Like many technophobes, Graham and Abigail Blackburn, who run Cornish Moorland Honey, in Bodmin, Cornwall, fiercely objected when Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) demanded they file their VAT returns online. The use of internet for such a return is now mandatory and penalties of between £100 and £400 apply for submitting a paper return.
The couple are perhaps more averse to technology than most, however, being devout members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. As such, they are convinced that Christ’s second coming is imminent and reputedly view the internet as an intrusion of ‘worldliness’ into their lives of ‘righteousness’.
Now, in what some are branding a major embarrassment for HMRC, a first-tier tax tribunal has ruled that its treatment of Mr and Mrs Blackburn violated their human rights. The Tribunal was told that Mr Blackburn and his wife abjure the use of computers, the internet, televisions and mobile phones in their home – believing that the contents of some TV programmes and websites were ‘contrary to the Bible’s teachings’.
The beekeeper railed that people were obsessed by their mobile phones – treating them as ‘idols’ – and that the flood of electronic communications had ‘blinded the minds of non-believers’, giving them no time for religion in their lives.
Most businesses have been required by law to file their VAT returns online since April last year, and HMRC lawyers argued that the couple’s stance was ‘really a personal preference and not part of their religion.’
Interestingly, Philip Woolfe, for the tax authorities, pointed out that the Seventh Day Adventist Church does not ban its members from using the internet – merely cajoling them to avoid ‘unwholesome’ or ‘sordid’ influences in the mass media. The Seventh Day Adventist Church actually has its own website…
However, Tribunal Judge Barbara Mosedale ruled that by refusing to exempt Mr and Mrs Blackburn from online filing, HMRC had breached their right to freely manifest their religion, enshrined in Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights – made into UK law under the Human Rights Act 1998.
She said the couple’s decision not to use computers was more than just a preference to keep ‘bad’ content out of their home and away from their children, but was an expression of their fundamental religious beliefs.
“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”.
It seems then, that the requirement for submitting VAT returns online can be subverted, but seekers of paper and pen will most likely have to forsake the phone, laptop and television, and take up a fairly obscure religious belief, for the pleasure.
SRJ / LCB 28/10/2013