Have some people come to rely on a welfare “lifestyle” that the Government is right to tackle?
Dressed up as a defence of the poor, benefit often has the opposite effect to what was intended. Unfortunately, a workless, dependent substrata of society has been growing ever since Thatcher closed down the mines, steel, shipbuilding and heavy engineering base of the UK economy and then warehoused former workers in a grudging, miserable dystopia. This governmentally constructed underclass, always frowned upon and blamed for its dependency, now is being shaken up because the money’s run out. Each government increased this section of society, but now money’s short and the poor have been led into a blind trap.We should be seeing benefit as a springboard and not a concrete safety net that once you hit it, you’re finished.
Is Boris Johnson justified when he says we shouldn’t sneer at Starbucks over its voluntary tax “contribution”?
Starbucks, as far as I know, is made up of hundreds of franchises. That means it is not some big monolith, but thousands of people putting their own money into the business. Perhaps eBay, Amazon, Boots, etc might be better candidates for our ire. Also it seems that – as usual – it is always the workers that get it in the neck, and are seen as scabs. I resent this blaming the working person who just wants to earn a wage.
Has uncontrolled mass immigration (as the Home Secretary says) been a major factor in the shortage of housing?
The traditional form of immigration, where poor people arrive, live in abysmal conditions, and then work their way out of poverty, has been broken. Now we have very desperate people arriving who are not allowed to sink into the usual slums and morass of poverty. Social workers, support groups, government agencies, not there for former waves of immigration, champion these new immigrants. It must therefore put a strain on waiting lists, housing stock, etc. Picking up the social collapse created in another country must cost dearly, and might in a way be seen as a hidden form of overseas aid that is not given elsewhere, but applied in the towns and cities where the new immigrants are placed. Needless to say, if you meet new immigrants, their treatment is rarely the exaggerated “handouts” that enemies of immigration suggest.
Are you worried by the rise of Ukip?
I am concerned that politics goes to some pretty deep and dark places when jobs are at risk and poverty undermines whatever stability people might have formerly had. Rumour, prejudice, cant and hatred are never very far behind a collapsing economy.
Do old people get a raw deal in our society, as Rowan Williams has claimed?
It depends what old you are talking about. Many old people have never had it so good, having become part of the property-owning democracy that was out of reach to earlier generations. Often inadequately provided care homes have replaced family looking after the old. Is this better than it was? I remember a lot of elderly people from my earlier years whose lives were almost Dickensian. By the way, I don’t normally trust the opinions of high-ranking vicars: they all seem to wish that everyone was provided for equally, without seriously challenging the class nature of our divided society. So they seem to want revolution without the bloodshed.
You spent time in orphanages. Has the care system for children improved?
No. Or not from my own personal encounter with the tragic people I have seen who have gone through the system, who clog up our streets and hostels, and our prisons.
Britain in Europe – in or out?
You would need to reinvent the European charter to get it to work efficiently. It seems mostly to fly in the face of common sense; the squabbles, the stupid interfering, new strictures seem a pain in the rear. And worse.
What do you do when you pass someone sleeping rough?
Unfortunately, we are seeing such an increase that it is impossible to engage with them all. I suggest that they connect with The Big Issue, or the groups that operate locally. I did suggest to certain governments that we pick them up and take them to a place of safety. But that was seen as too authoritarian. But I still think that believing there’s some inalienable right to sleep on the streets that should be protected over a person’s own well-being is a cack-handed way of seeing the problem.
And what should we do?
It is up to people what they should do. I don’t believe that leaving people on the street is a humane way of responding.
Can you envisage a time when there is no homelessness?
NO! Why? Because family breakdown, ambition to move to other places, etc will leave people exposed and vulnerable. Poverty drives people restlessly on. We would have to do something about poverty, and that seems to be the biggest of big issues.
John Bird is the founder of ‘The Big Issue’. He spent periods in orphanages and on the street as a child, and in prison in adult life.
'The Necessity of Poverty' by John Bird is £8 and published by Charles Glass Books, a new imprint of Quartet Books www.quartetbooks.co.uk