Should rich old people use their bus passes? How do we get more women in the boardroom?

The week's big questions, answered by Baroness Jay of Paddington

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Is the US out of order expressing a view on the UK’s membership of the EU?

I was glad the US diplomat Philip Gordon spoke as he did. He brought an adult economic and strategic perspective to what often seems a petulant, childish debate here. The Obama administration obviously thinks we’re reducing our influence in Washington by publicly contemplating leaving the EU, let alone actually doing so. The irony is that those on the Tory right who most loudly support the “special relationship” complain as loudly when our closest ally offers a realistic view of our policy.

Should the British people be offered an “in or out” question on in any EU referendum?

That would certainly be a dangerous gamble. I chair the House of Lords Constitution Committee and we’ve produced a detailed report on referendums in this country. We concluded that they are often used as a tactical device by governments in difficulty, rather than as a serious extension of democracy. We recommended that Parliament should decide when a referendum should be held. If after the next election we need a referendum to ratify a new treaty relationship with the EU, it would need a more complex question than “in or out”. Personally I can’t imagine ever voting to reduce our overall links to Europe.

What should Barack Obama prioritise in his second term?

It’s tempting to say: gun control, gun control and gun control. My hope is that he uses the power of his office to embed some of the domestic policies he was struggling with in his first term. I’m particularly concerned to see his health reforms properly implemented. It’s appalling that a third of US citizens still have no adequate insurance against illness. Barack Obama doesn’t need to face another election. He can be tough and courageous. He should follow Lyndon Johnson, who asked advisers cautioning him against introducing civil rights: “What the hell is the presidency for?”

Could a law on assisted dying risk putting too much power into the hands of relatives of the terminally ill?

I want to see a change in the law to give everyone – patients, relatives, doctors – greater protection and greater choice. At the moment, the Director of Public Prosecution’s guidelines make it unlikely that a relative who compassionately helps someone to die will be prosecuted, but that is a guideline, not a law. The guideline explicitly excludes healthcare professionals from assisting. I agree with the Commission on Assisted Dying which last year said that the current legal status of assisted dying is inadequate and incoherent. We need to have a clear legal position which enables terminally ill people to choose an assisted death which is medically supervised and safe. I’m horrified that today very ill British people have to travel to die in a Swiss clinic because of the legal muddle in this country. I hope that the Bill shortly to be introduced in the House of Lords will be successful.

Is the new proposed flat-rate pension an unavoidable move given our ageing population?

It looks as though a flat-rate pension will give women pensioners, always the poorest, a better deal, so I certainly welcome that. I’m one of the generation who thought the married women’s opt-out scheme was helpful, but in fact it created serious problems for many people when they reached pensionable age. Pensions are so complicated that it’s always difficult to judge whether what looks like an improvement in the short term will work over the next decades as the ageing population grows. My hope is that women who have raised families, been carers and been in and out of work may achieve some long-term security through the flat-rate pension.

Are older people better served by being given the chance to keep working? Or do they deserve long, happy, state-funded retirements?

The real question here is: is 60 the new 40? Of course, many older people are healthier and more energetic than even our parents’ generation, but many are not. In my opinion it’s about chance as well as choice. I’m now in my seventies and enjoy going on working. I work less than I did 10 years ago, still enough to interest me, and, I hope, make a contribution. But I’m extremely lucky and privileged, both in my health and in my political and charity work. It’s very different if people feel economic and social pressures to continue a physically or mentally exhausting job. Although there is a strong case for raising the state pension age gradually over time, the state should continue to provide enough to make old age secure and dignified, even if we do all live to 100!

Have rich older people a moral duty not to collect their winter fuel payments or bus passes?

I’m old-fashioned enough to believe in the principle that tax-funded benefits should be universal. I recognise that this may be financially unrealistic in 2013, but I still shy away from cumbersome, expensive means-testing schemes which undermine this principle. We have yet to see, for example, how the new complex allowances for children will work in practice. I also resent the notion that those of us who have worked for 40 or 50 years have some kind of moral duty to refuse allowances. We may decide that individually we don’t need to claim them but we’ve certainly paid for them over our lifetime. I really worry that if this kind of approach gains traction, some policy guru will suggest that financially secure pensioners don’t need to use the NHS.

Are you in favour of quotas for women in the boardroom?

I am absolutely convinced that having more women company directors not only improves equality but also improves company performance. But I don’t think that quotas are the way to go. Over the past 10 years, I have several times been the only woman at a boardroom table and it is lonely. But the situation seems to be changing quite fast. In the past two years, Lord Mervyn Davies has led a practical initiative which has meant that 27 per cent of new director appointments to FTSE 100 boards have been women. The aspirational target for these companies is now to have a quarter of all board members by 2015. Still not enough. The change needs to go further down to smaller and more traditional companies, but my experience is that a targeted approach, led in a high-profile way, by top business people will be more successful than trying to impose a legalistic rigid regime.

Baroness Jay of Paddington is a former Leader of the House of Lords

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