Joe Lycett, comedy avenger
The 33-year-old comedian and television presenter hosts his own consumer comedy hybrid show for Channel 4 called Joe Lycett’s Got Your Back, which won the 2021 Royal Television Society Award for best formatted factual. In 2020, Lycett changed his name by deed poll to Hugo Boss as a protest against the company of the same name sending cease and desist letters to small businesses. Last year he took on oil giant Shell for greenwashing, highlighting their emissions in a parody advert in which Lycett appeared as CEO Ben Van Beurden “repeatedly shitting out of his mouth”.
What started me off was seeing the way my parents were treated by the companies they worked for. For most of her working life, my mum worked for Cadbury. It started out as a brilliant company that really looked after their staff – they built a whole village in Bournville, with all sorts of things for wellbeing. But gradually, as Cadbury was sold off to Kraft (now known as Mondelez), all of that started to be eroded. Big corp stripped away what Cadbury made great, and it’s no longer the pride of Birmingham. Frankly, we’re a little embarrassed by it.
Growing up, I had that sense of: “Well, that’s just not good enough!” Our local bus company refused to give change: if you only had a fiver for a £3 journey, they’d just keep the £2. They said it was dangerous for the drivers, and slowed the buses down. So I wrote to every other bus company in the UK, who all offered change, asking: “Why do you give change? It’s dangerous for your drivers and it slows the buses down!” Every single one got back to me with reasons why that was wrong. Eventually, I met the Birmingham company and said: “Here’s every bus company in the UK telling you why your policy is bullshit.” It felt so good, like I was the Erin Brockovich of the Midlands. I called the campaign: Time for Change. I actually think they still don’t give change, so while a good approach, not the result I was after.
I worry a big part of why I do things is because it’s addictive to be right or to show someone up. It’s not altruism – though, obviously, I’m delighted to stand up for the little guy. One of the wins I’m most proud of was early on Joe Lycett’s Got Your Back: a woman named Claire had been scammed out of thousands by someone pretending to be from her bank, and NatWest were refusing to compensate her. She had been saving up to do a nursing course, which she now couldn’t do. We approached it in what was described as a very “Joe” way: NatWest had told her that it couldn’t stop scammers pretending to be them, so I set up a Twitter account, pretending to be the NatWest CEO Ross McEwan. I started off with the stuff that you’d expect a bank CEO to tweet, retweeting NatWest with banal statements.
Then, gradually, it was more and more total nonsense, culminating in me tweeting after a couple of pints: “I’ve got a smelly bum bum.” I got a very panicked call from the Channel 4 lawyers saying “DELETE THE TWEET”, but it was too late, a journalist had already screengrabbed it. Alas, NatWest couldn’t ignore it. We got attention on the case by making a joke. Often, if people start to look silly, they can’t keep ignoring you. I loved the panic that Ross McEwan might take legal action against me. I would LOVE to be in court with Ross McEwan trying to prove that he doesn’t have “a smelly bum bum”.
We try to keep it light, as it is predominantly a comedy show, which happens to get results. I could’ve gone down the panel show route, but I’m so proud that this is the show with my name on it. I like my jokes to have impact, it’s just the way my brain works. If I see someone doing something wrong, I want to expose that in a funny way.
There are so many different ways in which people are being defrauded, and not just older people: one in five 16- to 34-year-olds have been scammed. We’ve seen big issues with student letting companies. Some of the dark web stuff is really scary. There are long lists called “sucker lists” of personal data that people put together and sell. Your passwords, addresses, phone numbers, online shopping history are worth about 20p on the dark web. Sometimes scammers just monitor your emails until you have to make a payment to someone, then set up an email address that looks very similar. I know of one man who was buying a property and lost more than £1m that way. No bank will recover it, it’s just gone. That happens quite regularly.
It doesn’t depress me, it makes me cross – it’s a motivator, if anything. I adhere to the Stoic thing: if somebody nicks your wallet, you should pity them because they’ve lost more morally. It’s harder with corporations, where the sole purpose is profit. I did a programme about Shell and greenwashing: even if the head of this company said, “We’re bad, we’re going to change,” they would just be ousted by the shareholders and replaced by a new puppet. To try to fix a huge, big thing like that is like trying to stop death.
