April 20 2024
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#RevPaul remembered: ‘a fearless fighter for the poor’

#RevPaul remembered: ‘a fearless fighter for the poor’

Z2K is deeply saddened to hear of the death of our founder, Rev Paul Nicolson.  Paul was an absolutely tireless campaigner against the scourge of poverty in the UK, and especially against the recent cuts to Social Security benefits that have caused so much of it. Paul wrote this article for the Justice Gap in 2012 (here).

After a successful career in business, Paul found his calling in the Church of England and became a vicar.  He served a comfortable part of Middle England, but like many in the Church in the 1980s he became deeply concerned about the fractured society in Britain’s deprived inner-cities.

Wanting to do more, he began to help some of those hit by Margaret Thatcher’s new Poll Tax, which demanded everyone pay whether rich or poor.  With like-minded friends, Paul challenged local authorities to accept that many of their poorest residents were simply too poor to pay this tax.  Eventually, this contributed to the creation of Council Tax Benefit in 1993, which effectively reinstated the exemption of unemployed residents from local taxes.

This work convinced Paul that a more determined and formalised approach was necessary and over the next few years this voluntary work evolved into the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust.  Paul was understandably inspired by the story of Zacchaeus the wealthy tax collector in the Book of Luke.  After Jesus picked him out and chose to stay at his home, Zacchaeus renounced his misdeeds and returned the taxes he had cheated out of Jericho’s poor.  Paul saw Zacchaeus’ story as having especial relevance 2000 years later as Britain moved into the new Millennium.

For the next decade Paul’s pioneering work helped influence several of the grass roots campaigns that sprang up demanding more urgent and decisive action to tackle poverty and inequality in the UK.  For example, unimpressed with New Labour’s ‘Minimum Wage’, he commissioned some of the research into living costs that eventually led to the development of the London Living Wage that has been so successfully championed by London Citizens.

Paul was aghast at the raft of cuts to social security benefits implemented by the Coalition Government after 2010.  But he was especially scathing of the ‘localisation’ of Council Tax Benefit – unravelling the settlement he had helped to secure in 1993.  With others focussed on other headline grabbing cuts, he campaigned almost single-handedly against this measure – winning concessions in the House of Lords.  More directly, he inspired Z2K to challenge those London Boroughs that chose to simply pass that cut on to their poorest residents.  At some personal cost, he also challenged his own local authority’s decision to start charging – a legal battle that eventually convinced a new generation of councillors there to reinstate 100 per cent support.

Paul maintained a very close interest in Z2K’s work even after his retirement as our executive chairman.  He was incredibly supportive of all the new staff that have followed in his wake and encouraging of our efforts to grow our services so we could help more low-income Londoners.  He especially liked our Tribunal Representation Service for disabled clients who have lost their benefits as a result of DWP’s dodgy assessments.  I think it reminded him of his own days in Magistrates Courts.   Paul was also successful in his own new organisation Taxpayers Against Poverty, which rightly sought to challenge the unthinking politics of austerity nationally and locally.

Paul lived his faith in his campaigns for social justice.  He was a consummate operator in the corridors of power advocating for much needed policy changes.  But, he was also courageous and a great believer in direct action.  He faced a prison sentence for his refusal to pay his council tax in sympathy with those unemployed neighbours who were being charged £250 a year and ‘court costs’ from their meagre Job Seekers Allowance of just £70 a week.  And he only cancelled a recent protest outside Downing Street about the growing problem of homelessness because he had been admitted to hospital.

While Paul was renowned as a combative and even fierce campaigner, he was also one of the kindest of people personally, as the tributes from those who worked with him have shown.  We will miss him deeply in the years ahead, but will take inspiration from his life and work and honour him in the way we think he would have wanted – by renewing our own efforts to fight for a London that is free from poverty and homelessness, and perhaps a little kinder too.