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The Policy Ask with Martha Lane Fox: “Women should be in every place decisions are made”

The entrepreneur and president of the British Chambers of Commerce on the economic crash, co-launching gov.uk and Rwanda’s policies on female representation.

By Spotlight

Martha Lane Fox is best known for co-founding lastminute.com during the dotcom boom of the early 2000s. She is president of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), the UK’s network and voice for UK and global businesses, chancellor of the Open University and a member of the House of Lords. She also sits on the boards of WeTransfer and Chanel, is a trustee of the charity the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust, and has a CBE.

How do you start your working day?

I try to be up before everyone else in my house – I like that time to read and think. However, none of that happens until I have fed my two Bengal cats and my tortoise. 

What has been your career high?

I helped create the Government Digital Service and launched gov.uk. Contrary to what you might imagine, this was one of the most entrepreneurial projects I have ever undertaken, and I feel happy to have been part of a change that has helped improve services for citizens so considerably.

What has been the most challenging moment of your career?

After lastminute.com went public, the stock market collapsed, and we took a lot of flak. I was very personally and publicly attacked in the press, and in parallel, internal employee confidence was knocked dramatically. I was 29. It was a huge amount to carry.

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?

If you’re in the room, you are there for a reason. So don’t hold back, use your voice. Oh and blow-dry your hair properly because you always feel better afterwards. 

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Which political figure inspires you?

Not so many in the UK right now but Russian activist Alexei Navalny is astonishing, and the pain he is withstanding for belief in his country is unparalleled. 

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What UK policy or fund is the government getting right?

The direction of travel in green investment and net zero is fundamental. There just needs to be far more, far quicker. 

From a business point of view, the transition to net zero presents firms with opportunities to grow and expand. Through my work with the BCC, I’ve seen the great work chambers of commerce are doing in this area, including the development of green innovation accelerators.  

One way that the government can speed up its work on net zero is by expanding these accelerator programmes across the country, based on the successful chamber models, focusing on areas such as tidal, offshore wind and nuclear energy.

And what policy should the UK government scrap?

I think most of the ways we approach criminal justice policy are unbelievably depressing – so few people should be thrown into the hell of prison and yet we still do so.

What upcoming UK policy or law are you most looking forward to?

There are some proposed infrastructure laws that I hope come to fruition quickly – we need much greater investment in long-term infrastructure, from rail to digital.  

Investing in public infrastructure projects not only provides businesses with the resources to grow and adapt to changing times, it also injects much-needed money into local economies and creates jobs. We also need green infrastructure if we are to have any hope of a strong economy in ten years’ time. 

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?

In Rwanda, after the genocide, a law was passed that every decision must be made with 50 per cent female representation. Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously said that women should be in every place decisions are made. Let’s codify it. 

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?

I would devise a much more effective mechanism for rewarding and enabling care in society – whether childcare, elderly care or other responsibilities. This would range from a universal childcare provision to paid care work. I think this would enable more people into the workforce and reward those who have full-time care commitments. 

Recent BCC research found that 81.5 per cent of people believe that there is not sufficient support available for people with non-paid caring responsibilities. As a result of having such responsibilities, over half of people felt they missed out on career progression. If we’re to have a strong society and economy, we must really step up our efforts in this area.

[See also: The Policy Ask with Owen Pritchard: “I’d ban the public sector paying ransoms to hackers”]

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