#OurBirkbeck: Conversations with Alumni – Joanna Elson (MSc Politics and Social Policy 1992)

The following blog is a transcript of an episode of #OurBirkbeck: Conversations with Alumni Podcast. Listen to the full podcast here.

Host: Hello and welcome to the “Our Birkbeck” podcast. Our Birkbeck is an exciting year-long initiative to share and showcase the impact members of the Birkbeck community are having around the world. In this podcast series you’ll hear from our alumni, students, staff, and friends. Whether they are making a difference in their community, bringing about change in their industry or changing the lives of those around them, we celebrate their story. To find out more about the “Our Birkbeck” initiative, please visit: campaign.bbk.ac.uk

In this episode of the “Our Birkbeck” podcast, Felicity Fearon, from the development and alumni team, speaks to Birkbeck Alumni and chief executive of the Money Advice Trust Joanna Elson CBE.

Felicity Fearon: Hello, I am Felicity, and I am delighted to be joined today by Joanna Elson, CBE. Chief executive of the Money Advise Trust, helping people across the UK tackle their debts and manage their money with confidence. Not only has the Money Advice Trust won industry awards for their work, but Johanna has also been personally recognized for her work and her services.  In 2010, Johanna was awarded an OBE and in 2020 she was awarded a CBE for services to people in financial difficulties.  Thank you so much for joining me today. 

Joanna Elson:  It’s a real pleasure, nice to meet you, Felicity. 

Felicity Fearon: I would like to start off by talking about your work, and the incredible impact it has had. The Money Advise Trust is an incredible service. Why are you passionate about it and the work that you do?

Joanna Elson:  Yeah, thank you, its lovely to have this opportunity to talk to you and, beyond the confines of this interview, to talk to other people. I’m passionate about what we do, because there are so many people in this country who are really struggling. I mean, the pandemic has brought this to life and exacerbated the problems. But, even before that, there are many families out there who just struggle to make ends meet. Their income just simply is not high enough to live in any way or sense and, therefore, they get into financial difficulties. That is where we come in, working with other charities to help get people back on an even keel and it isn’t only about the physical and financial challenges that they face but it is also about the mental and emotional challenges that people face, because we know from talking to people that debt is a heavy burden that people bare. People wake up in the middle of the night and worry about it. It affects their relationships, their family life, their work, and if we can help to get people back in a place where they are in control, that is a big boost to their mental health, and goodness knows that we need that at the moment.

Felicity Fearon:  It’s interesting that you brought up that obviously you are helping a lot through the pandemic, but also beforehand. I was curious, obviously the pandemic has placed additional financial pressures on so many people, so what is the key thing people should keep in mind when they’re looking to tackle their debts and manage their money. 

Joanna Elson:  Well, I think the key thing to keep in mind is that there is always that we can do collectively to help, often people panic and think, you know, this is a terrible thing, I won’t be able to get out of these problems. There is always something we can do. Sometimes that is about negotiating with creditors and, very often, when with our help or with another charities’ help people do negotiate with the organizations, they owe money to. Very often, organizations will agree to longer term arrangements to repay or they will write off debts, there are always ways to get through and I guess that would be the key thing for me. It is too easy, not easy, it is too tempting for people to simply think this is just too awful, I am not going to open the envelope, I am just going to bury my head in the sand and hope it goes away. Unfortunately, it won’t go away, but with some help, you can tackle it and get on top of it and, then, you know, life is going to be easier.

Felicity Fearon: Perfect, I think that is going to be helpful for people, especially when they know that there are services, such as you said, kind of out there. So, would you say that you’ve been focused on creating social impact throughout your career or has it been something that you have arrived at through your experiences?

Joanna Elson: Yes, I think there has been a thread that has come through my experience over a number of years, but I worked in a lot of different settings. I was in (…) Before I actually was at Birkbeck, I was a teacher, a primary school teacher, for a short time, a couple of years, and working in an area of Tower Hamlets, which was pretty deprived and where all of the population was Bengali. So, all of the children who came to the school and it was fascinating and eye-opening for me, a bit of London where there is very little green, where children had very little, and where the things we did as a school could make a huge difference.

