Baroness Howe is former Chairman of the Broadcasting Standards Commission, Deputy Chairman of the Equal Opportunities Commission and throughout the 1980s and ‘90s held a seat on the board of Kingfisher, United Biscuits and Legal & General.
What would you change to make UK boards more effective?
The sooner we get more women on boards, the better. It strikes me as odd that women aren’t better represented when they determine so much of a company’s fate — especially in retail where women pay at the till and sit behind it. I recall a female member of staff in the ‘80s remarking on my appointment: “It’s about time someone up there represented my interests”. Some of my male colleagues took umbrage at this but, whether or not her concerns were justified, I think diverse boards can only be a good thing. I’d also limit the number of non-executive positions that can be held by any individual at one time. If there’s a crisis you need to drop everything and focus on sorting out the situation. But you can’t do this if you owe multiple boards your time
Have boards changed much in the last few years?
Boards are certainly subject to much greater scrutiny than before and this is no bad thing. One particular development from all of this which seems sensible is the ‘nine-year limit’ on independent non-executives. I was on the Kingfisher board for nearly fifteen years; although I hope I added value throughout my tenure, on balance, I think it’s healthy for new blood to be introduced every now and again. Non-executives should bring a fresh perspective and that’s harder to do, the longer you’re there.
Do you agree with introducing mandatory gender quotas on boards?
I was appointed to a number of boards long before there was any talk of quotas and I was lucky that they were all extremely welcoming. I’d prefer women join boards for their merit alone, rather than to fill a quota. But on the other hand, the all-women shortlists Labour introduced in the ‘90s created a valuable culture change and shift in thinking. Of course, not all the women were successful, but the opportunity gave some a step-up and others the chance to shine.
How important do you consider information to be in the boardroom?
Good information is crucial and it’s up to each director to demand they get this. If need be, non-executives should kick up a fuss and insist on being able to visit and find out exactly what they want to know about the business. At Kingfisher, it was easy for me to slip into a shop unnoticed; this gave me much better insight into what was going on than I would have had from an official site visit. It’s all too easy to be blinded by the meet-and-greet charade.
What single government policy change would you make to support British enterprise?
I’d change the process by which policies are formulated. It should be a pre-requisite that all prospective Bills are subjected to a rigorous cost/benefit analysis before being presented to the House. This would prevent a lot of time being wasted on half-baked ideas and would spare our political parties a great deal of embarrassment with all of the U-turns that we’ve seen of late. A policy may have an admirable goal, but the real question is whether its prospective benefits outweigh the costs of implementation.
What’s keeping you busy now?
During the early stages of the Coalition Government’s legislative programme, I was fully occupied working on their Education, Welfare Reform and LASPO Bills. Currently, I’m working on my first Private Members Bill: The Online Safety Bill. This supports the work Claire Perry is doing in the Commons to protect children from inadvertently accessing inappropriate pornographic content on the internet. The Bill’s intention is that this material be available only to those who were over 18 years old and who had deliberately decided to ‘opt-in’ to view it.
What book is on your bedside table?
I have little time to read but at the moment I have Freud in the City on the go. It’s an autobiographical account of Sir David Freud’s city life pre-politics and well worth picking up.