Lord Fowler: 'Aids has never been a popular cause'
Lord Fowler was first elected to Parliament in 1970, and was health secretary through the HIV/Aids crisis. He is standing down next month as Lords Speaker after almost five years | Alamy
He’s been in parliament more than half a century but never had complete freedom of expression. Lord Fowler, the outgoing Lords Speaker, tells Sally Dawson why he can’t wait to speak his mind
Lord Fowler has announced that he is to stand down early as Lord Speaker this April, four months before the end of his five-year term.
The third holder of the office since the elected role was created in 2006, his decision came as a surprise to some, but Fowler describes it as a “natural” step. With a radical programme of reforms soon to be implemented – following the recommendations of the House of Lords Commission, which he chairs – Fowler says he is making way for a new team, including a new chief operating officer, who will be implementing the changes. “It seems to be sensible that the new Lord Speaker should be part of that,” he says.
The health secretary at the height of Aids crisis in the 1980s, he has also felt a calling to return to the cause of HIV and Aids, he says, due to the “enormous needs” in that area. “And not just in Britain but even more overseas. In some countries, where homosexuality is still illegal, you have persecution; you have people who have HIV but are not being tested; you’ve got a shortage of drugs.”
Fowler is concerned that increasing global financial pressures are impacting available funds, and the progress made in cutting infections and mortality could go into reverse. Although he declines to comment on the government’s decision to end the 0.7 per cent aid commitment, he says: “It’s all connected isn’t it, really? Not just this government but other governments are cutting back, and voluntary organisations are finding it more difficult to raise money. There is a squeeze on resources and Aids has never been a popular cause. So you have to fight harder to get money for HIV and Aids than you do for many others. So, frankly, now is the time to fight hard for it.”
Fowler says he will also continue to campaign on Lords reform – and reducing the number of peers: “We will win that in the end. The ridiculous thing is that the people most affected were the peers themselves. And they supported it. And then along comes the government and says, ‘Well, we don’t really think too much of that; we will appoint a lot more.’”
Theresa May “to her great credit” did support reducing the size of the Lords but he describes the present situation as “just an opportunity lost”, adding that he has “absolutely not the first idea” what the present government’s policy is on this. “All I hope is that, when that policy is announced, it is a policy and not just ‘here is one solution, and we’ll make that the only solution’. It needs a whole review – a range of things to be looked at,” he says.
Asked whether the House of Lords Appointments Commission should be a statutory body with binding decisions, Lord Fowler says “yes, I do”. “The thing that actually riles me about people coming into the Lords is that they accept but no one’s ever told them what they are going to do here; what the requirements are. Are they going to be working peers? Or are they simply [going to] pop in every so often? And it would be much better if all that was sorted out,” he says.
When asked whether he intends to return to the benches as a Conservative – or sit as a crossbencher, as the two previous occupants of his role have – he reveals that he has just accepted the invitation of the convener of the crossbench peers. “I gladly joined,” he says, “because it’s the first time in half a century that I can join a group where I can honestly say I am totally independent.”
Up until now the closest he has been to realising that independence has been in his role as Lord Speaker. “It’s been advantageous but of course I can’t express myself. Now I can not only be independent, I can actually, in [a few weeks’] time, express myself as I wish on all issues,” he says. “It’s the promised land.”