It was a very early part of my career here I found out that the things we did as an organization could make a difference to people’s family lives. As a kind of add-on to what we were doing as a school, which was obviously educating people. An then, after that, I worked in parliament, for a number of MPs, and clearly that is all about policy and how changing policy can change lives. You hear from their constituents, whether that is sitting on a surgery or whether that’s letters they write and, if you are an MP or somebody working in their office, you get a very clear sense of the impact that people need and then your job if to work out what is it that we can do to change that. After that, I worked for a trade association in financial services, which might sound counterintuitive, because you don’t necessarily think of the banks as being the place where you would go to make a big social difference. But, actually, of course, everybody needs financial services. So, you might say it is public good and, some of the work I was doing there, which was around rolling out basic bank accounts and ensuring that everybody has access to finances and access to some of the best terms. Because, if you know, probably know about the poverty premium, if you are poor you pay more for service and that is clearly not a good thing. Trying to cut through that, making sure that people in financial difficulties actually got some of the best services was a work I did there. So, yes, I would say it has been a thread through my work and often it is a much more rewarding than just, let’s day, if you are working for the banks, if you are changing legislation to help the banks make more profit. That might be something that, within the terms of your work, you are not going to get a lot of job satisfaction from it. So, adding that additional dimension about social impact is as important for me and as satisfying for me, as it is an important thing to do for society.

Felicity Fearon: perfect, it is so interesting to hear how you have been on the ground in so many different scenarios. So, from everything that you have done, what would you say that you are most proud of in your career so far?

Joanna Elson: That is a really good question. Well, you very kindly mentioned at the beginning that I received an OBE about ten years ago and when you get an honor like that you are never exactly sure what is it for. Because this is such a mysterious process, you don’t know who nominated you, anything like that. But, I am pretty sure that what that was for, it was for working with banks, and the government, and charities, to set up a safety net for people in financial difficulties through the credit crisis. So, we set up a scheme that was actually about homeowners who were struggling to pay their mortgage, ensuring that there was a way of them continuing to pay very small amounts over a much longer term, enabling them to stay in their home.

So, that was what the award was for. But, more importantly, it was important during that period. And, you know, the pandemic is kind of the next thing after that, I suppose, in terms of big macroeconomic events. But, during that period it was important to think of what were the things that we could do quickly, that could help people, could stabilize their position and make sure, because you know, we all know, don’t we?, that some of us are only a couple of paychecks away from very difficult circumstances. If you have lost your job, as it happens to people, if you get divorced, if you are bereaved, all of those things can cause you to spiral out of control. Even, a terrible thought, but you look at the people helped by the guy at Shelter, and Crisis, and Centrepoint, and some of the homelessness charities, and some of their stories are of people that had perfectly normal lives and one or two things went wrong and caused them to spiral down. And we were thinking of what was the thing that could keep in their homes during that period, and kind of worry about how you would get on with it afterwards, and that was a scheme that we put in place.

And, it is interesting that through this pandemic we have done similar things in a way, so the equivalent, this time, would be that this is not just about me or my organization, but a number of charities who work together. This time around to persuade the government to stop the use of bailiffs through the pandemic, because, if you think about it, the idea that a bailiff would come to your home in pandemic, when you do not want anybody that you do not need knocking on your door or coming into your house and things are frightening enough, anyway. So, we got that stopped for a period of months. Unfortunately, the government did decide to reopen the possibility of bailiffs being used towards the end of august. And, since then, we have been working with them to see if there are some kind of ground rules that you could put in place, so there are circumstances in which organizations can’t use bailiffs. So, we don’t think that bailiffs should be going it at all, but we surely don’t think that they should be going early in the morning, when there are children in the house, those kinds of things. So, we have been trying to get some sort of ground rules to be put in place around that.

And, If I may, I will just tell you one story that might illustrate why that is important and it is about a debt-advise client’s family, a really brave family, who sought advice when their son. Something terrible happened to their son. So, their son was a blood carrier, as in a motorcycle carrier, carrying blood between hospitals and so on. He received a traffic violation fine from Camden council, which I think it was about a hundred pounds, he didn’t pay it straight away. You know what happens with these things, if you do not pay them straight away, you get another one. So, he git another one, I can’t remember de exact numbers, but it was about two hundred pounds. Meanwhile, Camden council sent the bailiffs around to his house and they said to him: the money has gone up and it’s now something like a thousand pounds, because the bailiffs fees have been added and so on, and so on. He talked to his family and they said, well, they offered to pay half of the money upfront to the bailiffs and see if they can make an arrangement to pay the rest, so that would be half of thousand pounds. And the bailiffs said, no we need the thousand pounds straight away. Tragically this young man then committed suicide. He was 19 years old at the time and he was just overwhelmed by the worry and the threat of what would happen. So, you know, that was a terrible story, and his family are so brave, and I’ve been with them to see ministers and to give evidence to committees and to try and get the law changed around the use of bailiffs because, you know, it is not right that we are threatening people and making them so worried for their life, for a small sum of money.  I am sure Camden council, you know, when they designed that policy, they didn’t intend that this would happen, of course they didn’t. But, because bailiffs are used, because there isn’t any proper independent regulation of bailiffs, it can spiral out of control.

