Big Issue Q&A

Q: What is it you do at the Big Issue?

A: I was a Voluntary Coordinator in Covent Garden.

Q: What does that mean exactly?

A: It means we managed the Covent Garden area.  We distribute the magazines…actually I did more than that…I…for a while I was a Roving Coordinator which essentially meant I was a Coordinator anywhere in London.  I used to meet the printing truck in Vauxhall at 5.30am and then deliver the magazines to all the various distribution points and then make my way to Covent Garden and thereby undertake my duties as a Voluntary Coordinator in Covent Garden which was essentially training Green Badges, they’d come to us and also we’ve got obviously a mainstay of people who are selling magazines – they’d come to us to buy their magazines.  It’s largely selling magazines but also ensuring that people within the Covent Garden catchment area adhere to the Big Issue code of conduct.  That was what I did.

Q: And did you get paid for this job?

A: Did I get paid for it?  The official answer is no but the answer to you, my dear, is yes, of course, I wouldn’t have done it otherwise.

Q: How much?

A: You asked me this before.  Erm.  There was travel, there was phones, so there were benefits.  There was lunch and then.  There were so many hidden benefits, it’s hard, really hard to explain but in terms of cash…erm…it varied but not a great variance, but…about £300 a week.

Q: Was that presented as being a cash payment of £300 a week or did they say expenses of £300 a week?

A: Do you know what I honestly don’t know.

Q: Did you receive that as a weekly lump sum?

A: No, daily.

Q: So you got £60 a day?

A: No I got £60…no £100 on a Monday and it kind of varied from there…£100 on a Monday, £40, £40 and it would vary.

Q: And where did that money come from?

A: From the takings [laughs] from the magazines in Covent Garden.  We’d generate that money ourselves on the street.

Q: Err can you explain that…the process of the money for me?

A: Well, all the people had to buy the magazines so they’d come to us and the cost price to the public say at present is £2, to vendor who is selling the magazine is £1, with sales upwards on occasions of 1,600 magazines…quite rare…but 1,200, 1,300 was about the average so we’d be generating say between £800 and £1,000 coz       would take her money…      was also a Coordinator…there was three Coordinators, all on the same sort of package and we’d all take our money directly from the takings on the day.

Q: So these figures you’re talking about are the daily figures?

A: Which?

Q: The…err, 1,300 issues?

A: Yeah, yeah, yeah…err…obviously it fluctuates quite a lot, given the weather, given the season, given…given err holidays…and some other things.  I think…the minimum at the moment or when I left…I didn’t leave voluntarily by the way, I was asked to leave…err, but the minimum would have been 800 per day but the year before that…and I was often covering Covent Garden on my own…err when I say often – frequently…err…1,200, 1,300 up to 1,500 per day.

Q: And how much of the…so are you saying that you collected the Issues for Covent Garden from the distribution centre, then you sold them in…to individual vendors in Covent Garden and how much of the money then from those Issues that were sold actually went back to the Big Issue head office?

A: What there was left after we’d taken our wages.

Q: Which would be what on average?

A: Well, on the Monday was slightly different things like I would do delivery.  I’m not quite sure what       was on but we’d take our…we were all on phone contracts which were quite nice phone contracts, we’d all get travel allowances, lunch allowances, other gratuities which I can’t really mention, but strange little things would be thrown into the hat.

Q: Like what [laughs] come on…we can edit it out later?

A: No, no, you don’t have to…theatre tickets…err…tickets to the opera, theatre tickets…err…

Q: Where did they come from?

A: They came directly from the office.  They used to send them over to us.

Q: Where did the office get them from?

A: No idea.  Absolutely none.

Q: So…we’re saying like…what…what percentage of the sales that you made in Covent Garden, what percentage of that actually went back to head office?

A: About.  I make this a rough estimate.  My maths is usually better…it’s a B right now…but…about 80%.

Q: So you’d take 20% and 80% would go back?

