Visible means of support

The hopes and aspirations of our vendors are shown in a recent survey – as well as the barriers they face

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Even the keenest students of politics struggled to get much out of last week’s Queen’s Speech but the government’s plan to force voters to produce ID cards will have worried many of our vendors.

The government insists that introducing a legal requirement for members of the public to produce photographic ID before being allowed to cast a vote in elections is designed to help stamp out electoral fraud. For the 50 per cent of Big Issue North vendors who don’t have a passport, though, it’s likely to mean a denial of their democratic rights.

The 50 per cent figure has emerged from our latest vendor audit, which paints a revealing picture of who sells Big Issue North, their hopes and aspirations, and the barriers they face. The 2019 vendor audit also reveals that 58 per cent don’t have a bank account and 37 per cent don’t even have a birth certificate.

As a symbol of marginalisation, the lack of a birth certificate is hard to beat. Other figures from the audit bring home the reality.

“Following an investigation, we found an oversight had led to the account closure.”

Fifteen years ago, 75 per cent of our vendors had previous work experience, compared to just 45 per cent today, and only 25 per cent of our vendors currently have formal qualifications, compared to 49 per cent in 2004. As well as a lack of qualifications, the other main barriers cited by vendors include language skills and a lack of confidence.

Given this background, the future is unsure for many vendors. Forty-eight per cent see themselves moving on from selling Big Issue North, while 26 per cent are content to continue to sell the magazine for the foreseeable future. The remaining 26 per cent are uncertain what the future holds.

There has also been a substantial change in the demographic make-up of our vendors over the same period, with considerably more women, EU citizens and older people selling Big Issue North now than there were in 2004.

Despite their difficulties, vendors have aspirations like anyone else, mainly concerning increasing their income, moving into new accommodation, getting a new job, spending more time with their families, or improving their health.

Vendors cited a range of jobs that they would like to move on into. These included cleaning, warehouse or factory work, delivery, painting and decorating, and shop or retail work, among others.

There are now up to 350 people selling the magazine at any one point, compared with 270 in 2004. They are working, not begging. Vendors buy the magazine from us for £1.25 and sell it to you for £2.50, keeping the profit they make.

Selling the magazine doesn’t just provide the people who sell it with an income, but also increases their self-esteem as they make an honest living selling a great product.

People often feel they want to donate to their vendor, rather than paying for the magazine and taking it – and we respect their right to do that. But by taking your copy home, just like you would take a copy of a magazine you’ve bought in a newsagent, you’re helping the magazine to keep going.

Like any print publication, rises in production costs and falling advertising revenues are a battle. We depend on our readers to buy and take the magazine since the money that is made from sales go back into the costs of producing it.

You are getting a top quality read. Our weekly magazine is packed with news, features, culture and comment written by professional journalists and writers.

It’s a magazine made in the north of England. Our news and features reflect life in this great region. But we also have an international outlook and Mumbai is our territory as much as Manchester.

The £1.25 Big Issue North earns from each magazine pays for the production, printing and distribution of the magazine. We’re not seeking to make dividends for shareholders or to line the pockets of a rich proprietor – any profits go back into the business. But if people were to stop buying and taking the magazine, we would have to stop production and our vendors would not be able to sell it.

Vendors agree. “When people buy and take the mag it helps me,” said one Manchester vendor. “I can see that my mags are going down and as soon as I sell them, then I’m done. I don’t really like it when someone just gives me money and then walks off. I like to give them the mag because they have paid for it.”

The income vendors earn from selling the magazine is the most important thing for them but not the only benefit. They also gain the self-esteem that comes from budgeting for how many magazines they can afford to buy and marketing the magazine to their customers – in short, from working, not begging.

Another vendor, from Leeds, said: “It is important that people who buy the magazine take it because it makes the vendor happy and makes selling the magazine worthwhile. Customers are supporting individuals who are working.”

In our audit, 96 per cent of vendors rate the service they receive from Big Issue North as good or very good and 97 per cent of vendors feel supported by Big Issue North staff.

“What I think Big Issue North does well is that they look after the people that sell the magazine and also ask how they are going with their personal life, which shows they really care about the people they work with,” said one Leeds vendor.

But it’s not just about the day-to-day business of selling magazines. As well as providing our vendors with an opportunity to earn an income, our staff also provide a range of support services, including assistance with obtaining ID and enrolment on educational courses.

This is funded through donations to the Big Issue North Trust, the charity associated with the business. “With greater financial resources, we could work to ensure that all of our vendors have the documentation and training they need to move into the careers they want, as well as arranging work experience,” says Simon Kweeday, Big Issue North director.

While the oldest vendor in 2004 was 65, our 2019 audit recorded five vendors aged between 61 and 65, one vendor between 66 and 70 and one vendor between 76 and 80.

64% of vendors do not speak English as a first language. Of those, 92% say that selling the magazine helps them to improve their English skills.

84% of vendors have regular contact with their family, a very similar statistic to our previous audit (85%). 5% do not have any family at all.

34%  of vendors sell the magazine in city centres and 66% in out of town areas. The amount of vendors selling the magazine in out of town areas has increased over the past 15 years.

48% of vendors live in private rented accommodation and 19% live in local authority or housing association accommodation. 27% of vendors are living with friends or family while 3.5% of vendors were sleeping rough.

25% of vendors begged prior to selling the magazine. Of those, 69% say that selling the magazine has reduced their begging, and 94% claim their begging has either decreased or stayed the same.

Last year Big Issue North Trust provided 1,521 crisis interventions. We supported 127 vendors into accommodation. Thirty vendors were supported with employment and 39 vendors into education.

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