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Page last updated at 12:21 GMT, Wednesday, 29 September 2010 13:21 UK
Scientology receives local rates relief on properties

By John Sweeney
BBC Panorama

Scientology London hq
The City of London gives Scientology's headquarters rates relief

The Church of Scientology has received millions of pounds of business rates relief and tax breaks in Britain.

The controversial organisation, which counts Hollywood celebrities among its high-profile members, boasts of having over 11 million square feet in property worldwide, but some ex-members call it a cult.

The Church is not classed as a religion under Charity Law by the UK Charity Commission.

In 1999, the Commission ruled that it did not pass the "public benefit" test required for advancing religion as a charitable purpose.

But Westminster City Council classes the Church as a "non-registered charity" as it is "beneficial to the community."

It gives the church mandatory 80% rates relief on its London Celebrity Centre on Leinster Gardens, saving the church £165,303 over the past 10 years.

Philanthropic purposes

The law states that to be eligible for consideration, the ratepayer must be a non-profit making body and the property used for charitable, philanthropic or religious purposes, or concerned with education, social welfare, science, literature or the fine arts, or used wholly or mainly for recreation by a not-for-profit club or society.

L Ron Hubbard in Sussex
L Ron Hubbard founded the Scientology movement in the 1950s

Several UK councils where the Church of Scientology owns property have allowed the organisation to accumulate at least £1.4m in rates relief over the past decade, according to a BBC Panorama investigation.

A Church website also states it received more than $32m (£20m) in 2007 in VAT rebates from British tax authorities.

The City of London Corporation granted the Church's London headquarters on Queen Victoria Street mandatory 80% rates relief on the grounds that it is "a charity or other organisation established for charitable purposes" and that "the property is wholly or mainly used for charitable purposes."

The centre was opened in 2006 in a lavish ceremony attended by Hollywood A-lister and leading Scientologist Tom Cruise.

From 2006 until the end of the current tax year, the City of London tax break amounts to £1.3m in savings for Scientology.

But other councils where the Church has buildings, such as Manchester City Council and Mid-Sussex District Council where the Church has its Saint Hill estate, charge the full commercial rate on the church's facilities.

Charles Hendry
Charles Hendry took the Sussex parliamentary seat of Wealden in 2001

'Not a cult'

In a High Court ruling in 1984, Judge Latey labelled the Church of Scientology a "cult", "corrupt, sinister and dangerous...out to capture people...and brainwash them."

The Church's credibility in Britain was given a gesture of political support in 2005 from Tory MP Charles Hendry, who is now a climate change minister.

Mr Hendry's Sussex constituency borders the church's estate at Saint Hill in East Grinstead and as a shadow minister, he told the House of Commons, "although Scientology may be very controversial… undoubtedly, as human beings they do a great deal of good…certainly as an organisation it has gone through serious hoops in terms of making sure it has the right to broadcast on television, satisfying the broadcasting commission that it isn't a cult."

Mr Hendry said he was not expressing a personal opinion and that his comments were intended to represent the views of his Scientology constituents.

The Church of Scientology is considered a religious organisation in America for tax purposes.

The Secrets of Scientology: A Panorama Special, BBC One, Tuesday, 28 September at 2100BST and then available in the UK on the BBC iPlayer.

The secrets of Scientology
Sunday, 26 September 2010, 09:51 GMT |  Panorama
Scientology and Me
Tuesday, 15 May 2007, 13:06 GMT |  Panorama
Australia mulls Scientology probe
Wednesday, 18 November 2009, 07:44 GMT |  Asia-Pacific
Crash director quits Scientology
Tuesday, 27 October 2009, 01:01 GMT |  Americas

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