A: Roughly.  I mean I could do the maths again in a minute but, yeah, round about that.

Q: And were head office aware that you were taking a cut of the money?

A: Oh fully.  That was how it was sanctioned.  That’s how we were paid.

Q: Err…can you give an example of…err…anyone in any position of authority that you’ve had a direct conversation with about it?

A: Everybody knew.  That’s how the Coordinators got paid.  It’s not a great mystery.

Q: Okay [laughs].

A: It’s still going on now.

Q: So [laughs] I mean how…I want an example of not just ‘everyone’ but give me an example of a conversation that you’ve had with a named person.  How high up would people know that?

A: The CEO, Steven, would know that.  Everybody from the very top of the organisation down.  Obviously there’s a chap now called       who’s the London Distribution Coordinator, he manages Covent Garden from there, we manage it on the streets, so they separate street based services and those who do absolutely nothing in the office as far as I can tell, but everybody’s aware of it.  There were occasions where I strangely forgot to take my money on the day, coz I’d be so busy, and I would say to whoever was the Outreach Coordinator for the day ‘I’d forgot to take my money yesterday, I’ll take it today’ and it was       , who unfortunately is not there anymore, or if it was      who had the foresight and goodwill to leave or       or the…the Outreach supposed Coordinators were fully aware of it and I could do that on occasions say look, sorry, I forgot to take my money say on a Monday I’m going to double it up today on the Tuesday.  Absolutely fine, no problem at all.

Q: Err…what about…err…what was I going to say…the outreach?  What’s this team of outreach people?

A: Urgh!  Speak to any vendor, any vendor in London and they will look at you with utter bafflement.  Nobody really knows.  They’re based in Vauxhall.

Q: But do they actually exist?

A: Oh yeah they do exist.  When I was there, and I was there for a long time…there was ordinarily a team of…there was Outreach Team Leader…Outreach Manager, Outreach Team Leader, four Outreach Team Coordinators…so ordinarily a team of six.

Q: Could you say that you have never, ever seen a member of Outreach come out onto the streets?

A: Oh not at all…they’re there every…well they come at the end of every single day to pick up the money, my dear!  [laughs]

Q: Genuinely you say that’s all they do?

A: I couldn’t…I wouldn’t be as cruel to say that to all those who…but that would seem…seem to be most of what they do…if you look now…particularly at the Covent Garden area or Waterloo area…and see the amount of people there either sitting down or in a state of disrepair, be it through drink or drugs and selling the Big Issue, the Outreach team supposedly supposed to sort that out.  Unfortunately that was left to me and to       or to the street based coordinators.

Q: Are you aware that Big Issue…err…the Big Issue Foundation pays 35% of the salaries of the Outreach Team?

A: I wasn’t but it doesn’t surprise me…err…I think I told you once before, there was…there was a woman who works for the Outreach Team, actually no as a Service Broker and when a friend of mine asked her what she did she said she was a Service Broker – he’s a Professor from Pennsylvania – and he said, oh yeah, fine okay, that’s your title: what do you do?  She couldn’t answer him.  It’s ridiculous.  She just stone dead couldn’t answer him.  She just looked…it was horrible…you actually just reminded me of this at the time…just…just lots of shuffling and…like

Q: The Foundation supposedly pays this 35% to cover the portion of the work that Outreach does in the charitable aims of the Foundation, you know, providing…err…information and advice and support to vendors…and err supposedly not just to vendors…under the terms of the Charity Commission it has to be to any homeless person…err…can you think of any examples where this has actually taken place?

A: [long pause]…I’m afraid to say in…in my view…it’s – I’m going to swear and you can cut that out – it’s absolutely fucking absurd.  All I ever saw was like occasionally they’d have like a breakfast day where they give vendors a slice of toast and a glass of orange juice in the morning.  Beyond that, nothing.  I’ve known lots of vendors who are desperate for a passport, or desperate even for the most basic of needs…if you ask street based homeless…i.e. a sleeping bag and been refused by…by the Outreach Team.  It’s a nonsense.

