Love him or hate him, the founder and editor-in-chief of the Big Issue pulled no punches as he wandered around the stage, removed a loose tooth and swigged from a large bottle of water.
Criticising other speakers and deriding the call to increase the contribution of social enterprise from one per cent to just three per cent of GDP, Mr Bird set out a vision of social enterprise that would benefit those who needed help most.
He said that society is still geared to helping the disadvantaged through handouts and support but less comfortable at empowering them.
Despite the public seeming happier to give money to the homeless rather than engage with them, Mr Bird and colleague Gordon Roddick had established and built the Big Issue — empowering the homeless and tapping into their entrepreneurial skills.
He said he had seen similar vision and success at the Brighter Futures Workshop — one of the winners at last year’s social enterprise awards. Just as with the homeless, the ‘system’ did little to empower people with disabilities.
But founder Peter Cousins, himself a wheelchair user, was determined to be part of a solution not part of a problem, said Mr Bird. He had built up a business that allowed people with disabilities to take control of their lives and engage in successful enterprise.
Mr Bird called for a similar attitude to prisoners and to those with mental health problems: “I believe social enterprise needs to be allowed into the prisons.
“If government is serious about dismantling poverty it needs to face up to the elephant in the room — mental health. Why not build little social enterprise to help people out of depression?
“There is only one cure for poverty. It’s not handouts that are needed but social mobility. And the social enterprise movement is leading the way in spreading that social mobility.”