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Protest, predictions and COP26: The Big Issue’s top news stories of 2021

This was the year The Big Issue expanded its news coverage, aiming to shine a light on the causes of poverty and homelessness, not just its solutions.

Let’s face it, 2021 wasn’t the easiest of years. But between the pandemic and economic uncertainty there are glimmers of hope, rays of rejuvenation where people are still fighting to make the world a more positive place for themselves and each other. Finding those moments, lifting them up and empowering people’s ability to change for the better is what The Big Issue has always been about.

This was the year The Big Issue expanded its news coverage, aiming to shine a light on the causes of poverty and homelessness as well as its solutions. The revamped Big Issue website is a destination for anyone concerned about or affected by the big social issues affecting modern Britain, from housing and homelessness to employment, activism, inequality and the environment, where readers can find out what’s happening and why, who is being affected, and what they can do about it.

We’ll continue to cover these issues in depth and detail in 2022, dismantling poverty and creating opportunity for our vendors and our readers wherever we can. But for now these are the most-read news stories published on The Big Issue site over the last year.

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10. What will the world look like in 2050?

Will the world in 2050 be an overheated smoggy mess? Or will we have global warming under control? ILlustraion by James Mackay

2050 is the year set by many countries as the deadline to go carbon neutral. So what might the world look like then?

In the build-up to the COP26 conference, Big Issue reporter Sarah Wilson spoke to academics and experts from fields as diverse as architecture and fashion to get an understanding of what the future might look like.

Her narrative retelling of the predictions, detailing the outcomes dependent on whether or not those carbon-cutting targets are hit, was a riveting read of the near future. Read the full thing here.

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9 ‘Cold and callous’: The Uber Eats algorithm is sacking people automatically

Abiodun Ogunyemi was terminated by Uber Eats after failing its facial recognition software and he’s not alone, unions say. Image: Abiodun Ogunyemi

Shining a light on the causes of poverty also means addressing the nature of work, an area The Big Issue will continue to expand on in 2022. And where technology and the gig economy has revolutionised the jobs market, it is not always in a positive sense.

Abiodun Ogunyemi, an Uber Eats driver in Manchester, had an approval rating of 94 per cent when he was sacked automatically by the tech firm’s app after it failed to recognise him. He is one of hundreds or couriers and private hire drivers – the majority of whom are people of colour – who say they’ve been unfairly fired by an algorithm, according to the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain.

Read the full story.

8. Video exposing Boris Johnson’s ‘lies’ to Parliament hits 20 million views

Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits Colchester Hospital
Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits Colchester Hospital the day after Dominic Cummings made accusations of widespread lying in his cabinet. Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

It’s no secret that Boris Johnson has been sacked twice in his career for lying, once for fabricating quotes as a journalist at The Times and once as shadow arts minister for lying about an affair.

Now lawyer and campaigner Peter Stefanovic has made it his mission to shine a light on mistruths told by Johnson as prime minister. His video detailing falsehoods delivered from the dispatch box was first published on Twitter in August 2020 and hit 20 million views in May 2021.

Since then it has more than doubled to over 40 million views and Peter is pushing on for 50.

Read the story here and watch the video below.

7. ‘What kidnappers do’ – DWP forcing universal credit claimants to pose for photo with daily paper

universal credit
The director general for universal credit said the process was part of verifying universal credit claims post-lockdown. Image: Pexels

Barely a fortnight had passed after the £20-per-week increase was rescinded before the Department for Work and Pensions started to clamp down on universal credit claimants.

In demands posted to a claimant’s universal credit journal, a DWP employee asked for a series of photographs to prove the individual’s identity, including outside on their street and with a newspaper.

The instructions did not state what the claimant should do if they did not have access to a smart phone, could not get another person’s help to take the photos in the time given, could not reach their local street sign, if a daily local newspaper was not published in their area or if they could not afford to buy one.

That last point is “what kidnappers do”, said the Public Interest Law Centre at the time.

Read the full story here.

6. How Priti Patel’s new policing bill threatens your right to protest

police crime sentencing and courts bill
The Prime Minister Boris Johnson accompanied by the Home Secretary Priti Patel visit North Yorkshire Police HQ in July 2020. Picture by Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street

Former prime minister Theresa May and former home secretary Lord Blunkett are among the more high profile names to have voiced concerns about how much more power the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill would give police and the home secretary.

With so much much consternation about what it contains, we wanted to make sure we could spell out the details for readers.

The full document spans more than 300 pages and covers everything from new sentences for child abuse to forcing frontline workers to give personal data to the police, increasing stop-and-search powers, cracking down on protests and stop Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities pitching up on private land.

