Paul Nicolson is a wine merchant, a minister and a lifetime battler for people who struggle to fight for themselves against the unjust and powerful. He had some stories for the The Mint.
Paul’s family business sold Champagne. He went to public school and did his National Service with the GreenJackets – a“very posh” regiment where he received a commission. “We thought we were much posher than any of theother regiments. And we looked down on the Guards,” he declares.
So some years later, how and why did Paul Nicolson befriend and work alongside the Labour party’s then notorious left wing breakaway group Militant.
Well naturally that would be when Paul and a bunch of his chums made national news for refusing to pay their Poll tax Militant’s was the only offer of support they had .“They were the only people, literally the only people – not the Church, not the Conservative Party, not the Labour Party,” says Paul with an apparently undiminished disappointment.
“I didn’t join them, but I worked with them. Like I do with anybody who works with, and for, the poor. That’s my role,” says Paul.
And it’s a role he’s filled for more than half a century. Along the way he has acquired a notoriety as a challenger of the powerful and defender of the powerless and he has many tales to tell of his exploits and he is eager to tell them. But he has a few “preludes” he wanted to offer The Mint.
For example, after completing his National Service: “Two glorious years doing absolutely nothing serious in the army, mostly in Germany,” he returned to the family business selling Verve Clicquot Champagne. A stint in France followed then it was back to Hertfordshire to the family home where he became a warden at the Next was ordination. “I finally found that I had to let the Church decide whether or not they wanted to ordain this strange wine merchant. And much to my astonishment, and the astonishment of all
my friends in the wine trade, they said yes. And I’ve never ceased to be surprised. And I really mean that.”
Paul was was one of the first to be ordained as a minister in secular employment otherwise know as a non- stipendiary minister. Meaning he had a job as well as dog collar. Some Bishops were not sure in 1967 about this new ministry in secular employment. That was settled by his theological college principal, the soon- to-be Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie. Runcie declared that “Paul is scarred with episcopal incomprehension.”
And then it was off to chemical giant, ICI, where Paul worked as a personnel officer, “carrying the bags for the manwho negotiated with the trade unions.” Paul was impressed by the trade unions at ICI: “I built a very strong respect for both ICI and the trade unions: they’d got it right, about the relationship between the two, and the roles of both ofthem,” he tells The Mint.
“And then, things began to go a bit wrong,” says Paul. Already we are not surprised to hear this.
“I’m scared stiff, currently, of the idea that we might have no European human rights law at all.”
“I was very worried about the redundancy procedure; they were weeding out, ‘the inadequate, the unsuitable, and thetechnologically obsolescent,’ ” he says. This culling process was going on, Paul explains, ahead of the introduction of the then new Industrial Relations Act that was going to include provisions for unfair dismissal in tribunals. The company, Paul believes, was looking to avoid being called to account.
“I thought that was terribly unfair. And I said so. And that, politically, wasn’t very well-received. I found myself redundant.
But, my notice ran out about two days after the law actually came into force, on unfair dismissals. So, with the help of the Labour Correspondent at The Times, I took ICI to an industrial tribunal.
This was “one of the first, if not the first” of his battles with the mighty.
“I did it, not to get back at ICI, but simply because it was such an important piece of social legislation. I wanted to get the news out there that it existed,” he says. According to Paul the court “very stupidly, very puzzlingly” decided he was fairly dismissed so he couldn’t have been sacked.
In a reflection of the time Paul ceased the battle because of gossip arising simply because he was in court. “A very, very nice barrister, volunteered to take it to the High Court for me. But this was very big news; it was in the papers, certainly in the local papers, in Hertfordshire. And the headmaster of my children’s school, had to stand up and say, ‘Paul Nicholson is not a criminal.’You know, it was getting very difficult for the families. I had to call a halt and say, Okay, we’ll give this one a break.
“So that came to an end. I didn’t lose any money over it and I had prepared the way to take on more of a role on thetrade union side.” However, there then came the introduction of the closed shop in the early 1970s obliging workers to join a trade union. So Paul took on the trade unions.
“I had prepared the way to take on more of a role on the trade union side.”
“The closed shop, meant that the shop steward could go to the employer, and say, ‘This man won’t join the trade union.
Please sack him.’ And, of course, that was
contrary to all one feels about justice and fairness. And I’m totally in support of trade unions.
“But by now I’d got together with the general secretary of the staff association at Barclays Bank, and they wanted to start a federation of non-TUC trade unions. And so I was general secretary of that by now, and we got together all the non-TUC unions, either attached or formally, financing the exercise, and really opposing the closed shop.”