Q: I’m trying to understand how the Service Brokerage schemes operate.

A: So am I!

Q: [laughs]  It seems to be that it is supposedly ring fenced money to provide certain services to vendors for example setting up a bank account and things like that.  Does that happen at all?

A: There was a spate where they were trying to set up bank accounts for people but…erm…I think if you look at…if there’s…I don’t know how many vendors there are in London but certainly in the Covent Garden area, particularly in the summer, Green Badges – that’s people that are brand new badges – they’d come to us and they were the only area they could come to, we’d have sometimes 30 or 40 and I know of maybe in the five years or six years that I worked for the Big Issue, they set up four bank accounts for vendors.

Q: [laughs] Okay.  Err…what about this…err…err…notion that…err…the Big Issue is there to help homeless people…err…what percentage do you think of vendors are actually…say for a start…are street homeless?

A: What do I think or what…

Q: How many…how many…err…how many do you think…I’m not talking about…don’t actually give me a number…but…err…but a percentage?

A: No more than 10%.

Q: And…of…err…the remainding…remaining ones…err…how many of those or what percentage of those do you think, as a really rough guess…err…would say be in hostels?

A: [pause]  Because I think that about 70% of those…vendors…people selling the magazine on the streets of London, in particular, are housed, and that’s not housed in hostels and/or street homeless…it would be about 20% but that fluctuates because people are in hostels and a lot of the…a lot of…when I was doing the work a lot of people get thrown out of the hostels and then…you know…be in a hostel and then be street homeless and back in a hostel…err…About 70% I believe to be housed, be that vulnerably, but I regard myself as vulnerably housed, but I’m not particularly vulnerably housed unless I make myself vulnerably housed.  You know, none of them come round to my house and throw me out of the door.

Q: So you have no issue with people who are now, to all intents and purposes, in permanent accommodation…you have no problem with them selling the Big Issue.  You think that’s reasonable?

A: I personally think it’s wrong but I…I have often thought that the Big Issue should have some move on policy.  I have known people who have been selling the Big Issue…it’s been going for twenty years here in London…I have known people to be selling it for fifteen years on the same pitch.  That seems to me to be a nonsense.

Q: So talking about move on…err…presumably the Big Issue provides opportunities within its own organisation for vendors to move into higher positions and positions of authority in the organisation like backroom staff.

A: Absolutely none whatsoever, unfortunately, none.

Q: Has any vendor ever moved into backroom staff?

A: One.       , though he’s now left, but he was from the Wales – Cardiff or Swansea…Swansea area.  He did become the actual Outreach Team Leader and then left.

Q: That seems quite an odd thing considering the policy of the Big Issue is about offering…err…a hand up.  You’d think that vendors would be the most knowledgeable…err…and have the most to offer in running the organisation – after they’ve established themselves.

A: I would have thought so but what Mr Bird and others in the organisation don’t…don’t reveal to you is it’s a hand up and a kick down, my dear!

Q: Why don’t they have them in the backroom…err…working in the backroom?

A: Because they’re corrupt!  [laughs]  Sorry, but it seems to me like they are corrupt and then…they know that the vendors, a lot of them, are very sassy, especially if they come off the streets, would pick up on that corruption immediately.  If you speak to vendors, they will say similar things.  I believe a lot of them would say similar things.  They can see the corruption.  They can see the Outreach Team do absolutely nothing.  It’s…it always has been a massive bone of contention.  But I even have problems with people saying helping…there was one particular vendor who shall remain nameless who works on the top of Neal Street [laughs] on a daily basis who has been saying for years and years and years ‘Big Issue.  Read us.  Help me.  Buy a copy.  Helping the homeless.’ and she hasn’t been homeless for all that time so that’s just fraud.  That to me is just fraud.  I’ve got no qualms with saying ‘Buy this magazine coz I wanna go on holiday next week’ [laughs] and blah, blah, blah, blah.  I’ve no problem with that but not the fraudulent aspect – I find revolting.

