No tax break for Freemasons

“Secret handshakes don’t seem to work with the tax man….”

David Byers

The Freemasons, the secret society known for its charitable work and strange initiations, has failed to win a multimillion-pound tax break.

The United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE), the governing body for Freemasons in England and Wales, has lost a battle against HMRC to secure a £2.83 million VAT rebate by getting a judge to officially recognise it as solely “a philosophical, philanthropic or civic” organisation.

This comes after a push to publicise its charity work and to attract more members by advertising at universities.

UGLE claimed in court that it should be given the refund, which covered VAT on membership fees between 2010 and 2018, because it had become so outward-looking since the turn of the century that its philanthropy and philosophy was its “main aim and it did not have any other main aims”.

HMRC disputed the claim at the first-tier tax tribunal. Although it agreed that the Freemasons carried out many worthy charitable works, it said that many objectives were still “for the benefit of its members”, and included “making friends, socialising and networking” so it should be taxed as a normal membership organisation. Judge Greg Sinfield ruled that UGLE had stretched its definition of philanthropy too far. “The giving by Freemasons through UGLE and the masonic charities for the benefit of other Freemasons is not philanthropy,” he said.

UGLE said: “We are obviously disappointed with the outcome, but will not be providing further comment during the appeal period.”