I try to think about how I can help in whichever way I can. My favourite thing is when people message to say, “I was about to be scammed, but because I’ve seen your show, I wasn’t.” That’s the best review.
Joe Lycett is currently on tour – visit joelycett.com for info
Jack Monroe, kitchen revolutionary
The food writer and activist came to prominence as “The Bootstrap Cook”, sharing low-cost recipes she devised to feed herself and her young son. Since then Monroe has given evidence to parliamentary inquiries and consulted on the School Food Plan and the National Food Strategy. In February her tweets highlighting the increasing cost of budget groceries were a factor in Asda lowering prices. In May, she launched a libel action against Tory MP Lee Anderson for alleging that she profits from the poor. Monroe is now working on a new price index, the Vimes Boots Index, to measure the cost of basic foodstuffs and inflation as it affects those on the lowest incomes. She is also writing a book on the impact of austerity cuts.
I started blogging in 2012, about my experiences of being a single mum on benefits. Then it was an organic progression to move from telling my story to incorporating others’. In the beginning, I was quite self‑conscious about using my platform – I’m nothing like my more brash tweets might have you believe – but as the years have gone on I’ve become more comfortable with being an advocate.
I write budget recipes to help people navigate their way through crisis, but I also use them as a vehicle to poke the government and say: “Why do people need these in the first place? What are you doing to help?” I was advised by someone early in my career to “drop the politics”, because then I’d be more likely to get stocked in Waitrose. I was like, “You know what? Fuck that,” and dropped that person instead. Ten years later I’m still here writing. I’d probably be richer if I just did the dinners without the difficult questions, but that never sat right with me. I can’t just churn out recipes for 9p burgers without also asking: why on earth does anyone need a 9p burger in one of the richest economies in the world?
Around 2014, supermarkets started providing food-bank donation points. For the first time, a million people received a food-bank parcel in a six-month period. All of those milestone statistics were front-page news; now, food banks have quietly become woven into the everyday fabric of our society. The reliance on the voluntary sector to patch up the tattered social security system is absolutely shocking. Fuel poverty, period poverty, hygiene poverty, food poverty all have the same root cause: people don’t have enough money for the basics of day-to-day life.
All the evidence is there, yet the government seems to either refuse to hear it, or refuse to act on it. I’m not sure which is worse – but something has to give. I’m a Labour member and supporter, and there are many great MPs working tirelessly every day, but I do feel that as a party the message from the top could be a lot more robustly challenging of the government – that’s what they’re there for.
I have heard from hundreds of people over the years whose loved ones have died of hunger; or ended their lives due to cuts, changes and delays to benefits; or missed chemo appointments due to unreliable public transport. These stories can be extraordinarily difficult to relay to the people in power, but that’s who needs to hear them. Campaigners like me are often met with the same old dismissive response: “There’s no such thing as poverty in Britain, people brought it on themselves” – that tired and untrue trope that poverty is a moral failure on the part of the sufferer. In fact, it’s the system that is at fault, and the designers and perpetrators of that system are complicit in the tragedies that result.
I receive a couple of hundred direct messages or emails a week, not counting public comments on Twitter. It’s important that people feel their experience is validated, and I will try my hardest to help if I can. It’s not ego, or some kind of God complex; I think it’s just the way I was raised. My parents were both foster carers and had the attitude that “if you can help, you get on with it”. Very often after school there would be another place set at the dinner table for a child who was in crisis. Sometimes they’d stay for the night, sometimes for years. As an adult and parent myself, I’m only just starting to understand the enormity of the commitment they made and the values we learned along the way.
My emotional response swings quite wildly, even throughout the day. Sometimes I feel as though we’re making progress – and sometimes I feel as if it’s all hopeless and nothing makes a difference. But that’s generally short-lived, as there’s always something to get stuck into. When you’re shouting against a system that’s rigged against you, every single voice counts. That’s why I keep going – as frustrating and thankless and labour-intensive and exhausting as it is. I think people are starting to get it, especially those who are now finding themselves on the fringes of poverty for the first time, turning off their heating, unscrewing their lightbulbs, putting clingfilm on their windows and going: “Hang on a minute … ” I do feel optimistic that we could be at the tipping point of real social change.
