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Tributes: Lord Fowler

Volume 812: debated on Wednesday 12 May 2021

My Lords, I am delighted to lead the tributes to someone I still consider, despite where he is now sitting, my noble friend, Lord Fowler, on his retirement as Lord Speaker. My noble friend Lord Fowler was elected Lord Speaker in 2016, the same year that I was appointed Leader of the House, so he has presided over business during a period in our history which I think we can both agree has been momentous and, at times, turbulent. He did so effectively and calmly and with the resilience, patience and occasional touch of world-weariness that comes from great political and parliamentary experience.

My noble friend was first elected to the other place in 1970. He served as Transport Secretary, Social Services Secretary and Employment Secretary during his illustrious Commons career, but it was in his period as Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, a giant department which encompassed the NHS, welfare and pensions, that he achieved something that few Cabinet Ministers ever manage to do: he changed the mind of the then Prime Minister and significantly shifted public opinion. His response to the HIV/AIDS crisis was hugely brave and ambitious. It changed and saved lives and tackled bigotry, prejudice and fear head on. It is a cause he has passionately espoused ever since, so it seems only right that he will continue to work on this issue as a UNAIDS ambassador, particularly in those regions where HIV is still prevalent.

As Lord Speaker, my noble friend Lord Fowler has been a vocal and powerful champion of this House, the work we do and the expertise we have. Throughout his term, he was an extremely helpful source of counsel and advice to me at our enjoyable regular meetings. He has consistently argued in support of reducing the size of the House, and it was his initiative that led to the Burns report, which has shaped much of the recent debate on this issue. My noble friend continued the tradition of the Lord Speaker’s lectures, drawing on the expertise of people within and outside the House. One of the most successful of these was a fascinating discussion with Sir David Attenborough which was so popular it had to take place in the Royal Gallery. In his formal capacity, my noble friend welcomed King Felipe of Spain and King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands on their state visits to this country.

Over the past year, as chairman of the House of Lords Commission, my noble friend Lord Fowler has worked with the political leadership and administration of the House to oversee and implement our hybrid proceedings, ensuring that all noble Lords have been able to participate during the pandemic and enabling the House to fulfil its constitutional duty to scrutinise and revise legislation. Indeed, my noble friend made history by being the first, and possibly the last, Lord Speaker to oversee proceedings virtually from the Isle of Wight. He has been proactive in seeking to modernise the overall workings and management of the House, commissioning the Ellenbogen report on bullying and harassment, establishing the ICGP and the Steering Group for Change and commissioning the external management review, which will be a legacy taken forward by his successor.

However, my noble friend Lord Fowler has done so much more than this. He has brought his distinctive personality to the job. Sunday afternoons will not be the same without the musings and reflections contained in his letters to Members of this House. This House owes my noble friend Lord Fowler a debt of gratitude for his unstinting work and dedication to this House, to Parliament and to democracy, but this is not goodbye as we all know he will continue to contribute to our debates and to campaign tirelessly for the causes he supports. No doubt, as he has more free time on his hands, he will be called up for grandchildren-sitting duties. I hope for his sake it is not as often as he called our Ministers to the House for PNQs—he will know I could not resist such a comment.

Now it gives me great pleasure to welcome the noble Lord, Lord McFall, to the Woolsack as our new Lord Speaker. Having been Senior Deputy Speaker, he well understands the workings and idiosyncrasies of this House, and I know he will be a great champion for it and of it. He has been elected by the whole House, and I know he can count on the support of all these Benches. I finish by saying thank you to my noble friend and wishing him all the best in his not-really retirement.

My Lords, it is my great pleasure on behalf of these Benches to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, for the service he has given to this House as our third elected Lord Speaker and as the first man ever to hold that office, as he broke through the glass ceiling on being elected in 2016. To echo the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Evans, I think we all regard him as our noble friend.

But what a five year-period this has been. Our website declares that the role of the Lord Speaker is to chair proceedings and be an ambassador for your Lordships’ House. Our proceedings have not only had to change temporarily in the past year, quickly and dramatically, but in the time that the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, has been the Speaker we have had a few constitutional moments, for which we have to go back decades or even centuries to find precedents. There were some for which there are none. We had an unlawful Prorogation, the first Saturday sitting since 1982 and the first Christmas sitting since the English Civil War. There is a Chinese saying, “May you live in interesting times”, but there is some uncertainty over whether that is a curse or a blessing.

