“It’s a confederacy of amateurs” – John Bird opens up the House of Lords in BBC documentary
John Bird used to wash dishes in the House of Lords – now he’s back to clean up after our MPs
The precise moment of transformation came at 2.44pm on 7 December 2015. That was when John Bird swore an oath of allegiance to the Queen and took his seat in the House of Lords as Baron Bird, of Notting Hill in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
Lord Bird took the long way round to get here. This newly installed pillar of the establishment arrived on the famous red benches via the orphanage, borstal and prison. He’s slept on the streets, and admits he started out as “a loser, a cheat and a fraud”.
And surely he’s the first member of the Upper House who’s previously worked in the building washing up dishes in the House of Lords kitchens. That was in 1970. And he didn’t last long. “I worked in the kitchens for two weeks,” he recalls. “Back then, I was a member of the Workers Revolutionary Party. I spent all my time trying to stir up my fellow workers to destroy capitalism. The head cook said to me: ‘Why don’t you f*** off back off to Russia?’ She told the employment agency that had sent me to work for her: ‘Don’t send him back.’”
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Lord Bird, now 71, is a social entrepreneur and homelessness campaigner. Most notably, he’s the man who founded The Big Issue magazine, sold by homeless people.
He features prominently in the first episode of Meet the Lords, a new BBC2 documentary series that goes behind the scenes to tell a much broader story than the clichéd posh-people-in-ermine tale we’ve seen so many times.
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We meet in Westminster – and Bird says immediately that, 47 years after his kitchen stint, it’s good to be back. “The first time I worked in the House of Lords I did it because I wanted money. But I also had my principles: I was here to change the world. And now I’ve come back and I’m still here to change the world. I’m here to dismantle poverty.”
Bird is convinced that by speaking in the chamber, and helping with the line-by-line analysis and amendment of legislation that goes on (usually unnoticed) in the Lords, he can improve the lot of homeless people much more than by shouting from the sidelines.
Did he have any preconceptions about the Lords before his ennoblement? Only one. “I thought the place would be less welcoming, that people would be more standoffish. I speak louder in the chamber than anybody and I thought they would have problems with that. But I mentioned it to somebody and they replied: ‘Look, there are a lot of people in the Lords who can’t even hear.’”
I ask if he feels nervous looking around the chamber knowing there is no one else remotely like him anywhere else in the room. “No, not at all. Because I think the House of Lords wants to reform itself. I think there’s a passion here – the people really do want to get on with the job of holding the government to account.”
So is he now a convert? Does he believe the Lords is an essential part of our parliamentary democracy? Only, he says, because the House of Commons regularly churns out “shambolic” legislation.
“The only reason we need a House of Lords is because we have an ill-functioning democracy – you need experts, people that are outside of the system. I came into the House of Lords at the same time as Baroness Watkins of Tavistock – who started life as a trainee nurse and ended up running a medical school – and Lord Mair, a professor of engineering at Cambridge University. You don’t get those kind of people in the Commons.
“Increasingly, the Commons has been filled with professional politicians. If you leave the government of Britain exclusively to people who are learning on the job then you’re in a perilous situation. We need a safeguard to counter this confederacy of amateurs.”
Has it ever occurred to him that some of his fellow peers might be looking down their noses at the former rough sleeper in their midst? “I’ve never thought anybody was better than me. I’ve never met anybody in this world who’s superior to me. Never. I have what is commonly called delusions of grandeur.”
Final question. It’s been more than a year since Bird took his seat. Plenty of time to do the little things that you or I might do if we’d changed our name from mere “Mr” or “Mrs” to “Lord” or “Lady”.
So what name is printed on his chequebook and credit cards? “I don’t have a bank account for Lord Bird,” says the man who spent several spells in prison as a young man for theft and fraud.
“And I don’t have a credit card for Lord Bird. I have a credit card for a very common man called John Bird. Actually, it’s not even my credit card account – it’s my wife’s. Because I’ve never been allowed one.”
Meet the Lords Monday, 9.00pm, BBC2