A couple of staunchly religious beekeepers who said their beliefs meant they could not meet HMRC’s requirement to file their VAT returns online have won their case at a First Tier Tribunal (FTT).
Graham and Abigail Blackburn, who run Cornish Moorland Honey, in Bodmin, are both devout members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church and view the internet as an intrusion of ‘worldliness’ into their lives of ‘righteousness’. They said that they should be allowed to continue with paper tax submissions, as they had before the new regulations came into force in April.
Graham Blackburn told the FTT that he and wife renounced the use of computers, the internet, televisions and mobile phones in their home.
HMRC lawyers argued that the couple’s stance was ‘really a personal preference and not part of their religion.’
At the tribunal, Philip Woolfe, for the tax authorities, pointed out that the Seventh Day Adventist Church does not ban its members from using the internet , although it does require its members to avoid ‘unwholesome’ or ‘sordid’ influences in the mass media. The church does, for example, run its own website.
Tribunal Judge Barbara Mosedale ruled that by refusing to exempt the Blackburns from online filing, HMRC had breached their right to freely manifest their religion, as laid down in the European Convention on Human Rights.
The judge said: ‘I find that, by entirely shunning computers, the Blackburns considered they were acting, as the Bible required them to do, in accordance with their religious conscience. They were manifesting their religious beliefs by refusing to use computers.’
The judge described the justifications put forward by HMRC for refusing to exempt the couple as ‘clearly insufficient’.
HMRC’s website states that taxpayers may not have to submit VAT Returns online or pay VAT electronically if ‘HMRC is satisfied that your business is run by practising members of a religious society, whose beliefs prevent them from using computers’.
Earlier this month three other small business owners were successful in arguing that HMRC’s policy regards online filing was discriminatory as it failed to take account of instances where taxpayers have disabilities which make it difficult or impossible to use a computer, or live in remote areas of the UK without reliable broadband access.