Interesting times need wise heads, wise counsel and calmness, all qualities that can be attributed to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. As an ambassador for your Lordships’ House, he has done us proud. When promoting the need for change, particularly on the size of the House, he has been a positive advocate for the benefits of our work. He has also been scrupulously fair in accepting justified criticism and rejecting the unjustified. The noble Lord now wishes to return to his role as a campaigner. In announcing his retirement, he said:

“I am only 83, and unless I am careful, I will not have time to start my next career. The career I wish to start is that of an entirely independent Back-Bencher”—

as if he was not independent before—

“able to speak out on political issues that concern me, such as the size of the House, and to have the freedom to campaign, particularly in the area of HIV and AIDS.”—[Official Report, 25/2/21; col. 891.].

It is nearly 34 years since the noble Lord, as Secretary of State for Health, launched the “Don’t Die of Ignorance” campaign to raise awareness of HIV and AIDS, in the face of opposition from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. But he insisted that the only answer when tackling this issue was to educate people about the risks and to alter behaviour. I am not sure that I agree with the noble Baroness the Leader of the House: I do not think that he changed Mrs Thatcher’s mind, but he proved that he was right on this. His work in this field has both saved and changed lives. It is to his enormous credit that he will now continue that campaigning, including the combating of stigma and prejudice.

On a personal note, I have valued the noble Lord’s counsel and friendship. I have greatly enjoyed working with him. I have enjoyed our many discussions and debates, and I suspect that we have both been a bit surprised, given our respective political backgrounds, at how often we agreed and how little we disagreed. He has the interests of this House, its Members, our work and our public-facing role at the forefront of his thinking at all times. I hope he will get to spend a little more time in his beloved Isle of Wight with Fiona—I look forward to perhaps visiting him there again—but we look forward to working with him in his new role as a Cross-Bench Peer and, as we know, a dedicated campaigner.

It also gives me great pleasure to welcome the noble Lord, Lord McFall, who has been a friend of mine for many years since we first fought an election. He will remember a weekend in Lytham St Annes before the general election of 1987, or perhaps 1992, when we were campaigning for the Labour and Co-op parties. He has now embraced the independence of the Lord Speaker’s chair, and I am sure that he will follow in the fine tradition of other Lord Speakers in conducting our proceedings. We wish him well and he has our full support in doing so.

It is with great pleasure that we pay our tributes to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, today. We shall miss him, but I know that he considers the noble Lord, Lord McFall, a worthy successor to him, as the House does.

My Lords, the job of the Lord Speaker exemplifies the British constitution. It is not properly written down, it is constantly evolving and the influence it exerts depends very largely on the quality of the occupant at the time. It is already a very different job from the days of its first incumbent and, with the strengthening of the House of Lords Commission, is set to develop further under the tenure of the noble Lord, Lord McFall, whom I welcome to his job.

The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, was the ideal person to be Lord Speaker in changing times because, to do the job so effectively, you need two characteristics which he possesses in abundance. First, you need acute political antennae to understand what is possible within the context of the House of Lords. That is not as easy as it sounds, but the noble Lord’s great experience in the Commons and within the Thatcher Government provided him with an acute understanding of what was possible and what, however desirable, was not.

Secondly, you need an empathetic approach. The Lord Speaker has so few formal powers that the power of persuasion becomes paramount—and the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, can be very persuasive. As far as I was concerned, I was invited to regular meetings in his palatial office and offered a cup of tea. We then had a broad discussion of the political scene, which typically and increasingly included some trenchant comments on his part about the present Government and their leader. He then looked down at his list of topics coming before the commission, on which he wanted my support. Lulled by the tea, the charm and the chat, I nearly always gave it.

On the big issues facing the Lords in recent years, whether on restoration and renewal, Ellenbogen and the ways we manage ourselves or how we respond to Covid, the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, was always open to new ways of doing things and intolerant of resistance to change. He was unafraid to speak his mind to the media on issues facing the House, and was a strong public advocate for the positive part which your Lordships’ House plays within the British political system.

When the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, became Lord Speaker, I lived in Putney and almost literally opposite his flat—in my case, on the south side of the river. I discovered that the most civilised way of getting into Westminster was the riverboat ferry from Putney pier. Having to come in during the rush hour, like me, the noble Lord found himself either stuck in traffic or forced into the cattle-truck-like conditions of the District line. I was pleased to be able to introduce him to the merits of the Putney ferry.