So, sorry, that was a bit of a long answer, but I suppose my point is, for me, it is about impact, it is about taking the evidence from an individual case, from a number of individual cases, and thinking what happened, how can we change, so we don’t have those kinds of families keeping coming onto us, and all their pain and suffering, and you can actually get ahead of that by changing the government or the regulator or whoever it is, or the company, changing their minds. So, that would be another area that I am proud of, and that is not really me, but it is about how we are working together to try to change that.

Felicity Fearon: perfect, and do you think, because obviously, the situation that you brought up is really interesting and I know that a lot of people listening will be wondering how they can help. So, do you have any actions that maybe the listeners could do to really help with this mission?

Joanna Elson: Yes, I mean, there are a number of things that can be done. So, I mean, just around that specific, which was around bailiffs and around how debt is collected and whether it is collected in a humane way. On our website, the Money Advice Trust, we have a map which shows which local authorities, we rate them by six different categories. So, things like: have they got a vulnerability policy?, so they treat people who are in vulnerable circumstances appropriately. Those sorts of things. So, you can go and look at your local authority on the map of our website and see how they perform. And if they are at the low end of the scale, you might think yourself actually I would like to lobby that local authority and say here are five or six things you could be doing. You could stop using bailiffs, you could have a vulnerability policy, and so on and so on. So, that is definitely something that people can do. It is often effective, because, just as I was saying with Camden council, I am sure they didn’t set up to have the tragic end that happened, but we know about that. Local authorities, you know, councilors, don’t go into their work, I am sure, they go into their work wanting to do good. So, they need to understand the impact that their policies can inadvertently have and certainly, as we have talked to councilors and leaders of councils, many of them would say to us: we have no idea that these kinds of things happen, and we would like to put things right. So, yes, people can lobby their MPs, councilors, and make a difference from where they are.

Felicity Fearon: Excellent! Thank you so much for letting us know what we can do and I am guessing there is probably more information in the Money Advice Trust website.

Joanna Elson: Yes, please, you go and have a look!

Felicity Fearon:  Perfect.Now, reflecting on your time at Birkbeck, so, you studied Politics and Social Policy while you were here. What was your experience at Birkbeck and what motivated you to study here?

Joanna Elson: I had a lovely time at Birkbeck. So, this was in the late 1990s, a long time ago. I was working for a labor MP at the time, in the house of commons, I was a researcher, which was a job I loved. But, I had gone into it having it said to you that I was a teacher. So, I had done teaching a couple of years, I enjoyed it, but felt it wasn’t my life’s work and that it probably wasn’t for me. So, I decided to do something different, which is why I went to be a researcher in the House of Commons. And then, the reason I did the Masters was because I wanted to know more, I wanted to understand more about the history, the backgrounds, the potential of politics for social change, really. So, I did my Masters over two years in the evenings, at Birkbeck. I absolutely loved it. It was an incredible nurturing environment, it was exciting, the lecturers were great.

 I remember one of the highlights being listening to Peter Hennessy. Some of you listeners would know about Peter, I mean, he is an absolute world authority on government and politics and he really made the history of British politics come alive. Because he had so many stories about what happened and why it had happened. I do remember, quite often, after our Thursday evening lectures, we quite often ended up with him in the museum tavern, where he would carry on telling stories, as we had a drink with him. I am thoughtful for the students at the moment, all of that is harder to do in the current environment. I have got a couple of daughters, well, I got three daughters, but one of them isn’t currently studying. It is pretty hard at the moment, but, nevertheless, I think the quality of the teaching can even come through in whatever medium that you are using.

