“If Government were to get behind social enterprises and take us from a niche into the mainstream, that would do all sorts of wonderful things ” Our Patron, Lord John Bird’s comments in the debate on the Industrial Strategy on 8 January in the House of Lords
I want to make a plea for social enterprise, which is not mentioned at all in the industrial strategy. I have to declare an interest in that I started one 26 years ago called the Big Issue, which was all based on the principle of getting people to work and giving them a hand up, not a handout. When I was asked about the nature of the work I was doing, I said it was a business response to a social crisis and was not simply extending another handout. We built the business among the most troubled, harmed and self-harming members of the community. We built a relatively tidy business out of that: we do not make a lot of money, and what comes in goes out, but it is a social business. It has also spread all over the world: you cannot go to many cities in the world that have not taken up the model that the Big Issue created. Wherever there is the problem of people who are hard up, we give them the opportunity of trading and of earning some honest money so that they do not have to do anything dishonest.
Social enterprise is the area that I started in and have worked in over the last 26 years. About 11 years ago we invented something called Big Issue Invest, which is a prevention mechanism that tries to work with people to stop them falling into crime and wrongdoing. We have created a number of social enterprises by investing. For example, when a local hospital in Salford wanted to privatise a sector, and the managers took over the business, we put money in and bought nurseries for them. They made all sorts of clever innovations, such as putting very young people with very old people. The Big Issue Invest has invested in 300 social businesses. I want people to buy into the idea that, even though we are only about 2% of the activity, if the Government were to get behind social enterprises, put an enormous amount of effort in and take us from a niche into the mainstream, that would do all sorts of wonderful things. For instance, we work largely in areas of deprivation and need, and it would help to transform these areas, because it involves the people themselves in their problems. It is not something that simply comes down from the top but something that grows up from the community.
The real problem for me when we talk about industrial strategy is that I am working in the areas where the laws of unintended consequences apply. For instance, the Thatcher Government removed all the subsidies for all of these industries, most of which, with the exception of the car industry and parts of the steel industry, had never made a profit in the 20th century and had been subsidised since the First World War. When that went, those jobs were not replaced with the kind of skilled work that would take a lot of people and move them forward, skilling them up instead of having them rely on social security. Many ended up doing that for generations, with the sluice gates opening for social security so that you could take in 11,000 people in Sunderland’s job exchange on the Monday, when on the previous Friday there had been only about 55.
You get those kind of weird distortions. Social enterprise—the work we do—is about going into those areas and trying to make up for the deficit of thinking, of strategy and of government involvement in them. I know that there have been some really top-notch, Rolls-Royce innovations. We are very good in Britain at producing pilots and wonderful little inventions in particular parts of the country, but we are not very good at making a whole strategy. We have to grow up a bit. Every time we mention industrial strategy, we talk about Germany, which is brilliant, but we have to be truthful and ask what the Germans do, in a big way, that we have never done. The Government lead social and business innovation. All the big companies that made it possible for Germany to run the First World War survived, and carried on even after the Second World War. All the big innovations were made by government under Bismarck at the end of the 19th century and they lived on.
Why do we not accept that government should be one of the most brilliant means of investing in and creating new industries? That is what it does in fact. Go to California, talk to the people in Silicon Valley and ask them where they were 20 or 30 years ago when the innovations that created their businesses were being invented by the military and in our universities with public money. When are we going to start getting real and accept the fact that most of the big changes that have taken place in the world and have created new industries have been led by the use of public money?
Read the full debate here