Kwajo Tweneboa, housing superhero
The 23-year-old activist and student from south London uses social media to give a voice to social housing tenants and expose the derelict living conditions many are forced to endure. After publicly shaming Clarion, Europe’s biggest housing association, into carrying out repairs on his family’s flat after a year of inaction, Tweneboa has travelled the country putting pressure on politicians and social housing providers to improve living standards. One tweet, showing a cockroach-infested family home in Lewisham, was seen more than 1m times and led to the family being permanently relocated within 24 hours. Tweneboa has received mentoring and financial backing from Dragons’ Den investor Steven Bartlett, and was named Young Campaigner of the Year at the SMK National Campaigner Awards.
For most of my life, I’ve lived in social housing. I grew up in Mitcham, south London, with my sisters and my dad. For a while we lived in temporary accommodation, most of it falling down from damp and mould. One was a converted garage, still with the garage door on – I’m sure it was illegal. But Eastfields estate was even worse. There was damp and mould, we couldn’t use our kitchen or bathroom. We had mice, cockroaches, flies. It was so dated, too. The kitchen cupboards were ancient.
When we moved in, in early 2018, my dad was ill with stage one oesophageal cancer, but it rapidly progressed to stage four. He went from walking around to relying on a walking frame on the rare occasion that he was forced out of bed. Meanwhile, there was the damp and mould, no water at some points, broken lights, cockroaches running around. We complained and complained to Clarion, the housing association that managed the estate. The last few months of Dad’s life were a lot harder than they needed to be. He passed away in October 2020.
Early in 2020, there had been a major leak in my front room, causing the ceiling to partially collapse. Clarion Housing pulled the whole thing down. I thought it would be replaced in a couple of weeks: how long can you be without a ceiling? But I kept phoning and phoning, and couldn’t get through. Eventually, in October, they told me that no one would be coming until January. I said: “I’m not going to have a ceiling for Christmas?” They said: “No, we’ve got two people, and one’s on holiday – no one can come out until next year.”
I felt that person on the phone was so rude. I remember thinking to myself: “That’s my life you’re talking about.” I’d just lost my dad, and my mental health was all over the place. I wanted to prove a point: that they shouldn’t be able to disrespect someone, just for being a council tenant. I had nothing to lose, so I posted photos on social media. It got shared thousands of times and got picked up by local media, then ITV. My housing association was disgraced. They have since carried out more than 700 repairs on my estate, and they’re still not done. [Clarion acknowledged the issues on the estate, saying: “We recognise that some repairs and pest control measures have taken too long over the last six months and apologise to all affected residents.”]
Unlike the councils, the housing associations have the money: the problem is how they’re spending it. Tenants are not the priority. They see building more homes as the priority over the health and safety of their existing tenants. Not only that, the newbuilds are falling apart. I visited one yesterday that was put up in 2012, and it was like a scene from Titanic – pipes were rusted, the whole floor was flooded. It’s all too common with a newbuild. These people just don’t care. They might deny that they are prioritising finances over tenants, but we can see that they are. People are suffering as a result.
After I went viral, people began contacting me about their issues. I’d go to their houses, post pictures on social media, and get them the help that they needed. MPs and councillors are just ignoring that people are suffering. I’ve seen emails from people living with damp, mould, collapsed ceilings, raw sewage pouring down their walls, and replies from their local MPs telling them they don’t deal with tenants and housing. They think it’s acceptable to ignore the living conditions of their constituents when, not long ago, they were begging for their votes. It really frustrates me. None of them can really relate to what tenants are going through – that’s why it’s not seen as a priority.
I’m determined that housing will be made a priority at the next election, whether Westminster likes it or not. Michael Gove and the Conservatives have clocked on to the issue, Labour not so much. There are many MPs within the party who have done an amazing job of highlighting housing, who know that there’s a problem, so why is the Labour party not talking about it? I’m beyond disappointed in Keir Starmer. He should be shouting from the rooftops of parliament about this issue.
I get thousands of messages and share them in the hope of shaming the local MPs and housing providers. More often than not, the issue gets resolved pretty quickly. One woman had been complaining for a year, and after my post she was moved within 24 hours. Tenants can feel ashamed about their living conditions, then they see other people with the same issues and realise that it’s not just them, it is thousands of people around the country.
