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John Bird talks to David Cameron

May 21 2009
Conservative leader has no firm policy ideas about the problem of homeless East European migrants Politicians holding babies is hardly an uncommon sight, but Big Issue proprietor John Bird was clearly unaware of any cliche as he buttoned up his child for the photo op with Tory leader David Cameron, exclaiming for those assembled: "He's a young Conservative in the making. Of course, if we were meeting a Labour politician, I'd be saying 'young Labour'." In one of his many PR turns since being elected, Cameron arrived at the Big Issue drop-off point in Covent Garden bright and brisk, sipping on a coffee while quizzing a collection of vendors about their lives, and how and why they started selling the magazine. Cameron made a couple of references to the cold weather, which was dismissed by a vendor who has worked for Big Issue for 21 months as "quite mild, really." The meeting was set up after John Bird and Caroline Spelman, MP, shadow secretary of state for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, agreed to give Cameron the opportunity to "meet Big Issue vendors who could give first-hand testimony as to the problems and issues faced by homeless individuals." According to Cameron's team, "we wanted to work with the Big Issue on this event as is a great initiative which has given homeless people a way of taking back control over their lives. It is a fantastic example of how social enterprise can help tackle longterm problems like homelessness and reduce dependence on state hand-outs." The Big Issue was launched as a monthly magazine in 1991, switching to a weekly two years later. According to their website, there are over 3,000 vendors in London. Of these, it is estimated that 500 are working. The Conservative leader seemed surprised that vendors spend nearly 12 hours a day selling their magazine (and on "a good day", selling about 30 copies). After a vendor protested that he worked "no longer than MPs," Cameron responded, "but, at least we have a nice, warm office to work from." Cameron is keen to be seen as a 'modern compassionate Conservative', often provoking criticism that he lacks substance as a politician. He has certainly courted the media far more, and with more success, than any of his predecessors, and is leading the Conservatives to a similar place as the 'New Labour' phenomenon that deposed the last Tory government in 1997. But is there 'body' behind the rhetoric? Although the former Conservative hard-line on immigration is being reconsidered under Cameron, he gave no firm response as to what he would do about the problem of legal immigrants who find themselves without work and unable to claim benefits. Saying it was "a very difficult area", he added that it was "one of the things the social justice department is going to look at." "We've got the social justice policy commission to look specifically at people who fall through the net... but I can't give you an easy answer and I know it's not an easy area, because there are rules about benefit tourism for a particular reason, which is to stop people coming in search of benefits," Cameron told The Pavement. Since being elected party leader, Cameron has launched the "Six Challenges" initiative, of which social justice, headed by former leader Iain Duncan Smith, is one. Despite homelessness being a major issue for his department, Duncan Smith did not join the party leader in Covent Garden. One of the promises that the Conservatives have made under the social justice campaign is 'houses for everyone.' In a speech made earlier in the year, Cameron emphasised the role of those working in the voluntary sector and urged Britain to become "the nation of the second chance". Cameron's social justice policy could ultimately put an end to the speculation over whether he can lead the party, but it may be difficult to silence the critics while so many of the social policies are under review. According to Cameron's team, much is still in the process of being decided: "We need a multi-agency/department approach to addressing homelessness - the policy review group will look at how this would work on a national and local level." "'Crowding-out' behaviour by the government, that would not be tolerated in the commercial sphere, should be equally unacceptable in the voluntary and community sector. In some cases, not-for-profit enterprises have been damaged, even closed, by government-sponsored initiatives. The government needs to trust the voluntary sector more, gives them to freedom to innovate and reduce the emphasis on short-term contracts, which do not allow projects the time to develop." Back in Covent Garden, while talking to vendors, Cameron added that one of the key areas he believed would help the housing problem would be shared ownership, which he sees as "the biggest single answer to getting more housing in reach of more people." "What I think has got particularly bad in the last few years is that we've got a lot of people in temporary accommodation?î??? so we are looking at a range of things, to help bring more housing in reach of people," he said. Despite inviting the Conservative leader for a meet and greet, Big Issue's John Bird is adamant that it remains politically neutral. According to his office, "the Big Issue was not aligning itself with the Conservatives by having John Bird and David Cameron meet. The opportunity to engage with the leader of the opposition on the issue of homelessness is one that I am sure will only move the issue of homelessness up the political agenda." Have you ever sold a Big Issue to an MP? If so, who? 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