Church of England under fire over Google stake

Company one of a large number of multinationals accused of tax avoidance

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, vocal in criticising City bonuses but may need to look closer to home. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

The Church of England has come under fire after it was revealed its powerful investment fund holds a significant share stake in Alphabet, parent company of Google.

Google is one of a number of large multinational companies that have been accused of tax avoidance and the investment would appear to run contrary to the church’s policy of ethical investment. Its £7 billion (€9 billion) fund overseen by the Church commissioners, does not invest in arms manufacturers, gambling, pornography or tobacco companies.

A couple of years ago it also offloaded its stake in the payday lender, Wonga.

Embarrassingly for the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, the Wonga stake only came to light after he had publicly criticised the payday lender, saying such companies had "destroyed lives".


Welby will no doubt also be embarrassed about the stake in Google, particularly as it appears the church has not tackled the company about its avoidance activities. The church’s own investment principles state that “tax ethics should be a subject for investor engagement where it appears a company’s approach is blatantly aggressive or abusive”.

The archbishop has also been vocal in criticising City bonuses but, again, may need to look closer to home. As well as disclosing Google as one of its top 20 investments, the commissioners' annual report revealed that its director of investments, Tom Joy, received £463,000 last year, including more than £200,000 from a performance-related incentive plan.

In his defence, the fund achieved a return of 8.2 per cent on its investments last year, comfortably outstripping the market. And over the past 30 years, the annual growth of the fund averages 9.7 per cent. The money goes towards pay and pensions for the clergy, funding missions and ministry and cathedral costs.


Still, Joy’s pay package does little for the cause of equality, as he earned almost six times the archbishop’s stipend and about 20 times the minimum pay for a parish priest.

He may find the going a bit tougher this year, however. Andreas Whittam Smith, who heads the commissioners, warned of the impact of the global slowdown on the investment fund: "It may be harder to achieve such a satisfactory performance. My message to the wider church is – don't count on it."

But the church clearly has an eye for money-making opportunities and now it is planning to put the spires and towers of its rural churches to use as broadband beacons.

Broadband speeds outside major cities in Britain are often painfully slow and service providers are racing to fulfil prime minister David Cameron’s pledge that every home should have high speed internet access by 2020.

In Norfolk, almost 50 church towers have already been fitted with transmitters and receivers to boost the local broadband network. The wireless internet service company behind the initiative, WiSpire, is backed by the Diocese of Norwich.

The Church of England has a network of some 10,000 rural churches and is keen to capitalise on the huge demand for broadband. The transmitters can be unsightly, particularly on some of the older, listed churches, but for most local communities struggling to stream films or download documents, it’s a compromise they are willing to make.

Banking report

The banking sector has undergone as many as 10 investigations in the past 20 years and the latest one looks as ineffectual as the rest.

Using a headline figure of a £1 billion saving by customers over five years, the Competition and Markets Authority did its best to put a positive spin on its efforts. But barely had the 400-page report been released than the criticism flooded in from all quarters.

Once again, the report backs away from a break-up of the big banks that dominate the sector – between them, the big four of Lloyds Banking Group, Barclays, HSBC and Royal Bank of Scotland control more than three quarters of the market for current accounts.

Banks will be made to publish their maximum overdraft charges, and warn customers by text when they are about to go into the red, as well as simplifying their charging structures.

The report says customers could save around £150 on average by switching their accounts, but only a tiny proportion of customers – around 3 per cent – bother to move banks. The £1 billion saving is based on that figure rising to just 4 per cent.

The sad truth is that most of us are still more likely to leave our spouse than we are to change our bank. Fiona Walsh is business editor of