In the late ‘70s Paul got a call from a group of six men at Ferrybridge Power Station in West Yorkshire seeking his assistance. They had formed their own union only to be squeezed out by the established union which the six hadrefused to join.
“I asked Alan Pardoe, who’s now a QC, to do the work of representing them. And we won the case in court, because the procedure was wrong. The men never got their jobs back but, the immense amount of publicity about the closed shop, and that case, meant that as soon as the Conservative Party got in, the closed shop was abolished. So I had a hand in ensuring the closed shop was abolished.”
So next up was Turville, where he became the parish priest in 1982. And in the same year went head-to-head with Buckinghamshire council over a school closure under austerity cuts.
“We were there with a wonderful collection of cleaners, and we did all the shouting.”
This time it was unalloyed success. “We got wonderful support from John Mortimer, from Jeremy Paxman and from Paul Getty to buy the local school and turn it into a children’s holiday centre and an infant’s, nursery school for the children of the valley. So the holiday centre paid the rent on the building, and it’s been running holidays for the children ever since.
Paul’s tales carry a thread of remarkable resilience. But next came the Poll tax and a close shave with insolvency where his fortitude was truly tested.
Paul discovered that one of his parishoners – a man with legal custody of his hree small children, was profoundly in debt for unpaid poll tax. “His wife had pushed off. She was a drug addict, and she pushed off but he was a very sensible young man,” says Paul.
I went to court with him, and argued that he could not afford to pay the arrears. “It’s pretty terrifying for people. They’re at a committal hearing where they can be sent to prison. But the Magistrates have the discretion to let them off all or part of it.
“This guy was on benefits, and had £1,200 of tax which he couldn’t pay. He’d been living with his parents, and all of his children and the council came and said, ‘You’re overcrowded. We’ll move you to Slough.’Well, being very keen on his children’s education, the man would come from Slough every day to get them to school. That cost so much in petrol that he couldn’t pay the tax. When I explained all this to the magistrates, showed them his income, expenditure, and tax, they exercised their power to let him off all of his tax arrears.”
Meanwhile Paul was refusing to pay his own poll tax. “This was causing a wonderful stir in Henley-on-Thames,” he says.
Paul stoked the agitation by writing letters to the local newspaper on the obligation all Christians have to aid the poor. “I was able to argue all that out in the correspondence columns of the Henley Standard, where I had support and opposition. I mean, the local paper told me they’d never had so many letters before in their lives.”
Paul joined a group of “subversive academics” who were refusing to pay their poll tax bill. Murdy, Paul says, had been involved with the first case in which someone was imprisoned for non payment of poll tax. And the decision was overturned by the European Court of Human Rights.
Paul says he is concerned because it was the Conservative Party, that introduced poll tax enforcement: imprisonment for non-payment, without legal aid, or many other safeguards that criminals have. And as Brexit negotiations advance, he foresees the end of recourse to the European court. “I’m scared stiff, currently, of the idea that we might have no European law at all.
Because the UK Parliament can pass any law it likes, providing it has a majority,” he says.
“We knew there were just over a thousand unlawful imprisonments.”
Meanwhile Paul continues “campaigning like mad against the poll tax, working with anyone who would campaign against the poll tax.” He becomes very animated at this point: “I got a Parliamentary question asked. We knew there were just over a thousand unlawful imprisonments. But altogether there were over five thousand imprisonments; for non- payment of poll tax – that’s in three years.
So I asked the Parliamentary question: how many more were there than the thousand we knew about? And the answer came back, ‘We don’t keep a record of unlawful imprisonment for non payment of civil debts.’” Paul tells how he was subsequently phoned by the then Lord Chancellor’s department, now the Ministry of Justice, and asked how he knew there was a thousand unlawful imprisonments. “I said, well, I know the barrister. I’m going to bring him to see you. I’m going to bring Alan Murdy to see you as well.” So Paul, Ian Wise and Alan Murdy met eight officials at the Ministry of Justice.
And just prior to the meeting, Paul had learned that the bailiffs had given up dealing with vulnerable people. “I’d asked what procedure they used for vulnerable people. The bailiffs’ association, said ‘Oh no, they’re all vulnerable. We’ve given up doing anything about it.’ So I said, well, send me your rules that you’ve given up.”
Paul explains how he pushed the then abandoned procedures in front of the Ministry of Justice officials, and said, “Look. This is what they’re not doing any more.” He says the National Standards for Enforcement Agents, were subsequently amended to require bailiffs to return a case of vulnerable situation to the court, the council, or the predator.
“Richard Curtis very kindly gave us £10,000, and it was his fee for an episode of the Vicar of Dibley.”
