By Max Clarke

Twenty years ago The Big Issue was founded by John Bird and Gordon Roddick to help bring a practical and innovative solution to address homelessness; it was a business solution to a social need.

As part of this year’s ‘twentieth year’ celebrations The Friends of the Big Issue brought together John Bird MBE, Social Entrepreneur and business author Robert Ashton, Rt Hon Sadiq Khan MP, Rt. Hon Greg Mulholland MP and Rt. Hon Zac Goldsmith MP and a selected Westminster audience of third sector professionals to debate the future of social entrepreneurship in Britain.

“The Big Issue is one of the shining examples of social entrepreneurship: a commercial solution to a social problem. I’m proud to have been asked to contribute to the discussion and challenged people to join me in following John Bird’s example by becoming social entrepreneurs. Big Society creates a unique opportunity for communities and charities to develop their own commercial solutions to the social problems they want to overcome. I know from personal experience that this is not only possible and practicable, but right now it can be profitable too,” said Robert Ashton, who is the author of the best selling business guide How to be a Social Entrepreneur.

The debate took place at the Clement Attlee Suite, House of Commons and discussed the impact The Big Issue has had on addressing homelessness on five different continents and the role of social entrepreneurs in the Big Society.

“You know, when I get senior people from all the agencies involved with supporting vulnerable people off incapacity and other benefits, I find they don't actually know each other,” said Mr Ashton.

“It takes someone like me to get them together, to show them the chasms these people have to cross. When they see it as a group, they get it as a group. Then they will agree to bend a few rules to provide the safety nets these people need.

“Paradoxically, I suspect we'll discover with the pilots I'm starting that if people know there's a benefit safety net, they'll push themselves harder and be more likely to succeed. The promises I'll have negotiated will probably not need to be delivered,” he said.

John Bird agreed with Mr Ashton and said that he hoped that it could be made easier for people to leave disadvantage by becoming social entrepreneurs.

Rt. Hon Zac Goldsmith MP called for more social entrepreneurs and said that the impetus needed to originate on the ground and not come from Government.

“The wider we can distribute John Bird’s philosophy the better — as it says on the tin ‘It’s a hand up and not a hand out’,” said Mr Ashton.

The Big Issue is now a global phenomenon operating in five continents with more than 100 sister publications. Selling the magazine is a tough job but it’s open to anyone in need. It is a simple first step for the homeless to help themselves. It is an agent for social change, using entrepreneurial practices and sound business strategy to help vulnerable homeless people to help themselves.