Q: What about the question of tax and benefits?  Err…are many Big Issue vendors on benefits?

A: [Laughs] about 98% and the 2% who aren’t…who knows why!  I have only known of two vendors in the entire time of – literally it would be running into thousands of vendors – who did declare their incomes, which there is a proviso as a get out that we supposedly…are supposed to encourage people to do so – to my knowledge nobody ever did do so and I would estimate that…98% might be a bit high but I’d be…I’d be comfortable with 95%!

Q: It doesn’t seem like a very successful [laughs] policy on the part of the Big Issue then if people just feel there are no sanctions to be suffered for basically benefit fraud and tax fraud.

A: [pause] I agree.

Q: Are the Big Issue aware that this is a major problem with vendors?

A: I have never heard it spoken of.  Never heard it spoken of.

Q: But presumably they are aware of it.

A: Oh fully aware.  I mean everyone’s aware of it but it is not an issue and…if there is corruption going on elsewhere then it’s obviously incumbent on those who are corrupt to not point out corruption [laughs] in the organisation…it’s self-defeating.

Q: Are you aware, like the first thing that we talked about, about the money not going back to the depot – you said a conservative estimate of about 20% – are you aware that that basically is an allegation of tax fraud, at least.

A: Now that you’ve pointed it out, then, then perhaps but if a District Auditor got involved then, then it might be…it might…feathers might be ruffled but…is it tax fraud?  I don’t know.  If it is then, then yes it is.

Q: What about the salaries of people that work at the Big Issue?  Are you aware of any particularly interesting high salaries that any individuals are earning?

A: I couldn’t say, other than hearsay, I really couldn’t.

Q: Okay, give me an example of any hearsay.

A:       – I’m sorry to mention       coz he’s a lovely man, he really is…err…he’s now left the company after going round to all his distribution points and stealing the money and fled to Glasgow with £46,000 [laughs] but he was on a very decent package.  I know they offered him £35,000 a year as a whole package and he turned it down as not being enough so that’s not uncommon.

Q: Err…and the London…

A: Don’t mention his name.

Q: No I won’t.  You can remove the whole section if you want.

A: No, keep the whole thing but not the actual name.

Q: The…err…err…so you said, err, you worked at the Covent Garden distribution point…erm…presumably the London head office erm is in charge of several other distribution points.  To your knowledge, is that system of err supposedly voluntary workers actually receiving cash remuneration and that money not making it back to head office, are you aware of that being replicated anywhere else.

A: It’s replicated everywhere.  The only discrepancy is that we in Covent Garden…err…would get paid more than all the other distribution points primarily because we do more work but they have…you know there’s much more footfall but there is some disgruntlement, say in the…the Oxford…Oxford Street distribution point, the Liverpool Street distribution point, the Angel distribution point…there is some disgruntlement amongst other Voluntary Coordinators who are essentially I think getting sometimes, not quite half, but maybe 60% of what we were getting in Covent Garden, but it happens…it’s standard right across the board.

Q: How many distribution points are there?

A: There used to be six.  Err…I believe there still are six.  There’s Victoria, Covent Garden, Angel, Liverpool Street, Oxford Circus and I believe they opened one, there also used to be also one in Notting Hill.  I believe there are six.

Q: And there are others…err…I mean there are different branches of the Big Issue aren’t there but there are others also that are within the domain of the London office of the Big Issue.

A: No.  No, that would be it.

Q: I mean the company, under the same company.

A: Oh yeah, absolutely they are countrywide, all different divisions but they sort of opened up at various other distribution points for a long long time and far be it for me to say the reason they can’t, because the Outreach Teams do absolutely nothing.  They can’t give them less for them to do nothing with that, can we?

Q: And who are these Outreach Workers?

A: What do you mean who are they?

Q: I mean…err…what’s the kind of…what are the qualifications for the job?

