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John Bird: I’ll use my time in parliament to tackle the prevention of poverty

"I used to wash up in the Houses of Parliament kitchens. Now I'm a Lord, and want opportunities for all to be addressed"

Back in the days when I and most of the young men I knew looked like the young Al Pacino or Russell Brand, or even Che Guevara, among other jobs I was employed as a washer-up in the Houses of Parliament. It was a security-free world then. You could walk straight into parliament from the underground station. Not a check was in effect.

I was a young Marxist-cum-grumbling anti-establishment, shoplifting, drinking, drug-taking, enemy of the privileged – and much sought after by the men in blue for former crimes; listening to Brand’s complaints and quips against capitalism these days has a very strong sense of deja vu about it.

I did not do well in the kitchens of parliament. Unable to keep my Marxist mouth shut, I soon annoyed the other staff, and in particular the cook. Her suggestions were along the line that I should try Russia, where a lipstick stain on a tea cup might lead to a public execution. Or a long period of custody in the frozen parts.

I did not last long and ended up driving a forklift truck in a North Acton industrial estate, unhappy that I had queered my pitch at the mother of all parliaments. I had planned on building a cell of the disillusioned, from the appallingly paid staff, who were mostly got from a temporary agency. Yet because of my grumbling ‘youthy’ contempt as they called it, I had to go back to the agency and be reallocated.


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Last Tuesday, though, to confound predictions about me from police officers, prison warders, teachers and my own mum, I got out of the grief, and as if to underline it was made a member of the House of Lords.

It was the strangest day of my life. I have not had a day like it when so many messages of encouragement came thick and fast. With the odd one about how I was getting above myself or that the House was a den of vipers.

I did some interviews and insisted on the theme I have been running with, with regard to my work, for quite a while. That I have been seen as a good thinker outside the box, yet the box itself needs to be changed. That we need to make governments work better. And that that needs getting right there into the centre of decision-making.

And into the box itself. However well we may perform, the thousands and thousands of social enterprises and charities and projects – at the drop of a hat government policy can change everything. Of course we must continue to do projects and our filling in of the holes left in the safety net. But if we can get close enough to decision-making then we stand a chance of influencing policy and law.

The Big Issue will continue its provisioning, and I will continue with my work with it. But having a new platform can only do us and our work good.

If we can get close enough to decision-making then we stand a chance of influencing policy and law

Preventing people becoming the next generation of Big Issue vendors, and the new poor and left behind, must be at the top of all of our considerations. Social security must become a means of providing security for those who are unable to aid themselves, and a means of social mobility for those who up to now have lacked a future. Unable to participate in the largess of plenty that those with education have been able to participate in.

Unfortunately, the largess of plenty also shows signs of being a thing of the past, with too many young people, highly educated through university, unable to get a job that befits their labours and abilities. A shrinking of chance has to be addressed in all areas of society, and that must be the kind of issues raised in parliament.

My big idea that I wish to bring to parliament is around the need to PREVENT the problems arising in the first instance. I cannot think of a more important role you could carry out in parliament. That does not mean abandoning today’s needs. But it does mean that we have to prevent today’s problems becoming tomorrow’s problems also. I’ll let you know how I’m getting on. And how being independent of political masters feels, and how useful it is.

I used to wash up for democracy. I hope to be more useful this time.

John Bird is the Founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue. Email him: or tweet: @johnbirdswords