House of Lords throws open its doors to Big Issue vendors

At Parliament today, Big Issue founder Lord John Bird hosted a reception for vendors – also attended by Sajid Javid and actress Andrea Riseborough

The hallowed halls of Westminster welcomed some truly unique guests today, with Big Issue sellers from all across the nation descending on Parliament.

Lord John Bird, who founded the magazine in 1991, hosted magazine vendor and staff – not to mention a Hollywood actor and Cabinet Minister – to the historic house for an unforgettable reception.

This included British actress and friend of The Big Issue, Andrea Riseborough, who took the time to stop by on a fleeting trip to London from her Los Angeles home to mingle with vendors and show her support.

I knew a lot of friendly faces selling The Big Issue growing up in Newcastle

“It’s a real pleasure to be here, to meet John Bird and the magazine vendors,” Riseborough said. “I knew a lot of friendly faces selling The Big Issue growing up in Newcastle. They were a part of my community and life growing up.

“I now live in Los Angeles and there is a huge homeless community there. It breaks my heart to think that there are people out there who are struggling. The illusion that it’s their own choice makes me angry.”

Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, stopped by to meet vendors and praised the work of The Big Issue in helping tens of thousands of men and woman lift themselves out of poverty since 1991.

“I’m delighted to welcome The Big Issue here to parliament,” Javid said. “I first came across The Big Issue when I first came to London with my dad and I saw someone selling the magazine. We bought a copy and I always have since.

“I’d like to thank the Big Issue vendors for being here, to thank those that have faced adversity and taken the opportunity to help themselves. It’s great to meet you all.

The work you do transforms people’s lives

“I want to acknowledge how much the group has grown since. As an organisation, with the Foundation and Big Issue Invest, you have given a voice to so many people and their concerns, and helped them with their challenges.

DID YOU KNOW…

The Big Issue magazine is read by an estimated 379,195 people across the UK and circulates 82,294 copies every week.

“Today is an opportunity to you thank you all for what you do. The work you do transforms people’s lives.”

Speaking on the government’s attempts to tackle rising homelessness and poverty levels in Britain, Javid highlighted the recently passed Homelessness Reduction Bill, his desire to see Britain adopt a similar approach to Finland’s radical ‘Housing First’ strategy, and the Conservative election pledge to “half rough sleeping by 2022 and eliminate it by 2027”.

He added: “Clearly there is a problem in this country. Just one person that is homeless is one too many.”

A cross-bench peer appointed to the House of Lords in October 2015, Lord Bird also told stories of working in the café at parliament when he was “on the run from the police”, of vendors past and present, and his own experiences of homelessness and poverty.

“I’m 71, I’m showing off,” he said. “This is a real privilege. Parliament is for everyone and that’s exactly what this day is all about.”

Sajid Javid gives a speech at the House of Lords vendors reception
Sajid Javid gives a speech at the House of Lords vendors reception

Lord Bird also offered a nod to The Big Issue’s most well-known ex-magazine seller – former Islington vendor turned publishing sensation James Bowen (and Street Cat Bob) – when introducing the area’s newest vendor, Mary. “Get yourself a cat, put it on your shoulder – you’ll make a fortune!” he laughed.

For fellow Islington vendor William Herbert, the Houses of Parliament have become a familiar sight recently after he was invited by Lord Bird to attend the official state opening of Parliament last month (after which he appeared as a magazine cover star).

Get yourself a cat, put it on your shoulder – you’ll make a fortune!

“I really like coming here,” he said. “I’ve loved telling my customers that I’m going to the House of Lords. It’s great that Lord Bird invites vendors from across the country, for some food and to get together. I wouldn’t miss it for anything.

“I get recognised in my local area even more since my picture was on the cover of the magazine. I signed a few autographs that week.”

“This is my first time in the House of Lords,” said Donato Barbieri (above), who sells the magazine at Victoria station. “I feel very important – I will remember being here for my whole life.

I feel like I’m famous now

“I walk past all the time to get to my pitch. I’m so happy to be here, meeting new people working for the Big Issue – everyone is nice.

“John Bird is a very pleasant man. He gave a funny speech. We’re the same age, 71. I feel like I’m famous now!”

Lord John Bird with Andrea Riseborough
Lord John Bird with Andrea Riseborough

Gareth, who sells the magazine less than a few minutes walk from the Lords, added: “I’ve been in the chamber before to see debates. Years ago, I went on a guided tour of the Houses of Parliament, but it feels very different being invited here by a Lord!”

Joining Mary, William, Gareth and Donato included fellow vendors Polly and Dean from Cardiff, Jim from Nottingham, Andrew from Exeter, Ollie and Lynne from Birmingham, Paul from Bristol, and Iain from Bath, among many others.