations that he put forward against the Unification Church. Material has come to light since 1984 as a result of the continuing inquiries of the Treasury Solicitor, the nature of which I have already described to the House. It is in the light of the totality of the evidence now available, seen against the strong legal presumption which I have mentioned, that dictates my decision.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that his statement is outrageous for large numbers of us? Will he please tell the House whether his decision owes anything to the murder in Devon in December of Sonia Martin, who was to be a key witness in the case, and to the intimidation of other people prepared to help?

The Attorney-General

I have seen no evidence that witnesses or potential witnesses have been intimidated. I am aware that a witness who had sworn an affidavit in support of my appeal, Sonia Martin, was found dead in Devon last December. I understand that the inquest into the cause of her death presently stands adjourned and will be resumed on a date to be fixed.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

What was the parliamentary precedent for the Attorney-General coming to the House and answering orally a written question? If we are to have this, would it not have been better for him to turn his attention to written question 119 and to tell us whether the head of the security services, the Prime Minister, knew about what Mr. Stalker was writing and the shoot-to-kill policy?

Mr. Speaker

Order. I share the hon. Gentleman's concern, but there are precedents for this.

The Attorney-General

It seemed to me that it was a convenient and, I understand, a precedented means, well within the rules of order of the House, to tell the House orally and permit oral questions about a matter that could properly have been dealt with by written question.

Mr. Churchill (Davyhulme)

Although I accept my right hon. and learned Friend's decision in this matter, will the Government urgently consider amendments to charity law to ensure that such undersirable organisations as the Unification Church do not have charitable status? Is my right hon. and learned Friend further aware that, over the years, several hon. Members have been approached with offers of huge value in terms of free travel to foreign places?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Name them.

Mr. Churchill

The hon. Gentleman says, "Name them." I was one of those invited, but I declined the invitation.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend put other hon. Members on their guard against accepting hospitality from such organisations?

The Attorney-General

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's opening remarks. I undertake to draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary the great and genuine concern felt about this organisation and about the reform of charity law.

As to the latter part of my hon. Friend's question, the House will have heard what he had to say.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Does this mean that the Government have been forced to give in to the Moonies as a result of a shortage of money in the litigation fund because it has all been spent pursuing "Spycatcher"? If so, would it not be worth while for the Attorney-General to examine the huge fees demanded by lawyers, which cause the expenses of these court cases, or does he feel sufficiently objective to be able to conduct such an investigation?

The Attorney-General

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman expects an affirmative answer to the first part of his question. Anybody holding my present office has a duty to assess the likelihood of success for any proceedings in train. In the case of the "Spycatcher" litigation, the advice that I have received and accepted warrants the continuation of proceedings both here and overseas.

In the case of my predecessor's appeal against the decision of the Charity Commissioners, I have explained to the House as clearly as possible the reasons that have led leading counsel to advise me, and I accept the advice that there are not sufficient prospects of that appeal succeeding. That is why I have taken this step.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, whatever the legal position—I do not challenge his interpretation—there is absolutely nothing in the activities of this obnoxious and appalling group of people that qualifies them for the title "charitable" in the accepted sense of that word?

The Attorney-General

I well understand the anxiety that is genuinely and widely felt about the Unification Church. Equally, I have to apply the law of this country in respect of charitable status. Whether that law deserves review or reform is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and not for me.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Can we be assured that the Moonies have not got at the Treasury Solicitor or the Attorney-General himself, in view of this disappointing statement? Will the Attorney-General tell the House why he thought it necessary to answer in this way, by making a statement from the Dispatch Box? Could not some other device have been used?

The Attorney-General

I hoped that the wide concern expressed in this House over a number of years about the Unification Church would be its own justification for my coming to the Dispatch Box. I took the view that the matter did not merit a full-blown statement, of which many people believe there are too many. On the other hand, I felt that it was only fair to the House to give people, including the hon. Gentleman, the opportunity to ask a question about it.

As to my having been got at, I have been subjected to many more ferocious and effective assaults than anything that the Unification Church might feel disposed to launch against me. As for the Treasury Solicitor, I think that he is quite immune to any such assault.

Mr. Tim Yeo (Suffolk, South)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that our inability to proceed against the Moonies will cause widespread dismay, not least among legitimate charities, whose work is of such great benefit? Is he further aware that the circumstances that he described underline the urgent need for the review which the Home Office is carrying out following the publication last year of the Woodfield report, to include consideration of strengthening the Charity Commissioners' powers 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? If the law is preventing us from taking action against the Moonies, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it should be reviewed?

The Attorney-General

I understand, as I have made clear and readily repeat, that there will be much disappointment about the statement that I have made today. Equally, it will be understood that it would not be right for me to continue with proceedings that would lead to a three to six-month trial at enormous expense in the face of the strong advice that I have received from highly experienced leading counsel.

As to the reform of charity law, I understand what my hon. Friend has said. I shall draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. John Hunt (Ravensbourne)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend make it clear that the decision that he has announced should in no way be seen as providing carte blanche to the Unification Church to continue its exploitation of the young and vulnerable in this country? Will he make it quite clear that its activities are still being closely watched by many hon. Members in the House?

The Attorney-General

The action that I thought it right to take constitutes no more than the withdrawal of the appeal initiated by my predecessor against the refusal of the Charity Commissioners to remove these two trusts from the register of charities. Neither I nor anyone else can give carte blanche to any organisation. Certainly no carte blanche has been given to the Unification Church. I am certain that the remainder of my hon. Friend's question will be noted.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

On any reasonable view, is not the announcement that the Attorney-General has had to make extraordinary, particularly as it comes at a time when the Government are campaigning for tax-free gifts to charities from people's payrolls?

Is the Attorney-General aware that many deserving causes find it difficult to get through the rather slow and cumbrous procedures of the Charity Commission. It is difficult to understand their predicament, given the Moonie immunity that has been announced.

Is it not the essence of the law that a religious charity should direct itself to the benefit of the public and not engage in positive harm or Right-wing political activity, which has taken in a few Conservative Members?

Given the extraordinary width of the definition of a religious charity implied in the Attorney-General's answer, will the Government announce that they will set up an immediate and urgent review charity law to put an end to the rampant abuse that has been practised by the Unification Church and the farcical nature of the decision that the Attorney-General has been forced to announce? Nothing less than an immediate review will satisfy the House.

The Attorney-General

The hon. Gentleman says that I have been obliged or forced to make a statement. Of course I have not. I chose to do so for the reasons that I have explained. However, I well note the hon. Gentleman's concern about the principles of law that govern charitable status in this country.

The proceedings which my predecessor began made certain specific allegations against the Unification Church, which the evidence then available to him entirely justified. If those allegations could be substantiated, they would, in my view and that of my predecessor, have warranted his appeal being allowed. As I have endeavoured to explain, the totality of evidence now available to me is insufficient to enable me to substantiate any of those particular allegations to the extent needed to rebut the strong legal presumption of charitable status that English law gives to any religion.

It is not for me to express either regret or any other response. It is my duty to the House to announce the conclusion that I have felt obliged to reach. I note, as all will do, what the hon. Gentleman said at the conclusion of his question and will draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

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