“They’ve got rules for bailiffs, which are the same whichever debt they are enforcing. That’s still there, and must’ve been there for 20 years. The local authorities pay no attention –unless it’s drawn to their attention. The bailiffs are private companies and the first thing they want is their fees.”
On the subject of fees – there was the time when a celebrity donation of his fee put a spark in Paul’s campaigning, this time for a living wage. Paul explains: “Making some inquiries, I found that the government has no researchavailable on what the minimum income for healthy living is: how much the food cost, the minimum amount of food, how much fuel, and so on.”
Meanwhile, back in his parish, of St Mary the Virgin, Turville, they were filming the Vicar of Dibley. And, we assume separately, David Sainsbury, had arrived in the parish, having called himself Lord Sainsbury of Turville.
Paul contacted the Family Budget Union, to request it did some research into the cost of healthy living. “They were very excited, and I said, well, let me have a research proposal. And let me have a research proposal for a hundred thousand pounds, because this has got to be done properly; it is desperately important. And they did.”
Paul says he wrote to Lord Sainsbury and said, “I’m sorry to greet you with a block buster like this, but I’m looking fora £100,000.” He then sent Sainsbury the research proposal. Sainsbury’s Gatsby Foundation trust, provided £40,000 and it built up from there: Barclays gave £10,000; Barnardo’s, £10,000; and “last, and most important, the one that turned it on, was Richard Curtis; who very kindly gave us £10,000, and it was his fee for an episode of the Vicar of Dibley.
When the research was published in1999 by the Policy Press and Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, (which Paul founded) hetook it to Unison. “I made a date with a man called Peter Morris. Who had spent 20 years campaigning for the National Minimum Wage. And the National Minimum Wage had just come in,” says Paul and adds: “I had this wonderful book, it was a major bit of work, which I handed to Peter, and Peter’s immediate comment was, ‘We’ve now got the National Minimum Wage. The issue is now adequacy.’“ The timing, as Paul says, was “astonishing.”
Unison’s Deborah Littman and Catherine Howarth, of London Citizens, took the research to GLA Economics. And between them, with campaigning from London Citizens and from Unison, they persuaded Ken Livingstone tointroduce the London Living Wage.
He laments that the Treasury has not yet underpinned the Living Wage with the appropriate research into the minimum income for healthy living; “so it has the name but not the substance. And that, in a way, is a pity.”
But Paul is still kept busy. The Living Wage is looked after by a group of employers, the Living Wage Foundation, which is persuading other employers to take the Living Wage. Paul’s involvement in the early stages of that, includedshouting along with a Unite demonstration for contract cleaners outside global consultancy KPMG.
“We were there with a wonderful collection of cleaners, and we did all the shouting. Then we went in and spoke to the management, and they were very, very embarrassed. And I thought, Oh! wonderful, let’s go and do some more shouting. And then a KPMG manager said ‘It’s not the shouting. We’ve been telling our employees that we’re the best employers in the world, and you’ve just shown us we are not.’” This, Paul says, was because the sub- contracted cleaners were not subject to all KPMG’s outstandingly fair rules. But KPMG, Paul says, “agreed toeverything.” It put cleaners on the same type of terms and conditions of employment as every other employee, even though they were contracted out and they came into the company. They introduced a Living Wage, and provided the case for everyone else to introduce the Living Wage. “KPMG were a very, very leading light in the whole launch of the Living Wage to other employers,” says Paul. “As were most of the banks. It’s been employer-led.”
Ulterior motives? Paul thinks not. “They were very positive about it. No ulterior motive. Entirely commercial. If you’ve got a proper wage, you get less turnover of staff. You get less sickness.”
Paul wraps up our interview because he has to join a protest against mothers and children being separated under thebenefits
regime. His mischievousness on display when talking about the living wage demo has gone. His sadness isunguarded: “I am due to go on a demonstration outside the family court, at half past twelve, which is with women whoare having their children taken away from them by the Social Services. And it causes unbelievable grief, and it’s being done with massive insensitivity to women who are under pressure, under this dreadful benefits regime.
“Of course, they’re in trouble, and in difficulty, and not managing. You can’t cope when you don’t have any money when you have piles of debts and you’ve got three government departments leaning on you. So it’s sad, it’s sad.
“You can’t cope when you don’t have any money when you have piles of debts and you’ve got three government departments leaning on you.”
“I dealt with a case and supported a single mother who had all her children taken away. Because we argued about it, shegot to keep her two youngest, but she had eight children. And it was very sad because she loved them. And they loved her. It wasn’t a … there was no violence, no damage to them.
So they were taken because she was impoverished? Paul answers quietly: “Because she was untidy. Because it was overcrowded, because it was impossible to be tidy.” Even with his seasoned battle sensibilities, his disbelief is deafening.