john davies
notes from a small curate

updated regularly
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

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    Big Issue in the North

    This is the text of a letter sent to supporters, in response to Police action against Big Issue sellers in Liverpool, October 2003

    21st October 2003

    Dear Friend

    Last week, the Merseyside Police called a press conference to announce their Operation Manton. They claimed that they had carried out a fifteen-month undercover operation and arrested 54 people for drug offences, including Big Issue in the North vendors and this has resulted in the Council imposing an illegal suspension of sales of The Big Issue in the North in Liverpool City Centre. I am writing to you to give you the facts, as we know them to date.

    It has been extremely difficult to obtain any information from the police whatsoever, and so most of what we know has been obtained by going to the court to see people be charged, and from information the police have given to the press.

    Of the 54 people arrested, we believe only about 12 are legitimate Big Issue in the North vendors. We are not sure how many have been charged with possession and how many with dealing. What we do know is that undercover officers approached the people charged with dealing and asked them to buy heroin or crack for them. When they returned with the drugs, they were then arrested for dealing. This hardly describes the middle level drug dealers that the Merseyside Police state they have caught. It does however reflect the very small amount of illegal substances that they have recovered through this fifteen-month operation - just 40 wraps of crack and 29 wraps of heroin, a street value of about 545.

    We do not understand why the Merseyside Police carried out this operation, the methods they used, or why they press released it in the way they did. Nor does it make sense for them to have arrested people between the months of February and October, but not charged anyone until last Friday. It suggests that they wanted to make maximum impact with a headline-grabbing story, and they took an easy route of entrapping known drug users.

    There is a current trend to highlight and tackle anti social behaviour in our cities. This is something that we are all working to achieve. There are over 350 vendors of The Big Issue in the North (130+ in Leeds, 120+ in Manchester and 90+ in Liverpool) who earn a legitimate source of income through selling the magazine as part of their efforts to move away from the streets. However, the action of the Merseyside Police has suggested that The Big Issue in the North is part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

    We do not hide the fact that many of our vendors are addicted to drugs. Our research shows that 84% of our vendors had a drug problem prior to becoming homeless but just 62% of vendors describe themselves as now having a drug problem. This also shows that vendor's drug use has reduced since they started selling The Big Issue in the North and vendors also report that they have committed less crime. By selling The Big Issue in the North vendors come into contact with our services and as a result we have helped them move on from selling into jobs and training.

    Over the past year we have been able to get 63 vendors into Jobs, 142 vendors into temporary accommodation, 91 vendors into permanent accommodation and offered all vendors training with 108 getting an accreditation in ICT. We have also helped 91 people get into drug detox programmes. Our vendors are some of the most vulnerable people in our cities. They are five times more likely to be the victims of violent crime than any other member of the public. Their health is considerably worse and they are more likely to die young.

    We believe that The Big Issue in the North is making a unique and valuable contribution to sorting out the social problems of our cities and towns. Negative portrayal of our work is only going to undermine this and make the situation worse. We have really appreciated your support in the past and ask that you continue to support us in the future.

    Yours faithfully

    Fay Selvan
    Chair, The Big Issue in the North