Justin Welby was facing accusations of hypocrisy and naivety last night after it was revealed the Church of England has invested heavily in Amazon.
Only days after Archbishop Welby accused the internet giant of ‘leeching off the taxpayer’, the Mail can reveal the Church’s stake in the company is one of the 20 most valuable investments held by its multi-billion-pound fund.
The Church refused to say how much its Amazon shares are worth, but it is likely to be several million pounds. Its 20 most valuable investments total more than £500 million.
In a strident speech to union leaders earlier this week, the Archbishop said ‘vast companies like Amazon’ could ‘get away with paying almost nothing in tax’.
He said they failed to pay the minimum wage while paying nothing toward defence, security, health or education.
It can also be revealed today that the Church invests in Google, which has similarly faced controversy over its tax affairs.
As well as attacking Amazon, Archbishop Welby described the gig economy and zero-hours contracts as the ‘reincarnation of an ancient evil’.
But last night it emerged that at least two Church of England cathedrals are advertising for staff on zero-hours contracts.
Gloucester Cathedral’s advertisement, for a porter earning £8.75 an hour, notes that the role will ‘mostly be evenings and weekends’ and ‘working on a flexible basis’.
Norwich’s advertisement for a ‘Refectory Assistant’ says: ‘This is a casual zero-hours post.’
Last night, former Cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith said: ‘It is bizarre that the Church is investing in companies that the Archbishop does not think are responsible companies. I would now expect the Church to disinvest.’
In 2013, soon after taking over as the Anglican figurehead, Archbishop Welby launched an attack on payday lender Wonga and threatened to put it out of business with competition from Church-sponsored credit unions.
However, it was then revealed that the Church had a holding of between £75,000 and £90,000 in Wonga. It sold the shares the following year.
Tory MP Charles Walker added: ‘If the Archbishop had made a measured contribution when speaking about the gig economy most people would have valued his observations. Instead, he chose to play entirely to the crowd. This has proved to be a bad decision, one that has diminished his standing and credibility.’
The Church’s investment in Amazon is revealed in the 2017 accounts of the Church Commissioners, the CofE’s main financial wing which manages its £8.3 billion of historic assets. Archbishop Welby is chairman of its board of governors and in the latest report said the focus was on ‘ethical and responsible investment’.
The stake is mentioned for the first time in the commissioners’ latest accounts, indicating the investment was made in 2017. Overall, the value of the Church’s investments increased by 7.1 per cent last year, a rise of about £400 million.
Amazon has faced a string of controversies – most recently over how little it pays in business rates, its UK tax bill and its role in the decline of the British High Street. Despite soaring sales of close to £2 billion, the web giant’s biggest UK arm paid just £4.5 million in corporation tax last year.
In his savage attack on Amazon, Archbishop Welby – an Eton-educated former oil company executive – said: ‘When vast companies like Amazon, and other online traders, the new industries, can get away with paying almost nothing in tax, there is something wrong with the tax system.
‘They don’t pay a real living wage, so the taxpayer must support their workers with benefits.
‘And having leeched off the taxpayer once, they don’t pay for our defence, for security, for stability, for justice, for health, for equality, for education.’
A spokesman for the Church Commissioners said last night: ‘We consider aggressive tax avoidance or abusive tax arrangements to be both a business risk and an ethical issue.
‘As with other issues, we take the view that it is most effective to be in the room with these companies seeking change as a shareholder.’ Another of the Church’s top 20 investments is in Alphabet Inc, the holding company which controls Google – another tech firm under regular criticism for its low tax bills. Last year, Google paid just under £50 million in tax on UK sales of £5.7 billion.
Remarkably, a second Church of England investment fund also has a stake in Amazon.
The CBF Church of England Investment Fund is managed by a private investment organisation, CCLA, which invests money on behalf of CofE dioceses and charities. It is not known how much this stake is worth.
Tory MPs pointed out that Archbishop Welby has made no objection to Amazon when it comes to selling his books. The internet giant is currently offering his latest volume, Reimagining Britain, in hardback for £11. In 2015, the Archbishop pressed reluctant employers to pay the living wage, the pay level estimated to provide workers with a decent standard of living.
However, one of the employers refusing to pay workers to Archbishop Welby’s standards turned out to be the Church itself.
The Church of England had 72 care workers employed by its Pensions Board who were paid less than the living wage. The board responded with a promise to pay the living wage level, but not immediately, and only ‘in stages’.
Mr Duncan Smith said last night: ‘There are two messages coming from the Church. One is they don’t like the companies. The other is that they do like the returns.’
He added: ‘There may be an issue with the Archbishop’s office failing to talk to the Church’s investment offices. But if the Church does not like Amazon, they should not invest in it.’
Tory MP Ben Bradley saidd: ‘You would like to think the Archbishop could practise what he preaches, but apparently not. The Archbishop would like you to keep a gig economy delivery driver in a job by purchasing his book on Amazon.’
Kathy Gyngell, co-editor of the Conservative Woman website, said: ‘One of the fundamentals of capitalism is that people have to take moral responsibility for their dealings. Above all, an Archbishop should be able to understand ethical capitalism. He appears to be a hypocrite because the Church has invested in something of which he doesn’t approve.
‘It may be that the Archbishop means well. He really does want to improve people’s lives. But sometimes he seems very naive.’