So, yes, I absolutely loved Birkbeck, I kind of got into the rhythm of it. It is not easy to start working and studying, but I did not have any children at the time, so that helped. And, I got into the rhythm of being out to go to the library, which was the most fabulous library, sort of straight after work, at six o’clock, doing analysis work there and then to the lecture. Possibly going to the museum tavern. I got into the rhythm of it and I really loved it. I have nothing but praise for it and I think for people who are wondering maybe about what their next step is, maybe in a job they like, but, you know, wondering what the next step is. Something that allows you to study while you are working, because not many people can afford to start again in a point of your life where you are already working. Birkbeck makes it, Birkbeck made certainly in my experience, made that manageable. The people were lovely and they were really understanding about whether you needed more time or, because of the pressure of daily life, it was going to take a bit longer.

Felicity Fearon: That is so glad to hear! Especially with your late-night tavern sessions as well. So, what advise would you give to a Birkbeck student today?

Joanna Elson: That is a good question! You know, follow your dream, I suppose. We all got one life and, you know, being curious, and following that passion, it might well be helpful for your career. But, even if it isn’t, if it is something that you just want to learn, and know more about and dwell into, then, that is the perfectly worth it to do. And, I think particularly at the moment, when, I am really thoughtful about young people, how difficult with the job market it is and so on, having something like a masters can both mark you out for a future employers as someone who has gone the extra mile, so it is worth doing for that. But, more importantly, it is worth doing for your own self-worth, for your interest, and because you are going to learn and grow, and develop. You know, your interest and your passion, be curious and really enjoy it, because it is a wonderful time, it is such a fantastic opportunity that you have to really make most of it.

Felicity Fearon: Excellent and, I am curious, because obviously it is incredible to hear so much about your journey and about what motivated you to go through your various different roles. So, considering how much you have achieved and how you have helped so many different people in so many different ways, what have you got planned for the future? What’s next for Joanna?

Joanna Elson: Oh! That is a very good question. Well, I am really lucky that the chair of my organization is pretty tolerant of me doing lots of other things as well as my day job, which is very nice. So, that allows me to have fingers in lots of different pies. So, I have recently taking on chairing a part of Birmingham University. Birmingham is important to me, because the contact centre that we run, that is the national debt line and business debt line is based in Birmingham. So, in normal times, when we are not in lockdown, I spend a lot of time in Birmingham and there is something called “the centre for household assets saving”, in management at Birmingham University, which brings together the social policy department and the business department and it has a big focus on financial inclusion. So, that is learning about how we encourage people to save, what about pensions? what about financial literacy? Those kinds of things, so I am chairing that and the advisory group that is looking after that unit and really looking how can we disseminate their work and share that more widely. So, that is something that I have recently taken on.

I have only taken on a body called “Fair4All finance”, which is something that the government set up and the idea of it is that it takes dormant bank accounts, so money that is sitting in banks, that people have forgotten about and the bank can’t trace bank the person. So, the bank has a responsibility to try really hard to trace the person who has left the account. So, if they can’t be traced, there is things they have to do to check that. But, If they can’t be traced, then, there are millions and millions of pounds sitting in those accounts. So, the government set up this body to use that money for financial inclusion. So, I am working with them, I am on that board, and that is about things like affordable credit. So, that is about how could we have a system where we got rid of many of the payday lenders now, who were really preying on people. But those are the people who can’t afford basic credit, who can’t afford to pay bank rates and the bank might not even offer them a loan anyway, because, you know, they are not a kind of traditional bank costumer. What is it that we could put in place for those people? That is going to be low-cost, still possible no cost, but it is going to smooth the picks of their economic lives. I mean, that when their washing machine breaks down or they need to buy school shoes, or whatever it is, they have got something to draw on.

So, I am working with them and I am incredibly fortunate to also be working with financial services, so I represent vulnerable costumers on the board of an organization called “UK Finance”, which represents bank and mortgage companies and others. It is my job, when they around that big board table, to say: “Have you thought when somebody can’t afford this or what about this product? When you test your product, do you make sure that you are not thinking about some mythical ideal consumer, but you are thinking about what happens if somebody loses their job or something goes wrong?” So, I have a number of different options and I am always looking for other ones and I am really glad to be able to do does things, because part of why I do what I do is because I love the interaction with people and that kind of sparking of ideas. So, you hear an idea here and you think: Oh! I wonder if that could work over there. Very often you can put people together or you can find a way of kind of getting maximum benefit from the idea, or the data, or the statistics, or whatever it is. So, yes, lots of more to do, I think.

