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Opinion

John Bird: Called to account – helping the indebted to help themselves

“You can be a cut-throat, no-nonsense ‘oinker’ and still find this bank cost-effective”

I sweat when people talk about money. I get itchy and awkward and want to go to the toilet again or look at passing seagulls, if there are any. High finance is low attention time for me. But I know that we can’t live without it.

I know if the money markets stop moving your mum and dad’s pension fund money around – £70 trillion in all – then they will have to get a Saturday job. I know that when the sticky stuff hit the fan in 2008 we came near to catastrophe. Then there would have been no social security for anyone. No knee ops, no school dinners – no nothing.

So I know that high finance is the backbone, the very skeleton of all of our prosperity, semi-prosperity or non-prosperity. I know that even the most abject among us, the most marginalised, would be even worse off without high finance. I know that even the beggars in the streets of the world need the world of high finance to be functioning, for them to have even their cursorily distributed handouts.

But I know also that high finance often makes poor people poorer. So, you’ve got to have all these big bucks buzzing around the world to keep even the most inefficient or unequal system going. But wouldn’t it be great if some of the buzz buzzed in the direction of the neediest?

I have known Steve Round for about 10 years. I met him at a meeting about social money, about utilising investment in investing in social justice. I encouraged him to join The Big Issue Foundation board of trustees. Now he’s the chair of that august body. He is also the chair of the Ecology Building Society. He comes from Manchester and lives in Staffordshire. Sometimes he wears a suit that makes him look like a miner on a day off from a DH Lawrence novel. Perhaps Lady Loverley’s Chatter?

I know that even the most abject among us, the most marginalised, would be even worse off without high finance

Now he has me sitting in the Cambridge Youth Hostel Association (YHA) café, talking about The Change Account. About an alternative way of holding a current account. About you putting your wages, your social security payments or wherever you get your money from into an account that works socially.

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Where the beneficiaries of the Change Account are people who work around getting people out of debt. And who educate children and the young about the power of money to distort or to improve the world. Homeless Link, Payplan, Street UK, Advice UK and London Rebuilding Society are the beneficiaries of any profits that accrue with this new way of helping you handle your money.

One of the big pluses for a financial muppet like me is that they help you budget and plan. And make you more aware of how even the smallest of expenditure can cut the guts out of your plans for money management.

I am attracted to the idea because I believe very strongly that if the traditional profit-driven marketplace isn’t giving you a ‘social echo’ to your purchases or services, then you need to create them. If money could be socialised because profits go back, the virtuous circle argument, to those in need, then you’ve sussed it.

The other good thing about it, as far as I can understand, is that you can be a cut-throat ‘no-nonsense’ selfish ‘oinker’ and still find it incredibly useful and cost-effective. I love the idea of getting the unconverted into our broad church of social money, so that they can see that money can create, and does create, social justice.

But of course if you’re a ‘screamer’, one of those who hates the whole system, then I know there are people out there who can supply you with recycled jam jars to keep your wages in. Be careful, though: make sure the jam jar is well washed out. You don’t want sticky notes sticking together do you?

The Change Account encourages people to live within their means, and is available to all and sundry. No credit checks. They just have to know that if you say you are Napoléon Bonaparte, you genuinely are, and not really Julius Caesar telling a porky.

Steve kept me many hours at the YHA. Most of what he said passed entirely over my head. As he sat there with his very charming head of marketing, Caroline Pitt, evangelising about the uses of The Change Account, I got the gist. Money can work for good. And you with your account with them can help some very useful players in the poverty world to do a bigger job.

I love the idea of Social Capital. Helping the homeless to help themselves can now be added to: helping the financially hopeless to help themselves. And, of course, the not hopeless into the bargain.

I like that. But get hold of them if you need a more careful assessment of what in flaming hell they are up to. Social echoes need increasing. They are after 100,000 account holders in the next few years. I will be among that number. All I have to do is prove to them that I really am R Hood of Nottingham Forest.

And they’ve built an amazing ‘platform’ that does more than any bank account!

John Bird is the Founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue. Email him: john.bird@bigissue.com or tweet: @johnbirdswords

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