We will continue to fight poverty in our founder Reverend Paul Nicholson’s name

Reverend Paul Nicolson might no longer be with us, but we should take inspiration from his life and work.  In the meantime, today our hearts and thoughts are with Paul’s family and friends.

Marc Francis, Policy and Campaigns Director

Later today, Z2K’s founder, the Reverend Paul Nicolson, will be laid to rest in a small private service with his family.  Paul’s death earlier this month was a shock.  Only days beforehand he had been actively promoting his latest campaign and organising a protest outside Downing Street about the worsening problems of homelessness and poverty.  The Coronavirus pandemic means Paul won’t be getting the send-off he deserves, but hopefully there will be a chance for us all the get together to celebrate his life later in the year.

I don’t know what Paul would have made of the Coronavirus pandemic that now threatens us.  But I can certainly imagine what he would have said about the Government’s response.  He would have welcomed the decision to peg Local Housing Allowance rates of Housing Benefit for private tenants back at the 30th percentile of local market rents, but he would have said the Bedroom Tax and Benefit Cap should be scrapped too.  He would have welcomed the extra £500 million for local authorities to help those struggling with their Council Tax bills, but said this is why a national system of Council Tax Benefit was so essential.  And he would have welcomed the plan to get rough sleepers in hotels, but said they shouldn’t be forced out again until they have a real home to move into.

Perhaps most of all he would have welcomed the £22 a week rise in the Standard Allowance for Universal Credit, but have been appalled that this wasn’t to be applied to those existing claimants on Job Seekers Allowance (JSA).  Instead, they and some disabled or seriously unwell Employment Support Allowance claimants will get the increase of just £1.25 a week that was announced before Coronavirus hit us – taking their income to £74.35 a week.

At a lovely Neighbours in Poplar event over Christmas organised by the East End’s equally legendary Sister Christine I bumped into Neil Jamieson.  Neil and his team at London Citizens are rightly lauded champions of the London Living Wage.  But he reminded me that Paul was one of the originators of that work as he commissioned research into the minimum income people needed to live on.  Paul’s work supporting those hit by Margaret Thatcher’s Poll Tax in the early 1990s showed him that many unemployed citizens were being forced to live below the breadline.

This is actually the first increase in JSA/ESA since 2015 and in the five years before that it usually only increased by a pound or so a week.  I couldn’t live on JSA when I had a period out of work ten years ago, so lords only knows how anyone survives on it today.  And that was Paul’s point.  He challenged Labour ministers on it throughout the 2000s and he kept on at Coalition ministers too after the path of austerity was chosen in 2010.  The value of JSA and ESA has eroded even further as David Cameron and George Osborne froze working-age benefits from 2015.

I made that point myself at the Work & Pensions Select Committee a couple of weeks ago, when an evidence session on DWP’s terrible disability benefit assessments was suddenly diverted into a discussion of what DWP ministers should do in response to Coronavirus.  Two days later, when Chancellor Rishi Sunak astonishingly announced that the Standard Allowance for Universal Credit would rise to £95 a week in-line with Statutory Sick Pay, I was one of those cheering that ministers had seen the error of their ways.  Then I saw the small print.  It was for UC only, not JSA or ESA.

For Z2K, the fact that anyone could conceive this two tier distinction is incomprehensible.  It takes the deserving and undeserving poor mentality to new depths.  But even in its own terms it is deeply divisive.  Remember this is not only the long-term unemployed who are worth less.  It includes those on Contribution-based JSA too many of whom have been paying National Insurance for years.   Essentially, it says that if you’re unemployed because your employer laid you off in March because of Coronavirus, that’s legit’, but if you’re unemployed because your employer went bust in January, you’re not.

When asked about it last Wednesday, the Work & Pensions Secretary, Therese Coffey MP, told the select committee our focus is on new claimants.  The fact that this mentality survives amongst ministers at such a time of national crisis says an awful lot.  But the fact that supposedly politically neutral civil servants allow it is genuinely perplexing.  DWP’s Permanent Secretary, Peter Schofield then told the committee, JSA and ESA weren’t going up as much because that couldn’t be done as easily as with UC.  Even if that were actually true, it is no justification for not doing it a month or so down the line.  We don’t believe it is true.

Paul Nicolson might no longer be with us, but we should take inspiration from his life and work and challenge this shameful decision in every way possible.  In the meantime, today our hearts and thoughts are with Paul’s family and friends as they quietly celebrate a life well-lived in the service of his fellow man.