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Church of England accused over failure to quiz Amazon and Google

Church of England accused over failure to quiz Amazon and Google

By Kaya Burgess, Religious Affairs Correspondent
https://www.thetimes.co.uk/
October 15, 2018

The Church of England has been absent at Amazon and Google annual shareholders' meetings for at least three years, despite insisting that its investments meant that it was "in the room" to raise concerns over their tax affairs.

The church has defended its multimillion-pound stake in companies with questionable tax arrangements, arguing that it is better to use its influence as a shareholder to demand change rather than to disinvest in protest.

It has now been accused of being "disingenuous" after it emerged that its investment chiefs had attended 24 corporate annual general meetings since 2016 to question oil companies, banks, advertising companies, supermarkets and hotel groups but had not attended any held by Amazon or Google.

Frank Field, the Labour MP, said it was disappointing. He added that it was "no good for the church to keep saying it has these investments to push for reform from the inside" if it does not "live up to its rhetoric".

The church said it used other means of lobbying besides attending AGMs. It is understood the church is part of an investor coalition that engages with companies including Amazon and Google over tax, but the church would not disclose what contact it had made.

Amazon's UK services arm posted revenues of nearly £2 billion and profits of £79 million last year. After deferring £2.9 million of tax, it paid only £1.7 million for the year. Google books most of its UK advertising sales through Ireland, allowing it to report £1.27 billion of UK revenue when the total was closer to £5.5 billion for 2016. Amazon and Google have said they pay all tax required by UK law.

The Archbishop of Canterbury criticised Amazon for "leeching off the taxpayer" last month but it emerged that the church held a big investment in the company. The Times revealed in 2016 that the church had millions invested in Alphabet, Google's parent company, but had not contacted it about its tax affairs. It said at the time: "We do intend to engage with Alphabet."

Writing in the Church Times, Loretta Minghella, the church estates commissioner, said the church's investors had been asked how they could justify holding Amazon stock "given widespread concerns regarding tax fairness". She said: "Our answer to the media was simple: 'It's better to be in the room'."

It has emerged, however, that the Church Commissioners, who handle more than £8 billion of assets for the Church of England, have not been in the room for any AGM held by Amazon or Google for at least three years. Dame Caroline Spelman, a Tory MP who is the church's representative in the Commons, said the Church Commissioners' "engagement team" attended 24 AGMs from 2016 to this year, but none held by Amazon or Google. Most were for the oil industry as part of the church's drive to force
fossil fuel companies to tackle climate change.

A spokesman for the Church Commissioners said: "To judge our work solely on our AGM attendance would be wholly misleading. We use all of the tools at our disposal and work closely with other investors who share our concerns. As such we are part of coalitions . . . on issues including climate change, extractives, corporate tax and alcohol."

He pointed to the church's ethical investment policy, which preferred private engagement, opting for "public escalation" in "exceptional cases".

END

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