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Opinion: Three decades after the poll tax was introduced people still risk prison for not paying

PUBLISHED: 13:00 02 May 2019 | UPDATED: 14:24 03 May 2019

Rev Paul Nicolson outside the Royal Courts of Justice on 24.02.16 .Polly Hancock

Rev Paul Nicolson outside the Royal Courts of Justice on 24.02.16 .Polly Hancock

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I am a member of the Haringey Fairness Commission, together with men and women from NGOs and a few Haringey councillors too.

File photo dated 04/06/86 of Margaret Thatcher who has been voted the worst Prime Minister of the last 100 years by an association of historical writers, just pipping David Cameron to the unenviable title.File photo dated 04/06/86 of Margaret Thatcher who has been voted the worst Prime Minister of the last 100 years by an association of historical writers, just pipping David Cameron to the unenviable title.

I am a member of the Haringey Fairness Commission, together with men and women from NGOs and a few Haringey councillors.

Having spent the past 40 years fighting unfairness, I am clear about the criteria I look for when taking on a battle. Here are two examples of unfair practice against which I have campaigned: the closed shop and the poll tax.

First, the closed shop. The Labour Party's Trade Union and Labour Relations (Amendment) “https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/acts/trade-union-and-labour-relations-amendment-act” received its Royal Assent on 25th March 1976. That law said an employee could be sacked who refused to join a trade when the employer had signed a closed-shop agreement with an trade union. The shop stewards could say “join or be sacked”.

I was approached by a family man employed by Vauxhall in Luton who, on principle, had made a stand against this requirement, and six men employed at Ferrybridge Power Station in West Yorkshire who had joined the wrong union, all of them seeking support after they had been fired. I had to tell the first man there was nothing I could do for him, because that was the law; but, with the help of two pro bono lawyers, the six other men appealed to the High Court. They won their case, but never got their jobs back. I am a member of the Unite Community union and an avid supporter of trade unions. The case for unions is very strong, given the benefits to workers, so I oppose the way the law is used to strengthen the power of employers and weaken ours.

Rev Paul Nicolson outside the Royal Courts of Justice on 24.02.16 .Polly HancockRev Paul Nicolson outside the Royal Courts of Justice on 24.02.16 .Polly Hancock

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Second, the poll tax. It was the Conservative Party who introduced the tax in the Local Government Finance Act 1988. It started in Scotland and reached England in 1990. In my parish, a well-off couple lived in a property worth over £1m, while, on the other side of the road, a couple of state pensioners paid rent for a small cottage to a wealthy landlord. The yearly rates of £2,000 paid by the well-off couple were reduced to £800 under the poll tax, while the rates of £200 paid by the state pensioners were increased to £800. Everyone, from the richest to the poorest, had to pay the same because the new tax was levied on the individual and no longer linked to the rateable value of their home. In another case that came to my notice, there were eight people paying rent for the house they shared in High Wycombe. An imam supporting my campaign against the poll tax told me they had to pay £3,200 in total, or £400 each, which was the fixed amount set by their council. Ian Wise QC, a barrister friend, overturned in the High Court more than 1,000 cases of imprisonment for non-payment of the poll tax, including that of a single mother who owed £20, a couple in their '80s who were incontinent in court, and another pensioner who appeared before the judge supported by a Zimmer frame.

In both of these cases, the closed shop and the poll tax, Parliament accorded more power to powerful organisations to abuse powerless individuals and families. But part of each of those laws was discretionary: unions and employers could choose whether or not to make closed-shop agreements, and councils and magistrates had the option of letting single mothers or pensioners off all or part of the poll tax if they could not afford to pay. Yet, three decades on, all late- and non-payers of council tax are threatened with being sent to prison

I am moved to action now by the distress of the individuals and families I meet who are suffering under the cosh of lawful oppression. Their distress is down to deprivation or the threat of deprivation. Psychologists have written about people being overcome by feelings of humiliation or shame, fear or distrust, insecurity or loneliness, or by a sense of being trapped and powerless under the abuses of power by the state. George Lakoff, in a book called The Political Mind, calls on us all to have “empathy, responsibility and courage” in standing upto such abuses.

All of which leads me to highlight a serious abuse of power in Tottenham. It is the local version of land-grabbing by national and international developers. They have plagued the United Kingdom with oppression similar to the enclosures of the 1750s, when the powerful barons enclosed small farms and common land for their private use. It began with the Thatcher government and has been let rip by all subsequent governments to the present day. The lives of renters and the livelihoods of small businesses are turned sour as a result.

It is an abuse of power for the property developer Lendlease, Tottenham Hotspur Football Club and Haringey Council to team up to force the small private companies of the Peacock Estate off the land they own and to demolish the Love Lane Estate to provide a smart walkway from the new White Hart Lane station to the otherwise very welcome new arena.

The Peacock Estate comprises more than 30 industrial units and 50 business entities. Those small and micro companies are freeholders and, at the same time, also have an equal share of the estate's communal land, which is a very large plot of nearly one hectare in a prime location with excellent transport links. Theirs is an active industrial estate where carpentry and joinery workshops, metalworking workshop, upholstery and antique-furniture restorers, MOT stations, a cake factory and a design studio are all operating, employing around 250 highly skilled tradespeople with a combined annual turnover of over £10m.

As for the Love Lane Estate, the lives of families and their children housed by the council in temporary occupation while its demolition is awaited, like those of the Peacock's business owners, managers and working people, they ought not to be subservient to the disruptive wishes of the powerful who want the land they live, love and work on. It is hard to imagine greater unfairness.

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