Reverend Paul Nicolson: Retired Anglican vicar ready to go to jail in his battle for poor

1 August 2013


Ros Wynne-Jones

Ros Wynne-Jones writes the Real Britain column every Wednesday in the Daily Mirror campaigning against government cuts and standing up for ordinary people.

Ros Wynne-Jones

Our Ros visits Rev Nicolson in Tottenham  -  IAN VOGLER

Leaning on his walking stick outside Tottenham magistrates court, the Reverend Paul Nicolson cuts a frail but determined figure.

At the age of 82, he has been summonsed for non-payment of council tax, with arrears and costs amounting to £1,016.

This Friday, he will tell the court he will not pay a penny of this money – until Haringey Council restores 100% council tax benefit for benefit claimants and the Government stops the Benefit Cap he believes is destroying his community.

“Civil disobedience is morally defensible,” he will say, “when the laws being highlighted are morally indefensible.”

The father of five, who has nine grandchildren, says he is prepared to go to jail for his beliefs.

For 16 years until 1999, Rev Nicolson was the real life Vicar of Dibley – the priest in whose rural parish of Turville, Buckinghamshire, Richard Curtis set his sitcom about a female vicar and her hapless congregation.

Now, he hopes to bring the television news cameras to his new home of Tottenham, North London – to show how one of Britain’s most deprived communities has been shattered by welfare reform over the four months since April 1.

Not only are its poorer residents battling the Bedroom Tax and national cuts to council tax and other benefits, but they also live in one of four London Boroughs that began trialling the Benefit Cap in April.

Families receiving more than £500 in benefits (or £350 for single people), have seen their housing benefit slashed even as rents in the area soar.

Now the Cap is being expanded across the country, the DWP has estimated that 56,000 households will be hit, with an average weekly loss of £93. The majority will be families with children.

In Haringey, Rev Nicolson says the result is that the local foodbank ran out of food.

Because many of his neighbours also now have to pay the first 20% of their council tax and find Bedroom Tax, they are using their children’s benefit to pay the rent and so often go hungry.

“The faith that I have is about putting the poor first,” Rev Nicolson says.

“There’s no good just saying that, you have to put it into practice. So I am refusing to pay my own council tax to highlight their plight.”

A veteran of the poll tax protests, the Reverend says similar direct action is needed now.

“This is much, much worse than the poll tax,” he says.

He also points out the shocking cost of liability orders – issued when people are in council tax arrears.

“They cost £3 to produce but families are charged £125 each time, pushing them deeper into debt.”

Magistrates have issued 5,835 liability orders to Haringey council alone since benefit changes in April.

“Liability orders make £30million a year for London councils,” he says.

In the 80s, when he refused to pay his poll tax, he was Turville’s priest, and it was actually paid by his diocese.

“After I refused to pay it, I had a not-unexpected visit from the Bishop of Buckingham,” he says.

“I told him it was a shame to be opposed by the Christian Bishop when the local Muslim Imam was supporting me.

"After that, it was decided the poll tax was a matter of personal conscience.”

Nicolson, a devout Arsenal fan who lives a stone’s throw from White Hart Lane, thrives on debate.

Born into an entrepreneurial family in Kensington in 1932, his grandfather had been the first agent for champagne firm Veuve Clicquot in Scotland.

After national service, Nicolson went into the family firm.

He sold champagne for 12 years before becoming a working priest – ordained but working as an ordinary citizen – and then becoming the Vicar of St Mary the Virgin in Turville.

When Curtis asked if St Mary’s could become Dibley’s St Barnabus, the Reverend didn’t hesitate. Reaching 11 million viewers on Christmas Day 2006, his parish went on to be one of the UK’s most famous.

In 1997, the Reverend founded the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, to support debtors impoverished by the benefit system in court.

“It kind of took me over,” he says. So, in 1999, he gave up one of the Church of England’s most idyllic postings to move to Tottenham, North London, an Arsenal fan on a mission.

He says the plight of the poor has never been worse than now.

“Every day I see single mothers paying for the housing and banking crisis,” he says.

“Pregnant women are paying for it. There is a low birth weight rate in parts of Tottenham that is higher than Turkey’s.

"Pregnant women can’t eat healthily on the cash available.”

Earlier this year he withdrew from the post of chair at Zacchaeus to run Taxpayers Against Poverty.

“I want to challenge the idea that the Government always claims they are doing what’s best for the taxpayer,” he says.

“I am glad my taxation is used to enable my fellow citizens, both in and out of work, to buy enough food, clothes, fuel, transport and other necessities, to pay council tax and the rent of secure homes, when they have no other means to do so. And I think there are lots of other people who think the same.”

On Friday, he will go to court and tell the magistrates that he will not pay his council tax and is prepared to go to jail. Protesters are planning to join him from 9.30am outside the court.

“At the heart of the teachings of every faith is Love Your Neighbour as Yourself,” Rev Nicolson says quietly.

“I’d like to see that idea back at the heart of politics.”


High Court judges show hearts of stone
After one of the High Court’s most heartbreaking hearings, 10 disabled families lost their legal challenge against the Bedroom Tax yesterday.

In May, the court heard the parents’ personal stories of hardship, varying from coping with Down’s syndrome, rare brain conditions and autism to having escaped from terrifying domestic violence.

One family explained how the Department of Work and Pensions insisted their children share a room, even though their six-year-old son, who has mental health problems, was a danger to his sister.

In another family, a disabled woman’s specially adapted bed – provided by the NHS – left no room for her husband to sleep in the same room. Yet the family has to pay bedroom tax on their second bedroom.

You can only think that the two judges – Garrick Club member Lord Justice Laws and Mr Justice Cranston, once part of Tony Blair’s Labour government – must have hearts of stone.

The families will appeal against the ruling. And this time we must all stand with them outside the court and let them know that they are not alone.

Quote of the Week
Francesca Martinez, actress and comedian, on the Wow Petition reaching 50,000 signatures – halfway to the triggering of a parliamentary debate on how welfare cuts are affecting the disabled.

“We are determined to reach the 100,000 signatures needed to pressure the government to reassess the cuts which are already having a devastating impact on disabled people and carers.

“The UK is the seventh richest country in the world and there is no reason – apart from political ideology – why we can’t provide the support needed to allow disabled people and carers to lead healthy and active lives.”

She added: “Anyone can become disabled so we must all join together to fight for a fairer and more equal society.”

Please do sign the petition here:

Legal aid cuts
THE mother of a rape victim failed by police spoke out yesterday against legal aid cuts – explaining how without it she would never have been able to bring the Met to account.

“What happened to my daughter wasn’t just wrong, but illegal,” she said. “We got officers disciplined for misconduct, we got an apology from the director of public prosecutions. We brought a claim to show the police have a duty to properly investigate rape.

“If it hadn’t been for legal aid, I wouldn’t have been able to fight at all. I was, and am, an ordinary woman. My husband drove a taxi. I looked after my children. We had enough money to live but not to pay lawyers.

“It is people like me and my daughter that the changes in legal aid will really hurt. Legal aid means that ordinary people like my daughter have a voice.”


Join in the fight
Have you or your family been affected by the cuts? Or have you been shocked by how your area has been hit? I want to reveal what’s really happening around the country every week.

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