Retired clergyman Paul Nicolson, who is refusing to pay council tax in solidarity with those hit by benefit cuts, explains why he’s happy to take the consequences
By the end of next week, Paul Nicolson could be facing prison and bankruptcy – an unexpected turn of events for an 84-year-old retired vicar who has never previously been in this type of trouble.
On 15 June, he will appear at Tottenham magistrates court in north London for non-payment of council tax since 2013: he owes £2,831.42. Meanwhile, he must decide what to do about the £47,000 in costs awarded against him last month after he lost, in the high court, a case he brought against Haringey council over the level of court charges imposed on residents for non-payment of council tax.
It is all a great deal of money that he doesn’t have, but he appears to be delighted at the potential scandal that the imprisonment of a retired vicar could stir up, and the useful attention that his case could bring to a little-understood aspect of welfare reform.
“I am really not in the slightest bit afraid of prison,” Nicolson says. He is looking forward to his court appearance, where he will have the opportunity to explain why he has decided not to pay his bills. “One of the joys of refusing to pay,” he says, is that there is a “wonderful opportunity” to tell the story of why the 2013 abolition of a centralised council tax benefit has had such catastrophic consequences for hundreds of thousands of people.
Tottenham’s magistrates would be wise to steel themselves for Nicolson’s 10 o’clock appearance in the dock, because his arguments are likely to be delivered with the mesmerisingly stern precision of a 1940s BBC newsreader. A group of protesters are due to gather outside the court in support of his campaign.
Nicolson stopped paying council tax in response to the ending of centrally administered council tax benefit in April 2013. Until then, millions of people on low incomes paid no council tax, but this benefit was stopped as part of a series of welfare cost savings. Instead, councils were allocated a reduced sum to cushion council tax liability for their poorest residents, and each authority had to decide how much to charge low-income residents. Like hundreds of other cash-strapped councils, Haringey decided to charge previously exempt residents 20% of their council tax bill. The weekly cost ranges between £2 and £8, depending on the council tax band, and for those families already living below the poverty line, this has proved unaffordable. An estimated 2.2 million families are having to pay on average £169 more in council tax than they would have under the previous scheme, according to New Policy Institute research.