Devout beekeepers win right to refuse switchover to online VAT returns

HMRC tribunal rules that using computer would contradict Graham and Abigail Blackburn's deeply-held beliefs

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The Independent Online

Two devoutly religious beekeepers who reject modern technology have won the right not to fill in their VAT returns online after claiming it breached their human rights.

In what could prove a landmark ruling, a tribunal upheld Graham and Abigail Blackburn's claim against Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs (HMRC) that they could not use a computer because it would contradict their deeply-held beliefs.

The couple, who run Cornish Moorland Honey in Bodmin, Cornwall, are members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church which proclaims the imminent return of Christ when the "righteous" living will be glorified and taken to heaven and the "righteous" dead resurrected.

The Blackburns, who refuse to have a computer, television or possess a mobile phone which they believe to be "idols", regard the mass media as a form of "worldliness" and contrary to the path of salvation.

Mr Blackburn argued that screens "blinded the minds of non-believers" and that people were so pre-occupied with gadgets that they did not have time for religion.

They said the Bible - which provides their only creed - told them to shun contact with all such devices and to keep "bad content" away from their children.

But lawyers for HMRC claimed that the decision not to use a computer was a personal preference rather than integral to the religious faith arguing that the Seventh Day Adventist Church maintained its own website.

Tribunal Judge Barbara Mosedale however ruled that HMRC should have exempted the couple from filing on-line. Failure to do so had breached their right to freely manifest their religion, enshrined in Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

"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," she said.

The Blackburns were among a test case group of 100 tax payers who have refused to complete their VAT returns on-line and faced a surcharge of up to 15 per cent on their bill

The tribunal upheld the cases of three others who had argued that HMRC's failure to take into account their age, physical disability and that they lived in areas with no broadband connection, was also in breach of their human rights under EU law.

A spokesman for HMRC said it was studying the rulings and would consider an appeal. The Blackburns are currently on holiday and were unavailable to comment Mr Blackburn's father said.

Victor Hulbert, spokesman for the Seventh Day Adventist Church in the UK said members did use the internet and other technology but respected the Blackburns' stance. "They have a valid point of view although they are probably the exception within the Church," he said.

The Seventh Day Adventist Church was founded in the United States in the 1860s.

Alongside waiting for the return of the Saviour, members are required to live modestly rejecting alcohol, tobacco and often meat.

It is estimated there are around 35,000 Adventists living in the UK.

Mr Blackburn said his conscience would not allow him to enter his VAT return on a library computer or allow someone to do it on his behalf. He said he was prepared to de-register his business if he lost.