Church of England holds a multi-million pound stake in Amazon

Archbishop of Canterbury is accused of hypocrisy after slamming web giant Amazon for ‘leeching’ off taxpayers – as it emerges his Church holds a multi-million-pound stake in the retailer

  • The Church’s stake in Amazon is one of 20 most valuable investments in its fund
  • Archbishop Justin Welby had accused the company of ‘leeching off the taxpayer’
  • The revelation sparked charges of hypocrisy and naivety against the Archbishop
  • He already faced criticism from Conservative MPs for ‘parroting Labour policy’

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.

 Justin Welby (pictured) was facing accusations of hypocrisy and naivety last night after it was revealed the Church of England has invested heavily in Amazon

The Church refused to say how much its Amazon shares are worth, but it is likely to be several million pounds (pictured, Amazon’s distribution centre in Swansea)

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 and ‘leeched off the taxpayer’ 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.

The Archbishop had already faced fierce criticism from Conservative MPs for ‘parroting Labour policy’ in his speech to the TUC.

As well as attacking Amazon, Archbishop Welby described the gig economy and zero-hours contracts as the ‘reincarnation of an ancient evil’.

Former Cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith said it was ‘bizarre’ the Church was investing in companies the Archbishop has been criticising

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.’

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 his 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’.

Another of the Church’s top 20 investments is in Alphabet Inc, the holding company which controls Google (pictured: its offices in King’s Cross, London). Google is also under regular criticism for its ability to pay low tax bills

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.

Justin Welby speaking at the TUC Conference in Manchester yesterday, he faced fierce criticism from Conservative MPs for ‘parroting Labour policy’

‘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.

And despite Archbishop Welby’s criticism of zero-hours contracts, the Church has employed staff on those terms.

Five years ago, catering and security staff at the Archbishop’s residence, Lambeth Palace, were found to be on temporary contracts without fixed hours. One major diocese, the Diocese of London, also advises its parishes to hire workers on zero-hours terms. 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 Church investment funds had a holding of between £75,000 and £90,000 in Wonga.

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Two years later he 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 in supported housing schemes 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. 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 added: ‘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.’ 

Amazon ditches plan to put warehouse workers in cages

Amazon has scrapped proposals to move its warehouse workers around in robot-controlled cages after they were described as ‘dystopian’.

The online giant admitted that the patent, designed to help move staff safely around Amazon’s 100,000 robot workers and other machines, was a ‘bad idea’.

The document, originally granted in 2016, only emerged after it was highlighted in a paper by two artificial intelligence ethics researchers.

Amazon has scrapped proposals to move its warehouse workers around in robot-controlled cages after they were described as ‘dystopian’ (pictured)

But Amazon now says that even bad ideas get patented and it does not intend to use the machine.

The US patent, entitled ‘system and method for transporting personnel within an active workspace’, describes a wheeled cage that would be used to move staff such as maintenance workers safely across its warehouses.

Amazon increasingly uses robots to move stock around the enormous ‘fulfilment centres’. The patent explains: ‘Technological advancements have made an ever-increasing amount of automation possible in inventory-handling. By co-ordinating movement of the human transport device with the movement of mobile drive units [robots], the productivity of the floor is minimally disrupted.’

The patent says the cages could be used to move workers who are needed to repair failed robots, or tidy up spills and products that have fallen onto the floor.

The design catered for a cage made of metal, plastic or acrylic. The passenger would be locked in the pod until they entered a code or swiped a staff card and some configurations had a robotic grabbing arm for handling objects.

Amazon was recently criticised over a patent for wristbands that would track workers’ movements. It has also been repeatedly over allegedly harsh, high-pressure working conditions.

Amazon disputes the claims and says it offers a ‘safe and positive workplace’.

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