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The issue with the Big Issue

The transformation of Big Issue vendors and the war against noticing

Artillery Row

Over my years of living in London, I have been fascinated with the transformation in the profile of your average Big Issue vendor from a homeless British man to a not-homeless Romani-Gypsy woman. The latter group is selling the magazine as part of an organised enterprise and is highly unlikely to be actually homeless, which always seemed to me like such an obvious perversion of the original purpose of the Big Issue that I was always astonished it was allowed to continue, and yet it has done so for over a decade.

Whilst in its practical effects this phenomenon is hardly of great importance, symbolically it is an almost perfect allegory for two important broader contemporary issues. The first one is what happens to institutions that are designed for one culture when they meet a very different one. The second one is how progressive ideology inhibits people from openly “noticing” and correcting the situation.

The Big Issue was founded in 1991 with the belief that the key to solving the problem of homelessness lay in offering a way for rough-sleepers to help themselves via earning a legitimate income, instead of begging. This, I believe, is still the commonly understood reason for the magazine’s existence amongst the general public, i.e. that you would purchase something which you would probably not otherwise purchase in order to help a homeless person back on their feet. The Big Issue operated largely in this way for the first decade or two of its existence, but after the enlargement of the EU in the 2000s, large numbers of Roma started to migrate from Eastern Europe to Britain. From 2011 to 2013 a number of articles in publications such as The Times, the Telegraph, the Daily Mail and even the Guardian revealed that a large proportion of Big Issue vendors were now Roma (over half in some areas). The magazines would be collected in bulk by “men in cars” from the Big Issue depots, then distributed to the pitches together with the mostly female vendors who would sell them (the classic vendor profile of a woman in the headscarf and long skirt), who would then be picked up again at the end of the day by the same “men in cars”. This situation was enabled by a change in the Big Issue’s policies, meaning that vendors no longer had to be homeless to sell it. The Roma vendors, whilst undoubtedly operating in an economically marginal position, were not homeless in any commonly understood sense. It was further revealed in reporting that one of the motivations for them to be selling the Big Issue at the time was that it allowed the vendors to register as self-employed, claim certain benefits, and enable their family members to work in Britain. In one especially farcical case, “a woman who set herself up as a consultant to help Roma who wanted to sell the magazine, Lavinia Olmazu, was jailed for helping 172 of her countrymen illegally claim a total of £2.9million in benefits with the help of false documents”.

The early 2010s articles on the subject come complete with promises to “crack down” from figures in the government like Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions at the time. Then after about 2014 the issue drops out of the media, with only the occasional bemused post querying the bizarre situation on the forums where you can see into the real unfiltered British psyche: Netmums, Gransnet, Digitalspy, etc. The Big Issue then settled into a new equilibrium quite different to its original intentions. Whilst many vendors remain genuine homeless people, if the streets of London are anything to go by then it is now predominantly merely another income stream for the Roma, albeit surely a meagre one.

An institution that was set up for a particular environment has now been transformed in a way that no one ever intended. No one is necessarily breaking any official rules here: the Big Issue’s vendor requirements are now loose enough that anyone in an economically precarious position can qualify, and they are open that a majority of their vendors are now not homeless. It still relies though on this legacy “help the homeless” idea for its image with the public, even though this is now not largely what it does. No one would ever have designed things to work this way: in 1991 the idea that a particular community would take to a social enterprise designed to help the homeless as just another income stream simply wouldn’t have occurred to people.

The Big Issue’s founder John Bird has a great quote in a 2010 interview: “I’d love to be a liberal because they’re the nice people but it’s really hard work — I can’t swallow their gullibility and I think their ideas are stupid.” I think you can see this original clear-eyed sentiment in the way the Big Issue was originally designed, and in the way the magazine currently works you can see how this sentiment has been lost.

I can almost hear Tony Soprano protesting that he is merely part of a large, loving family

One thing the change exemplifies very well is the inability or unwillingness of Western liberals and progressives to understand forms of social organisation that do not work on the basis of liberal individualism. You can see this in the language of the aforementioned Guardian article from 2011: “Large numbers … have ended up selling the Big Issue in the North. Around half of all the magazine’s vendors in northern England are Roma.” The language indicates that this situation “just happened”, in the way that a traditional 1990s Big Issue vendor may have fallen out of society and found themselves homeless through a series of unfortunate events. There are huge numbers of economically precarious people in Britain, including many illegal immigrants (the Big Issue does not require any proof of ID to become a vendor). If it were just a matter of these people “ending up” selling the Big Issue, you wouldn’t have Roma women, who after all are a miniscule proportion of the economically precarious population of Britain, making up such a massive proportion of the vendors.

The Big Issue themselves have a somewhat hilarious article “addressing the misconceptions” about their Roma vendors: “Secondly, and most importantly, though, the vendors, usually men, mistaken for gang operatives are in fact simply fortunate enough to come from large, loving families. To save time and money, it is common for large families in which multiple members sell Big Issue North to pool financial resources to purchase a car, which one member can then use to buy everyone’s magazines for the week and to drive their partner, siblings, parents, children, cousins, aunts or uncles who also sell the magazine to and from their pitches.” Sounds lovely! I can almost hear Tony Soprano protesting that he is merely part of a large, loving family. Both the “misconception” and its “correction” can both be true; there is not necessarily a clear distinction between an extended family and a gang in these situations, though the article implies that the former precludes the latter. Considering the organised nature of the phenomenon, it beggars belief that there is not some amount of money being funnelled up the chain: the “men in cars” are unlikely to be driving around for nothing. In any case though, the point is not really about whether criminality is involved, but about the unintended transformation of the institution.

As mentioned, the fate of the Big Issue is hardly up there on the list of the country’s most pressing problems, but the drivers behind this phenomenon are similar to those behind larger, more significant ones. The perversion of the institution’s original purpose can also be seen in the case-law driven expansion of the remit of the ECHR such that it can rule on questions of asylum that it was never intended to. The deliberate refusal to allow “noticing”, when the system is being played, can also be seen in the shrill and brittle assertions from the left-wing media that the young men paying gangs to smuggle them over the channel are genuine refugees in any commonly understood sense. Like these economic migrants disguising themselves as refugees, the entry of the Roma into the “Big Issue business” is a rational decision. It does not necessarily imply personal immorality; they are simply taking advantage of the opportunities made legally available to them. The problem lies deeper, in the refusal of many liberal progressives to understand how most of the world really works and to make institutions robust to how it does.

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