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Thu, 1 October 2020

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Martha Lane Fox interview: Why chairing the new Lords Covid-19 Committee was a 'no-brainer'

Martha Lane Fox interview: Why chairing the new Lords Covid-19 Committee was a 'no-brainer'

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6 min read

Martha Lane Fox had been searching for a way of contributing to the UK’s recovery from the coronavirus outbreak. In the shape of the new Covid-19 Committee in the House of Lords, she has found her outlet. The tech entrepreneur speaks to Sebastian Whale

Being a tech entrepreneur has at times proved to be a double-edged sword for Martha Lane Fox. If the WiFi plays up in the House of Lords, her fellow peers seek her out for guidance. 

“I was seen as this weirdly specialist IT person, which I’m really not,” says the crossbench peer who co-founded lastminute.com and sits on the board at Twitter, among numerous other accolades. “I haven’t revealed that to many people, but I’m really not that good at that kind of infrastructure question.”

Lane Fox, who last year was named as the most influential woman in the UK’s digital sector from the last 25 years, has been sceptical of the technical nous on show in the Houses of Parliament. She is the first to champion, however, recent efforts to take their Lordships virtual.

“I’ve been very impressed,” she tells me from the passenger seat of her car while her four-year-old twins sit quietly in the back. “If you said to me even six months ago, ‘You’ll be voting remotely on your phone in the Lords’, I’d be like ‘Yeah right, that’s never going to happen’. But look at how quickly the House has reorganised to make that happen.”

She pauses: “I have found it genuinely inspiring that even at this difficult time, even with so many other things to think about, we have got back up and running. I think that’s brilliant.”

It’s an incredible opportunity in the Lords to try and help either change the conversation, make constructive suggestions to government, or manage our way through what’s going to be an extremely complex time

The online move is by no means the only recent innovation in the upper chamber. In June, following the recommendations of the Liaison Committee, their Lordships established a Covid-19 Committee, chaired by Lane Fox, to consider the long-term implications of the coronavirus crisis on the economic and societal well-being of the UK. Among its members are Lib Dem peer Floella Benjamin, Tory former Cabinet ministers Nicky Morgan and Eric Pickles, and ex-Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain.

The committee provides an outlet for Lane Fox to contribute towards the recovery from the crisis. “It’s an incredible opportunity in the Lords to be able to do things like this and try and help either change the conversation, make constructive suggestions to government, or manage our way through what’s going to be an extremely complex time. It was a no-brainer for me to put my name forward. It felt like something tangible I could do to help.”

The committee, which has yet to meet in person due to constraints posed by the coronavirus, has agreed its first piece of work. Over the coming months, they will take evidence on what will or should be different for both people’s lives and society in the wake of the pandemic. 

Indeed, at an individual level, lockdown has brought with it a period of introspection. In some quarters, this self-evaluation has led to calls for more flexible working or a general slowing of pace. I’m curious to know if it has done the same for Lane Fox. “It’s funny how having something forced upon you, it’s incredible to me how quick human beings reassess how to structure themselves. I’ve found that inspiring about this time. But I think that the question – and I’m not having a go at you but I’m reflecting on myself as well – comes from a position of relative privilege,” she says.

“For a lot of people, this is not about being able to reimagine flexibility or what I’d like to do differently. 

“They’ve had to deal with an incredibly complex set of constricting circumstances. That might be no space at home, it might be an abusive partner, it might be incredible difficulties with technology or trying to get children through some kind of education, it might be severe mental health issues, it might be massive complexity around their working lives.”

She continues: “So, while I am an optimistic person, because entrepreneurs tend to be, and while I really hope our committee can point to some positive actions for change, we are all very well aware that a big focus for all of us is that this has been a time when not only existing inequalities have deepened, but there have been new ones exposed. We want to stay very focussed on that.”

While yet to define which specific areas the committee would like to look into, Lane Fox says there is “common ground” in considering inequalities thrown up or made more acute by the coronavirus outbreak around vulnerable groups, minority groups, and regional differences in the UK.

Alongside representatives from academia, business and civic society, the committee is seeking evidence from members of the public. To do so, they are considering gathering submissions via methods such as video, photos and audio clips. “I know other committees have tried to do that in different ways, so I’m not saying we’re the first to invent this. But this moment does allow for some different kinds of thinking,” she says.

She adds: “What I aspire to is something that looks quite visual in some ways, where you’ve got a heat map or bubbles of those pieces of individual testimony about people’s hopes and fears. Yes, it’s not an exact science, but always important to have in the mix. I think that can add something really interesting.”

Not every committee is going to suddenly steer towards Covid, because we’ve got Brexit looming on the horizon. The ‘C’ word has replaced the ‘B’ word, hasn’t it?

The committee hopes to be able to produce an “assessment of the landscape” by the Autumn. “I want really tangible things that people can use in their policymaking and use in other committees. Not every committee is going to suddenly steer towards Covid, because we’ve got Brexit looming on the horizon. The ‘C’ word has replaced the ‘B’ word, hasn’t it? It is going to be a tricky few months,” she ponders.

The committee’s remit is broad and focused on the wider implications of the crisis, as opposed to the minutiae of the day-to-day. “We are not an inquiry into what’s happening, we are not a review of why PPE equipment maybe didn’t get to care homes. That will be somebody’s job, but it is not ours. Our committee’s job is to think of the longer-term,” she says. “So we are really trying to cast our minds out two to five years.”

As for what she hopes to achieve with the committee, Lane Fox concludes: “Success for me is: can we produce something meaningful that is useful in the shorter term. And then longer-term, can we continue both to challenge how select committees run and operate and the voices that we are including – that is a big one for me as chair – with producing practical, actionable, impactful work. 

“Every select committee probably starts with that view, but many do end up on the shelf. I want to try and make ours more of a living, breathing process.” 

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