The bill has already been approved by MPs and is now passing through the final stages in the House of Lords.

Read the full explainer, which we update regularly, here.

5. How many people are homeless in the UK? And what can you do about it?

homelessness

How do you define homelessness? For many, the first image that springs to mind is a sleeping bag on a wet pavement, of someone sleeping on the streets. But hundreds of thousands in the UK are sleeping on sofas, in bed and breakfasts, hostels and temporary accommodation each year.

It’s a hard thing to quantify but understanding the problem is the first step in solving it. Helping people who have hit rock bottom is at the core of The Big Issue’s social mission, so we keep this article updated with the latest homelessness figures and advice on what anyone can do to help.

4. The COP26 menu is ‘like serving cigarettes at a lung cancer conference’

A cheeseburger at COP26 has a carbon footprint of 3.4 kg, double the UK average for a single meal. File picture from Pexels

As the world’s attention turned to the UN climate conference COP26 in November, our reporter Sarah Wilson joined the great and good in Glasgow to find out what the future has in store.

Alongside the reporting of innovators, campaigners, politicians and protests, one story caught the attention of a huge number of readers.

Despite aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save the planet from rising temperatures, items in the official conference canteen had a carbon footprint as much as seven times higher than the recommended average.

“It’s like serving cigarettes at a lung cancer conference,” said Joel Scott-Halkes, a spokesperson for campaign group Animal Rebellion. “As long as such illogical decisions are being made, the climate emergency will never be resolved.“ 

Find out what was on the menu here, and read all our coverage from COP26 here.

3. Universal credit: What is it and why does the £20 cut matter?

A combination of sickness, government restrictions, and fewer people visiting businesses pushed millions into poverty over the course of the pandemic, even while they were in work, and the government responded by increasing universal credit payments by £20 a week.

The number of claimants doubled — rising to six million at the start of 2021 — but Chancellor Rishi Sunak insisted the £20 increase was only ever temporary. Taking away what amounted to £1,000 a year would be devastating for millions of households across the country, campaigners argued in a hard-fought battle across the year to make the payments permanent. But it was a fight they would lose.

This explainer from The Big issue’s Hannah Westwater tracked the changing details of the debate around universal credit as it evolved across the year.

2. What are the Kill the Bill protests?

kill the bill protests
Protesters on the Kill the Bill march in London, April 3. Paul Easton/Flickr

Kill The Bill protests were a regular feature of 2021, as activists from across the political spectrum united to oppose the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill, one of a number of controversial proposals put forward by Boris Johnson’s government that have been met with strong resistance.

The PCSC Bill aims to introduce new restrictions on protests, such as the ability to impose “conditions” on any protest which is deemed to be disruptive to the local community and up to 10 years in prison for damaging memorials, such as statues.

“This will be the biggest widening of police powers to impose restrictions on public protest that we’ve seen in our lifetimes,” Chris Daw QC, a leading barrister and author, told The Big Issue.

“The bill hands over the power of deciding whether a protest is justified or should be allowed — decisions we as citizens have had for generations — directly to the Home Secretary. That’s an extremely chilling development. It’s completely contradictory to everything the liberty of the free citizen is about in Britain.”

This explainer on the protests has been regularly updated by The Big Issue team across the year, making it one of our most read stories in 2021.

1. Viral photo of freezing soup kitchen queue branded a ‘national failure’

Glasgow soup kitchen queue
Kindness Homeless Street Team say more than 200 people queued up in sub-zero temperatures for food. Credit: Kindness Homeless Street Team

As winter and lockdowns gripped the country in February, The Big Issue broke the story of hundreds of people queueing in arctic conditions to get a warm meal in Glasgow.

Laura McSorley, from Summerston, Glasgow, set up Kindness Homeless in October 2019 and received a Points of Light award from Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2020, who praised her for providing a “much-needed sense of comfort” during the pandemic.

But Scottish officials called on the Westminster government to do more to make sure people in poverty or at risk received more support.

“The problem is that if we don’t do it then who is going to? It’s about stepping up to the mantle and making sure that these people are supported and services are provided for them,” said Andy Lockhard, the managing director of a finance company who volunteers for Kindness Homeless community group.

The Big Issue’s Liam Geraghty returned to the scene six months later, in July, to see if conditions were any better in the summer.

“Nothing has changed in terms of what we’re doing, except we are providing help to a lot more people and it’s people from different circumstances that are coming into our queue now,” Laura McSorley said.

Read the original story — the most-read news article on The Big Issue website — here and the follow up in July here.

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