Founder of the Big Issue magazine, John Bird, lashed out at social workers and the Welfare State when he addressed the Union on Tuesday.
Bird said that, while he has great respect for many social workers, he believed that they were “wasting their time, creating dependent human beings” at an enormous cost to the state.
He reserved further vitriol for the UK’s social security system, which came in for some of the most trenchant and hard-hitting criticism of the evening.
Bird claimed that dependency on the state fosters “mind-forged manacles” of poverty: a lack of self-esteem, motivation and skills which, according to Bird, mean that many homeless people as well as others are “trapped in the underclass.”
In contrast, the Big Issue is a “business response to a social crisis which allows the homeless to be self-reliant whilst aiming to make a profit,” he said.
Born the son of a cockney drunkard and an Irishwoman in London, Bird claimed to have had a childhood “Samuel Beckett would have recognised” before running away and sleeping rough.
He claimed that these experiences, as well as his subsequent scuffles with the law, flirtations with Marxism and travels around the world, had proved an essential source of insight for his theories on social justice.
They also proved to be a rich mine of plenty of jokes as he sought to explain the theories and experiences behind his most famous project, the Big Issue magazine.
Central to the Big Issue project is the idea promoted on the front cover of each magazine: “working not begging.”
By providing the homeless with jobs, the Big Issue provides them with opportunities for independence, Bird said. This was better than dependence on charity or social security, he added.
But when questioned, Bird freely admitted that the Big Issue itself was far from perfect and that he did not know what should replace Britain’s current welfare policies.
Bird also stressed the importance of education and treatment of social and mental health problems, which he said affect the vast majority of Big Issue sellers.