This week's big questions: benefits, homeowner rights and should we cut the abortion time limit?

"We need to  regain a sense that it’s good to be aspirational if we are to overcome our economic malaise"

Click to follow
The Independent Online

This week Helena Morrissey, the CEO of Newton Investment Management and founder of the 30 Per Cent Club answers our questions on equality in the boardroom, employment rights and more

Are Cameron/Osborne out of touch  with the “strivers” and “struggling middle classes”?

I don’t know Osborne but I’ve met David Cameron a few times, and from all his interactions with the people around him, including his wife, I believe he’s a genuine person who should be judged on his actions, not his accent. The ongoing insinuation that because he’s an Old Etonian he must be out of touch is very prejudiced. I went to a comprehensive school and my son’s an Etonian and our respective attitudes are much more to do with what we’re like as people than our schooling. Cameron’s been mocked for the line “I’m here to spread privilege”, but we do need to regain a sense that it’s good to be aspirational if we’re going to overcome our current economic malaise. That will ultimately help the many people who are struggling today much more than a culture which decries success.

Does it matter that so few women are on the boards of top companies?

Better balanced boardrooms just make more sense. It seems so old-fashioned to have male-dominated boards. While there are still relatively few women on boards, the pace of change in the FTSE100 is striking. Since 1 March this year, 55 per cent of FTSE100 non-executive director appointments have gone to women, a rate that surely can’t be bettered if you believe as I do that appointments must be on merit. I’m vehemently anti-quotas to force change; they are a form of discrimination and don’t work. People cite Norway as a case for quotas but in fact Norway still has very few female CEOs and top managers – even below the European average. Quotas are a lazy, short-term fix. I’m interested in a sustainable increase in the pipeline, which will take longer but deliver real benefits to businesses that currently lose so much female talent.

Why are there no female frontrunners for the governorship of the Bank of England?

Perhaps women are smart enough to realise that might be an impossible job! There are probably only a handful of genuine candidates – male or female – with broad enough market and economic experience who could really do and want that job. We shouldn’t get too hung up on the fact that there isn’t an obvious woman candidate for this unique role. The reality is that there is a much smaller pool of very senior female executives in today’s world.

Should there be a cut in the benefits that unemployed people who continue to have children can claim?

We should avoid the temptation to think that complex issues might be solved with blunt rules. Many unemployed people are striving to secure a job. They might already have big families and their children have done no wrong and shouldn’t be penalised. We need much more thoughtful, compassionate approaches to problems and to avoid extrapolating from an example of one large family blatantly choosing to “live off the state” to cause suffering for others.

Do householders need more rights to protect themselves from burglars?

I think we need more common sense rather than rigid rules wherever possible. Our laws so often seem incompatible with rational behaviour and judgements. It simply seems wrong when homeowners are prosecuted for defending themselves in a reasonable way against an intruder. I think the proposed change of law is the right thing to do.

Trading workplace protections for company shares – an idea whose time  has come?

I definitely think it’s an idea worth exploring. Employment rights have been hard fought for but sometimes they discourage employers from taking on people because of the fear of litigation if things go wrong. Osborne’s proposal might encourage more open-mindedness among employers while allowing employees to have a share in the success of a business. Of course, it’s important that people understand the trade-off and there’s scope for abuse if the share value is very low. It needs to be thought through more before being implemented, but this idea might help more young people get their first job and participate in the growth of a company.

Should we cut the abortion time limit in light of medical advances?

I’m no medical expert but it does seem wrong to permit abortions at the same stage of pregnancy as premature babies can survive. Abortion is a very emotive, personal issue and I wish the subject wasn’t so politicised, but whatever your views on the rights and wrongs of abortion per se, 24 weeks just seems too late.

Is it going too far to lock up somebody who makes a tasteless joke on Facebook?

Yes. The rapid rise of social media means we’re in uncharted territory on so many aspects of its use and abuse. Internet trolls are despicable but a prison sentence for a bad taste joke seems disproportionate. Children are being killed in dubious wars and no one seems to be brought to account. We should try to have a sense of perspective.