'Big Issue' vendors in benefits inquiry

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The Independent Online
VENDORS of the Big Issue, the magazine sold by the homeless, are being targeted by the Employment Service as part of a crackdown on social security fraud.

MPs and charities reacted angrily yesterday as the editor and founder of the magazine, John Bird, confirmed he had been asked to hand over the names of 700 vendors in the London area. Fraud officers will check the names against records of those signing on for social security benefits.

'It's not very nice targeting a group of people who are trying to get back into society, getting their act together and not being a nuisance to the state,' Mr Bird said. He is legally obliged to comply, or face a series of fines.

The Big Issue was set up three years ago and now operates in nearly all major cities in Britain. It costs 60p, of which 35p goes to the vendor. A single person receives pounds 45.45 unemployment benefit a week. But if they earn more than pounds 2 a day - six Big Issues - they lose their benefit for that day.

Mark Scothern, the director of Crisis, a charity for single homeless people, said he was deeply disappointed by the department's attitude. 'There is a trusting relationship between the Big Issue and its vendors which an investigation would bring down. There is no evidence of wrongdoing, so quite why the department is investigating I do not know.'

Nick Hardwick, chief executive of the London-based charity Centrepoint, which helps homeless young people, said: 'The Department of Employment should have a lot better things to do with their time, like trying to find these people better jobs.'

David Chidgey, Liberal Democrat spokesman on employment and training, said: 'They have admitted there is no evidence of any offence. British justice means that you are innocent until proven guilty.' Glenda Jackson, Labour MP for Hampstead and Highgate and a regular contributor to the magazine, said: 'Those selling the Big Issue must abide by the law, but what evidence does the Department of Employment have that fraud is being propagated on a scale to justify the specific targeting of people who are . . . attempting to further themselves through their own hard work? Michael Portillo and his colleagues should be waging war on poverty, not waging war on the poor.'

A spokeswoman for the Employment Service, which dealt with 270,000 investigations last year, said it was obliged to follow up any tip-offs it received. 'No one who is keeping within the benefit rules has anything to worry about,' she said. 'Equally, no one is exempt from scrutiny. If there is no evidence, we will not take our inquiries any further.'