Felicity Fearon: Excellent! So, I think what we’ll do just now is we’ll just go into a quick fire round just to find a little bit more about you. Because obviously you have said that you are busy doing so many things. It is interesting to find out what you do in your off time.

Joanna Elson: Ok.

Felicity Fearon:  So, what was the last book that you’ve read?

Joanna Elson: Oh! That is a good one! What was the last book I’ve read? Ok, so I have just read and, I am going to consult my phone to check the title of it, I have got a new whizzy app on my phone because I am on a book club and this new book club app, which is really handy when you can’t remember all these different books that you have read. But, this app keeps track of all the books that the book club has read and you can review them, which is rather good. So, I haven’t finish this yet, but I am really into a book called “Reality and Other Stories” by John Lanchester. So, it is a book of short stories and is only recently out. Its kind of spooky stories based on technology, so it is like when technology gets out of control, but with a bit of a winter kind of spooky thing about it. So, kind of a good book for the longer nights when you are sitting around the fire.

Felicity Fearon:  So, that is probably a perfect Christmas present idea, then.

Joanna Elson:  Yes.

Felicity Fearon: What is the one place that you would like to travel to but haven’t yet?

Joanna Elson: Well, my husband spent the early part of his life as a child in Kenya, where his father was a teacher, and his mom was a nurse. We have always wanted to go and never got there yet. Obviously, with all this thing nobody is travelling anywhere much at the moment, but that is somewhere where I would love to go. I have seen very little of Africa, apart from, I was lucky enough when I was 15 to go on a trek in the north of Africa, Morocco, but other than that I have seen very little of Africa and I would love to go to Kenya and see of the places that I have heard so much about.

Felicity Fearon:  So lovely, especially if your husband can give you a bit of a tour.

Joanna Elson: He has all these old silly films, his parents are not alive anymore, he has got all these old silly films from the seventies with all the kids on the beach and the animals around and everything. So, yeah, lots to look for there.

Felicity Fearon:  Excellent, which living person do you admire the most and why?

Joanna Elson: well, this is probably, probably lots of people would give this answer and it going to be two people, because they are a team and it is going to be Barack and Michelle Obama, because it is so incredible what they have achieved in both getting to the white house and the good that they did while they were there. Actually, what they have done since, both of them. Somebody said to me the other day, you have to really be careful about your politics, about what you say about your politics. But, it is a relief, the US election results are such a relief, you know, we are back to some kind of normality, and more importantly to the kind of politics that Barack Obama pursued, which are a much kind of gentler politics, but also brave, bold set of policies that, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, and the divisions that we have seen in America and across the world, it is unthinkable that the response would have been so different, was so different, when Barack Obama was in power. Michelle, in her own way, he couldn’t have done that without her, and that she has her own life and career, and that it has an influence across the world. They are the ones I would point to.

Felicity Fearon: I would say that is a great choice. I have listened to her bio in audiobook, which was incredible, and I definitely want to read Barack’s book now that it has come out.

Joanna Elson: Yes, I think that might be a Christmas gift.

Felicity Fearon:  Yes, definitely. And, final question,describe Birkbeck in three words.

Joanna Elson: Right, just give me a minute. Well, exciting would be one, outstanding, because of the bred of disciplines and the people you have, and the third one, maybe the most important is nurturing, because, you know, students who are working as well have a tough time, you know, it is hard, and you couldn’t carry on doing that if you didn’t have somebody’s arms around you, if you didn’t have the sense that you are being supported and that there is help if you need it, and that if it takes you longer to do an assignment, then there would be understanding. It is a great place; I can only recommend it.

Felicity Fearon:  Perfect, thanks so much for joining us today and it has been obviously incredible to learn more about you and your career and more about you as a person. So, thank you so much for joining us and I hope you have a lovely rest of your day.

Joanna Elson:  Thank you very much, a real pleasure. Nice to meet you, Felicity. Take care.

Host: That is the end of today’s episode. We hope you have enjoyed listening to Felicity and Joanna. If you are interested in finding out more about our Birkbeck, please visit: campaign.bbk.ac.uk to read more about the impact our community is having around the world. Thanks for listening and until next time.

Published by


Alumni & Student Ambassador Officer

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *