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Big Issue vendors visit the House of Lords

Big Issue founder John Bird invites Big Issue vendors to his first parliamentary reception at the House of Lords

John Bird and vendor at the House of Lords

Big Issue vendor André Rostant reports on an historic day in the House of Lords…

A new big beast is stirring inside the Palace of Westminster.

At the end of February John Bird – founder of The Big Issue, now The Lord Bird, Baron of Notting Hill – made his maiden speech at the House Of Lords [watch below]. And today, staying true to his word, his key first act was to throw open the doors of Parliament to a gang of friends made up mostly of Big Issue vendors (around 20 in number) past and present.

“It’s a great privilege to be with people who are struggling to get out of the grief that I personally left behind many decades ago,” he said, welcoming us all.

As one might expect, there were crust-free sandwiches – coronation chicken and, of course, cucumber. Tea and coffee abounded: it tastes that much better in House of Lords crockery, on the Lords terrace, overlooking the Thames.

It’s a great privilege to be with people who are struggling to get out of the grief that I personally left behind many decades ago

Many years ago, Bird worked in the kitchen at the Palace of Westminster. He made sure to bring attention to the hard work of the staff this afternoon. “I’ve come full circle,” he said.

He also thanked Gordon Roddick [pictured below with Bird], co-founder of The Big Issue, who came along to toast the success of current and former vendors, across almost 25 years. “Thank you for first arguing with me in that Edinburgh pub in 1967,” he joked.

John Bird and Gordon Roddick at the House of Lords

Former vendors at the party included Mark Dempster, a former addict turned successful Harley Street therapist; James Bowen, now an international best selling author with his Street Cat Bob series [both pictured below, Bowen on the left]; and Marvina Eseoghene, who has founded her own charity Angel of Youths to help disadvantaged children.

“I’ve been clean for 20 years and I have The Big Issue to thank for where I am today,” said Dempster.

Bowen added: “Before I started selling The Big Issue I was homeless and struggling with addiction. It helped transformed my life and now I’ve just moved into a new home. I wouldn’t be where I am today without The Big Issue.”

James Bowen and Mark Dempster at the House of Lords

Lord Young – the sitting Conservative housing minister when The Big Issue was founded – spoke briefly to welcome John to the House of Lords and to reflect upon how the upper chamber is moving away from the old system of political patronage. Indeed, Lord Bird volunteered to join and as a crossbencher, owes no allegiance to any political party.

His appointment by the independent House of Lords Appointments Commission is based on his life experience of the matters closest to the heart of The Big Issue: social deprivation, poverty, prison and how socially-based entrepreneurialism can make a real difference to lives.

Lord Bird will concentrate on trying to get at the roots of poverty, he said. To this end, The Big Issue is working toward a conference later this year on preventing poverty.

Mary Holden, who sells the magazine by London’s Millennium Bridge spoke of the pride her family had felt at the occasion. Other vendors included Muswell Hill duo John Gregg and Rose Fu, among many others.

As The Big Issue approaches its landmark 25th birthday, the organisation is rocking Parliament. As they say, better to be inside the tent.

André Rostant is a writer and Big Issue vendor. He sells the magazine in Soho, London

Photographs: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Watch Lord Bird’s maiden speech:

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
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