I’ve been travelling to different cities, spreading my message about poor quality housing and speaking to residents, showing them that someone is fighting for them. I’ve been to Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester. Next I’m going to Yorkshire, Scotland and Brighton. Housing associations, councils and MPs are scared whenever they know I’m in their area, because they know that there’s only one reason why. I’m glad they’re scared – it’s about time.
I shouldn’t have to be doing this – but people shouldn’t have to be living in those conditions. It is stressful at times. I can’t respond to everyone, it would be a full-time job and I am still in my final year of university, studying business. But I get a lot of satisfaction. It’s actually been helpful for my mental health, because I’m proving that you can’t just walk over someone because of their race, their background, their housing status. I think that’s the biggest mistake some people in senior roles in councils or housing associations make: they look down on tenants, even treat them like scum. I’ve been able to show that they cannot keep getting away with it.
Holly Smith, coupon ninja
The UK’s “coupon queen”, Holly Smith cuts thousands of pounds off her shopping and bills every year. The Extreme Couponing and Bargains UK group she set up on Facebook in 2017 has millions of members, and she is a regular guest on ITV’s This Morning. She recently published her first book, Holly Smith’s Money Saving Book, promising simple savings hacks “to make life a bit easier every day”. Smith lives in Great Yarmouth with her husband and their four children: Bonnie, one, Zac, two, Bella, nine, and Mollie, 11.
I’m autistic; a lot of people on the spectrum focus on a certain area, and mine was always money-saving. When I was 10 or 11, my mum was ill and she asked me to go down to the local shop and do the shopping – I came back with change. She said: “How’d you get it so cheap?” I said I was paying attention to the prices. When my local library got the internet, I’d go there on my bike and spend my Saturdays hunting down freebies – washing powder, things like that. I just absolutely loved it.
When I was 23, I got my first bone tumour. I’ve had four removed from my left leg over the years, right up to 2019. I also have an autoimmune disorder, so I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals. After my surgery, I couldn’t work for more than a year and had to rely on benefits. That’s when I really threw everything at my money-saving, and started entering competitions. I did as many as 300 a week, and won prizes worth £10,000 in that year alone, including one to have a website designed. I decided to use that to make my first money-saving blog. Within six months the Facebook page had 100,000 followers. Today there are 4 million people across my Facebook page and group. That scares me: it shows how many people are struggling. The government has got to do something. People are getting desperate.
I’m working day in, day out to get this information out. All people have to do is give me a little bit of their time, and I can show them how to save thousands a year. The retail price of my book is £12.99 – for many people, that’s several meals. I tell them to borrow it from the library. When I said that on This Morning, they said I was the first author who’d come on to promote their book and told listeners not to buy it. That’s how passionate I am. I will stay up until 4am if there’s a good deal to tell people about. I lose sleep over it. It can be hard, when you are on the spectrum, to disconnect at the end of the day. I’ve had to take sleeping pills at times, just because my brain doesn’t want to shut off.
In December 2015, I got £1,200 worth of shopping completely free. That’s the most I’ve saved with coupons in one go. The record at that time was £600 worth of stuff for 1p – I wanted to beat that. I went to Tesco with my husband, and we were there until it shut. The checkouts broke twice – they’re just not built to handle scanning nonstop for six hours. The total showed £1,200, then went right down to £0. I gave the food to the Benjamin Foundation, which takes in teenagers who have been kicked out of home, and they were very happy. I’ve been thinking about trying to beat my own record.
Since the pandemic, couponing has gone digital – all you need is your smartphone. Apps like Shopmium, CheckoutSmart or GreenJinn show you all the coupons. You can easily get £30 of free stuff a week, but you never know what you’re going to get. It could be Pop-Tarts one week and a bag of salad the next. A lot of people say you never get healthy stuff on coupons, but GreenJinn is for vegan and vegetarian products. It does allow you to try new things. If you swap out meat two days a week, you can save on average £300-350 a year.
If you have a product you really love, reach out to the brand and let them know. Sometimes they come back with some coupons. A lot of people only get in touch to complain, but I like to approach with acts of kindness, telling them how much you love their food. If you write to the complaints address being positive, you’re likely to get more coupons than if you complain. Recently my daughter drew a pack of sausages she loves. We sent it off to the brand and they wrote back with £5 of coupons and asked to use her picture on social media. You’re helping the brand and they’re helping you.