In what many will view as a victory for a simpler way of life, staunchly religious beekeepers who shun computers, televisions and mobile phones have scored a landmark triumph over the tax authorities. The First-Tier Tribunal found that the insistence of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) that the couple file their VAT returns online amounted to a violation of their human rights.
Graham and Abigail Blackburn fiercely objected when HMRC refused to exempt them from the mandatory online filing requirement which has applied to most businesses since April 2012. The couple, as devout members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, are convinced that Christ’s second coming is imminent and view the internet as an intrusion of ‘worldliness’ into their lives of ‘righteousness’.
Mr Blackburn said that the contents of some TV programmes and websites were ‘contrary to the Bible’s teachings’ and that he wanted to ‘protect his children from bad influences’. He said 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.
Lawyers representing HMRC argued that the couple’s stance was ‘really a personal preference and not part of their religion’. They pointed out that their church does not ban members from using the internet – merely extoling them to avoid ‘unwholesome’ or ‘sordid’ influences in the mass media – and in fact has its own website.
However, the Tribunal ruled that, by refusing to exempt the couple from obligatory online filing, HMRC had breached their right, enshrined in Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, to freely manifest their religion. By entirely shunning computers, the couple ‘considered that 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”. Justifications put forward by HMRC for refusing to exempt the couple were ‘clearly insufficient’, the Tribunal concluded.