Freemasons denied multi-million pound tax break after a judge says emphasis on caring for fellow members means its giving is not “wholly philanthropic”
Freemasons will be denied a multi-million pound tax break after a judge ruled that their governing body was not sufficiently “philanthropic” to be exempt from VAT, despite being the second largest charitable donor in the country.
The United Grand Lodge of England, which in 2010 donated more than £82 million to good causes, was told that its emphasis on caring for fellow masons meant its giving was not “wholly philanthropic”.
The Grand Lodge argued that its charitable giving benefits the public in general — not just Masons — and sought a VAT rebate on subscriptions paid by its members over more than 20 years.
After resistance from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, Judge Hellier, sitting in the Tax Chamber of the first-tier tribunal, ruled that Freemasons’ “hope or expectation” that The Grand Charity would assist them and their families in times of need meant their donations had an element of “self-insurance” and “personal benefit”.
The Grand Lodge argued that Freemasonry’s “peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols” is driven by principles of high moral standards, charitable giving and positive community involvement. It said its “aims of philosophical, philanthropic and civic nature” benefited the public in general and all Masons were expected to treat giving, truth and brotherly love as “a personal rule of life”. Belief in a “supreme being” is a requirement for all Freemasons.
Quentin Humberstone, the Grand Lodge Treasurer, said the rituals for which Freemasonry is most famous were nowadays “generally something for the few”.
Judge Hellier said that, despite the craft’s charitable giving, the promotion of Freemasonry remained one of its primary objectives. He said its emphasis on mutual benevolence could not be regarded as “wholly philanthropic”.
Judge Charles Hellier noted that only between 25 and 30 per cent of the Grand Lodge’s charity donations go to causes with no Masonic connections.
“To the extent that monies were paid with the hope or expectation of self-insurance, their payment does not seem to us to be an act of philanthropy,” he ruled.
The United Grand Lodge of England represents about 250,000 Freemasons, belonging to 8,000 lodges. In 2010 it gave money to organisations including the Royal College of Surgeons, Help the Hospices, the Red Cross and the Air Ambulance Service. Each of its members pays at least £14 a year into Freemasonry’s “Grand Charity” and are sworn to the pursuit of truth, “brotherly love” and civic duty.