HL Deb 17 December 1996 vol 576 cc1392-4

2.56 p.m.

Baroness Sharpies asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have any objections to the way in which the Church of Scientology conducts its operations in this country.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the Church of Scientology may follow its own doctrines and practices provided that it remains within the law. But the Government recognise that serious allegations have been made about some of its activities.

Baroness Sharpies

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Is she aware that entrants to the church have to undergo a so-called "purification" process? Is it under qualified medical supervision? Is my noble friend further aware that a number of those who have left the cult have been both threatened and harassed and many have been made bankrupt by the church?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am not in a position to help my noble friend or to comment on the detailed practices of the Church of Scientology. It is something which she may care to raise with the scientologists themselves because it must be for them to respond. Any evidence of the unethical or unlawful practice of medicine would be a matter of serious concern and could be in breach of the law. Therefore, it would require action.

As to my noble friend's second point, I know that serious allegations have been made and it is right that people should be warned of the potential dangers of becoming involved in organisations of that kind. Any evidence of harassment or threats which could amount to criminal activity should be reported to the police.

Lord McNair

My Lords, in asking this question I have to tell the House that I have an interest in it. I am a member of the Church of Scientology. If the noble Baroness has any problems or questions about scientology, I should be happy for her to come and ask me.

Will the Minister accept that I am pleased that the Government's policy remains as laid down by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, at the CESNUR Conference in 1993? Does she also agree that those who fail to meet and talk to members of such organisations are liable to form a biased or incomplete picture of the organisation?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I know how seriously the noble Lord feels on the issue. But if someone comes to me as a Minister, or to anyone else, and makes allegations and we simply refer the matter to a member of the Church of Scientology, or any other cult, it is unlikely that they will say: "Yes, of course we harass people and extort money from them", or whatever it is. Their natural reaction will simply be denial. I am not in a position to answer for that. But it seems to me to be important to persuade people so far as possible to produce evidence so that it can be properly responded to by the scientology movement. In the meantime, I can say that sometimes it is fear that prevents people from doing that and sometimes it is sheer distress, not only on the part of the individual but on the part of the individual's family.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Minister used the word "cult". The Church of Scientology calls itself a church. Is there a definition of the words "church" and "cult"? If so, does the Church of Scientology meet either of those definitions?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my understanding is that the Church of Scientology chapels do not conform to the legal definition of a church and certainly not a religion. I believe it was in 1969 that the scientologists appealed before the courts and were not regarded as a religion.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, can my noble friend tell me the status of the Americans working at the Church of Scientology headquarters? Can she say whether the church has applied for charitable status?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am sorry but I cannot help my noble friend about the status of the Americans. Coming to this country to work, they would of course need a work permit. They could not simply arrive and work in the scientology movement. In answer to the second question, my understanding is that the scientologists presented informally a hypothetical case to the Charity Commission; namely, should they apply for charitable status, would it be granted? The Charity Commission—it is a matter for the Charity Commission—investigated the matter thoroughly, came back to the scientologists and said that on the basis of the information provided to it it would not have granted charitable status. I also understand that the scientologists have now submitted a formal application to the Charity Commission. It must be for the Charity Commission to consider that application afresh.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the Minister aware that when the application was made to the Charity Commission it ruled that, in order to qualify as a religion, an organisation had to be theistic in character but that Buddhists, having existed for 2,500 years, were an exception to that principle? Does she feel that it would be appropriate for Parliament to frame a sensible definition of "religion" and "church", instead of leaving the matter to be determined by the Charity Commission and the courts?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, wiser counsels than I have tried that one. We have set our face against a definition of religion. We have settled for there being no legal definition of religion. I have now found the date in my brief: it was 1969 when the scientologists appealed to be considered a religion and it was decided at that time that their chapels did not constitute a church and were not a religion.