Big Issue founder and newly-made peer Baron John Bird has given what may have been the most unusual maiden speech in decades as he said he got into the House of Lords “by lying, cheating and stealing”.
In his first speech in the House of Lords as a crossbench peer he said he would not have risen to the position he is in now if he had not gone through hardships and “terrible self-defeat” in his early life.
He said he was born in the post-war slums of London as a “Catholic racist” - meaning he was taught to hate black people, Jewish people and “even English people” - before he started getting in trouble with the police.
He was sent to borstal, put on probation and fined several times by the age of 10 before he encountered sociologist and reformer Baroness Barbara Wootton.
He told the House: “Baroness Wootton was a marvellous woman who, when I was 10, put me on probation; when I was 12, made me a ward of court; when I was 13, put me in a remand home; when I was 14, sent me for a short, sharp shock; when I was 15, took me from a boys’ prison and put me back into a reformatory so that I could learn to read and write.
“I would love to think that, if she were alive today, Baroness Wootton — who would be now 118 — would come running over to me and give me the biggest hug of my life.”
He said he did not learn to read and write until he was 16 and was briefly a beggar in Edinburgh while on the run from the police when he was 21.
Describing the charity support available to the homeless at that time he said they did everything to help except helping homeless people get back on their feet.
He said: “There were 501 organisations in London alone working with the homeless. They supplied you with everything from auricular acupuncture to a place to wash your undies and a shoulder to cry on, but one thing they did not give poor people was the opportunity of making money.
“One of the reasons they did not give them the opportunity to make money is that the laws around charities meant that you could give all sorts of things but you could not give opportunity in the form of work.”
He later met Gordon Roddick - who founded the Body Shop with his wife Anita - who would go on to help him found the Big Issue in 1991 after he met a homeless man selling magazines in New York.
Lord Bird said Mr Roddick had asked the man why he was selling the magazines and he replied he had a drug habit and did not want to steal from old ladies to feed it.
The man also said he was from a very rough neighbourhood and that if he returned he would end up in prison.
Lord Bird said Mr Roddick did a feasibility study before launching the magazine and all the homeless charities they surveyed said there was no point giving money to homeless people because they’ll only “drink it all, shove it up their noses or stick it in their arms”.
The magazine was eventually launched in 1991 and designed as "a hand-up not a hand-out" to give people the means to help themselves.
He said: "There is nothing wrong with poverty so long as you can get out of it. You will be stronger and fitter and better.
"You only have to scrape the surface and the patina of most people in Britain today and go back a few generations to see someone who burnt the candle at both ends so that they could get out of the grief, and they passed that on to their children.
"That is what we need to replicate and duplicate."
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