A: I don’t know.  I just know one chap who was given the post.  He’s a very young chap, he’s never been homeless, I’m not saying he’s not a decent chap.  I know his name.  But he was given the post on…purely on the recommendation that his father’s the…err…Police Commander for Wandsworth.

Q: What does an average Outreach Worker make?  Do you know?

A: A damn sight more than they would declare, my dear!

Q: I was told that it was around £18,000 or £19,000 but you mentioned a figure closer to £28,000.

A: I think £18,000 or £19,000 would be ridiculous because…[pause]…I couldn’t say.  18 or 19 just seems to me to be a paltry amount…but a…well it’s not actually a paltry amount for doing very little but…

Q: How hands on is John Bird in the running of the Big Issue?

A: As far as I am aware, he’s not hands on at all at present.

Q: Who really runs it, then?

A: I’ve been out…outwith it for about eight months now so I couldn’t really say.  Err, the CEO, Stephen, has a big say and Mr James Caan, I believe, has a huge amount of influence, but John Bird now just does all the sort of mad media work.  He is supposedly still the Editor-in-Chief but I believe he has actually relinquished that position.

Q: Okay, we’ll end it there.

Q: Last question.  Your thoughts on corporate hospitality at the Big Issue [laughs].

A: It’s just an absolute jolly.  It has no basis…err…I see it having no…no material benefit to any vendor whatsoever.  It’s just a jolly and it could be networking but they all fly off to Paris and fly off to Berlin and jump up and down the Himalayas, drink huge…stupid amounts of champagne in various locations around London and pat each other on the back and contemplate their next fraud!

Q: Erm…can you give me an example of an event that you’ve attended where you’ve been kind of astonished at the amount of monies…amount of money being spent?

A: There are…there are too many to mention.  Really too many to mention.  Say at the Big Issue’s 14th or 15th birthday Big Walk night out we were just over there actually, in the national film theatre, film thingy…what’s it called?

Q: The British Film Institute?

A: Thank you.  The BFI.  But then we all converged on St Barnabus in Soho at about 4o’clock in the morning and there were 250 bottles of champagne there waiting for us.

Q: Would that…does that money come from the Big Issue or does it come from the Big Issue Foundation.

A: I believe that was all paid for by the Foundation but when I was there the Head of the Foundation or the head of corporate fundraising was a chap called       who, who would take us all out for jolly jollies but…

Q: Coz I’ve had a look at the accounts for the Big Issue Foundation and they’re really quite extraordinary, the amount of money that goes on pure costs, pure fundraising costs, it’s about 50/50 split.  And in terms of actual money that goes to vendors, what they term ‘vendor support’, only £27,000 of over £1 million actually makes it to the vendors.  Does that sound about right?

A: Well if you buy [laughs] if you buy the occasional vendor a pair of gloves and give him a glass of orange juice and a slice of toast in ten years that sounds about right [laughs].

Q: Do you think that the sums of money that are spent on fundraising are justified?

A: No.  No.

Q: Err…the err…does the Big Issue Foundation sublet Big Issue offices?  Are they based in the same office block?

A: They are indeed.

Q: And what proportion of the building do they take up?

A: I always see them roam but there’s one section that’s like sectioned off.  The Outreach Team has the basement area, which is quite a large area, err…

Q: The actual fundraising team…err…I’m assuming they’ve got a static area for telephone use…though they curiously don’t use the telephone very much according to their accounts…but presumably that team needs a static area.  What proportion of the building does that take up?

A: I’d imagine…as far as I knew it was only       and       in that team and I couldn’t say for       but certainly       spends his entire time getting drunk on accounts so who knows? [laughs]

Q: Because the Big Issue Foundation currently – it used to pay a lot, lot more – but it currently pays half of the rent for that building.  Do you think that’s justified in terms of the amount of actual space they take up?

A: I couldn’t possibly comment on that, sorry…

Q: Okay.

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About aibaihe

I'm Tom. This is my art!
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