The following blog is a transcript of an episode of #OurBirkbeck: Conversations with Alumni Podcast. Listen to the full podcast here.
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
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.
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.
Elson: It’s a
real pleasure, nice to meet you, 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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
Elson: Yes, please, you go and have a look!
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
what was the last book that you’ve read?
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.
that is probably a perfect Christmas present idea, then.
Fearon: What is the one place that you would like to
travel to but haven’t yet?
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.
lovely, especially if your husband can give you a bit of a tour.
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.
which living person do you admire the most and why?
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
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.
Elson: Yes, I think that might be a
definitely. And, final question,describe
Birkbeck in three words.
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
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.
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.