Chair of Trustees Mick McAteer celebrates 15 years of Z2K

Nearly half the country has now probably had to celebrate its birthday during the Coronavirus lockdown. And this week Z2K has joined that company as we mark the 15th anniversary since our registration with the charity commission. Any celebrations will rightly be put on hold as the country and especially the poorer communities we serve suffer from the direct weight of this terrible virus and its devastating economic fall-out. As chair of this wonderful organisation, however, I want to take a moment to look back at its achievements and the challenges ahead.

Mick McAteer, Chair of Z2K

14th August 2020

The genesis of Zacchaeus 2000 was actually thirty years ago, as our founder the Reverend Paul Nicolson and his friends came together to help some of those dragged to court by their local council for failing to pay Margaret Thatcher’s unjust Poll Tax even though they were out of work and struggling to feed their families.  Paul, Alan Murdie and co. did great work throughout the rest of the 1990s and early-2000s, lobbying, campaigning and frequently haranguing Ministers in Tony Blair’s Governments to do more to tackle the deep-rooted poverty and structural inequality in British society.

Registration as a charity brings risks as well as benefits and Paul was especially conscious of the constraints it would bring.  But he also knew it would provide a stronger platform for this anti-poverty agenda and the chance to secure the funding needed to build a team to directly help more people in that part of London Z2K was beginning to call home.  And it was fortunate he had the foresight to do so, because the global financial crisis of 2008, the subsequent economic crisis, and Coalition Government with its austerity agenda and welfare reforms were just around the corner.

With Joanna Kennedy in place as our first Chief Executive, Z2K secured funding from the Oak Foundation to set up the Next Door project to help some of the Westminster residents hit by the Bedroom Tax, Benefit Cap and Local Housing Allowance (LHA) cuts.  Over the next three years that team helped nearly a thousand Westminster families left with unsustainable rent arrears and facing eviction and homelessness as a result of these cuts.  They also set up an innovative Private Rented Sector Access scheme to broker tenancies for single homeless people.

Paul opposed nearly everything in Iain Duncan Smith’s 2012 Welfare Reform Act.  But it was the lesser-known Local Government Finance Act of the same year that really got his goat.  This legislation swept away Michael Heseltine’s solution to the Poll Tax – Council Tax Benefit, which effectively exempted those on the lowest incomes.  It dumped responsibility on local authorities to set up their own local schemes, along with a £400 million cut in funding that was the equivalent of a 17 per cent cut in funding for working-age claimants.  Inevitably, most councils stated charging their disabled and unemployed residents a Minimum Payment.

Z2K was always clear that that the main responsibility for this lay with the Government.  But we didn’t think it was good enough for London Boroughs to simply pass that cut straight on to their poorest residents, and then summons them to court and send in the bailiffs.  And over the next five years Z2K and friends and allies in local communities across London went toe to toe with half the councils in London to challenge these unjust charges winning concessions almost everywhere we took the campaign.  We were also delighted to team up with the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) to publish a series of reports revealing the impact of this New Poll Tax in London.

Paul himself had stood down as Executive Chairman by then – handing over the reins to legendary homelessness barrister Jan Luba.  But he played his part too, successfully challenging Haringey council in the Supreme Court for its failure to properly consult residents over its Council Tax Support scheme.  Later, with Paul’s criticism ringing in their ears, Haringey’s new Cabinet scrapped their Borough’s charges for families as well as disabled people.

By 2015, Z2K’s advisors were helping over a thousand people a year.  And the team was seeing another growing problem – hundreds of disabled and seriously unwell people being denied Employment Support Allowance (ESA) or the new Personal Independence Payment (PIP) following a DWP arduous assessment process.  In response, Joanna set up our Tribunal Representation Service with pro bono support from City law firms, enabling claimants to pursue their appeal against these terrible decisions to the independent First Tier Tribunal.

Over the next few years, under Joanna’s successor as Chief Executive, Raji Hunjan, we grew that service to one that helps hundreds of claimants every year, winning the appeals we took in a staggering 92 per cent of cases in 2019.  The fact that we won 92 per cent of cases speaks volumes for how badly the system fails those who need it most and the attitude of the DWP towards citizens. It speaks volumes for how much the system is stacked against citizens who need it. I often say that, if the DWP was a bank or insurance company, it would have been sanctioned numerous times by the financial regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority, for unfair treatment of its ‘customers’ and poor practice.

We also published Access Denied – qualitative research from interviews with many of those disabled people we had helped to appeal.  Its recommendations for fundamental reform of this assessment and decision-making process have already helped contribute towards some of the welcome incremental improvements DWP has made.  But, we hope for more when DWP’s Health & Disability Green Paper is published later this year.

Covid has changed many things, not least the way we deliver our own advice services.  But it has also exposed the holes torn in the UK’s Social Security system over the past decade.  Nothing could better illustrate that than the Chancellor’s decision in March to uprate the Standard Allowance for Universal Credit (UC) by an extra £20 to £95 a week – restoring its value after a five-year “freeze”.  He and the Prime Minister knew newly-unemployed claimants who have been paying National Insurance for years would be shocked and outraged at being asked to live on just £74.35 a week.  It was politically impossible not to act.

DWP officials have, however, now revealed that Ministers originally asked that the increase only be applied to those who made their claim for UC after the pandemic broke.  When forced to accept this would probably be illegal as well as immoral, they extended it to all UC claimants.  However, they have pointedly refused to uplift JSA, ESA and Income Support by the same rate.  Sadly, Paul passed away just before the Chancellor’s decision, but I’ve got a pretty good idea what he would have said about it – it takes the Government’s narrative about the deserving and undeserving poor to new depths.

We look forward to the day when we are able to get our drop-in advice sessions back up and running again.  But, in the meantime, we are determined to help as many people as possible navigate and overcome this broken Social Security system.  We have extended the hours for our advice hotline and are helping an increasing number of disabled people to do their appeal virtually at online Tribunals.  Our new Chief Executive, Anela Anwar actually joined us during the lockdown, and has really stepped up to the challenge of leading the organisation through such a difficult time especially as she has had to do it all remotely.  The team are now working hard to get Z2K ready for the expected increase in cases when lockdown ends.

The need for Z2K, and organisations like us, has never been greater.  Covid exposed the structural failings in our Social Security system.  It compounded the problems already faced by millions of households. It has exposed millions of households to serious financial vulnerability, and the vagaries of the Social Security system, for the first time.

But, I’m afraid to say that the full economic impact of Covid on households is yet to be felt.  This will emerge once the furlough scheme and other protection measures against eviction are wound down and stopped.  Until we see a sustained economic recovery (and that recovery feeds through into a recovery in jobs and incomes), the next few years will be difficult for the people we support and represent.  So, we will have to intensify our efforts to support people without losing sight of our main campaigning goal of restoring dignity and respect to the Welfare State in the way its founders envisaged.

It would be odd to ‘celebrate’ anything at the moment given the appalling loss of life and economic crisis caused by Covid.  But, at such an important milestone for Z2K, I couldn’t let the moment pass without saying a big, heartfelt thanks to the brilliant staff, volunteers, funders and supporters, and clients who have contributed so much to our work over these past 15 years.  Together, we have achieved a great deal, we will achieve even more.

We might not be able to get together physically to mark Z2K’s official birthday.  But, wherever you are, let’s raise a glass quietly today in recognition of a small organisation that makes a big impact.