I am equally pleased that he is not now sailing off into the sunset of a well-earned retirement but intends to resume his campaigning efforts on behalf of those worldwide who suffer with AIDS. There are not many politicians who, at this stage of their career, would choose to re-engage with such an unfashionable, though important, issue. It is a measure of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, as a politician and a person that he has chosen to do so.

My Lords, on behalf of the Cross- Benchers I welcome the Lord Speaker to his new responsibilities. As the fourth speaker following three Members of this House who have agreed wholeheartedly about everything they had to say, I do not think I can say very much, except that I agree. I particularly welcome the recognition of the stalwart loyal service that the former Lord Speaker has given to the House. I whole- heartedly agree, but I am going to repeat something—which I hate doing when everything has already been said.

But listen to this list: efficient, calm, resilient, patient, brave, ambitious, proactive, wise, empathetic, persuasive. That sounds to me like a combination of attributes that every single Cross-Bencher in this House enjoys. Therefore, as a job description for a new applicant for the Cross Benches, I think I am persuaded that the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, should become a Cross-Bencher.

Actually, I did not need persuasion. The moment I heard the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, was about to retire from his high office, I wrote to him immediately, inviting him to join us. I was delighted that he agreed to do so and, as a result, we the Cross-Benchers will bask in reflected glory from the presence in our midst of a Member of the House who has brought such distinction to it and to the high office. If I may say so, provided that it is in a balanced, Cross-Bencher sort of way, he can have a platform from which to continue his contribution to the diminution of deadly disease and the alleviation of suffering worldwide. He is very welcome, and I thank him for his services.

It is my privilege to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, from the Spiritual Benches. I start with a specific reflection from these Benches on our leading of Prayers at the start of each day. The noble Lord was consistently considerate and courteous, taking the time to personally thank the duty Bishop for their prayers on each occasion. It was a small, kind gesture that meant more than he may have realised.

We all know of the noble Lord’s long-term, ongoing dedication and perseverance in addressing HIV. His patient persistence is admirable and notable. As he continues with this commendable work, as a UN ambassador, we trust he will further help it move forward. As it happens, this morning, before we began business, I was on a call with Christian Aid, for Christian Aid Week, with people from Kenya who were reflecting not only on climate change but the ongoing impact of AIDS in their country. It is work that needs to continue.

I always valued the noble Lord’s faithful speaking up for the work of this House. He challenged us to fulfil our responsibilities well, he saw how we could perform more fruitfully as a smaller number, and he never held back from criticising those who held the power of appointment when they failed to help us reform ourselves. May we all learn from his example of speaking graciously and firmly, his dedication, perseverance and determination to seek justice and the well-being of all.

I take this opportunity also to warmly welcome the noble Lord, Lord McFall, to his role as Lord Speaker. We have enjoyed—I say “we”, meaning me personally and other Members who sit on the Front Bench—many quiet chats before proceedings as he sat with us, ready to present business as Senior Deputy Speaker. They may not take place now. I say to the Lord Speaker that he is assured of our support in his role and of our ongoing prayers.

In conclusion, I return to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and very simply say thank you for serving us all as Lord Speaker so extremely well.

I have been informed that there are two Members wishing to speak: the noble Lords, Lord Balfe and Lord Faulkner of Worcester. I call the noble Lord, Lord Balfe.

Can I say a word or two as a Back-Bencher, as we have had a lot of Front-Bench speech? I would like to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, who has been eminently approachable and has made a number of innovations, which I certainly appreciate—the first being the Private Notice Question. This is a tremendous advantage, because it means that people not on the Front Bench have an opportunity to call the Government to account. This has developed tremendously well under the speakership of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and I am sure I am not the only person to appreciate that.

The second point for which I am very grateful to him—and will be to the new Lord Speaker—is the battle for a better image. It is not our fault that some people have decided that the House of Lords is a nuisance, but let me say this: if they tried to abolish it, and had a legislature with no way of being pulled back, they would soon miss it. They would miss it very much because, as I explain to many people, the main job of the House of Lords is that is has a lot of Back-Bench Members with a huge amount of experience who, when the detail of legislation is debated on the Floor of the House, do not win votes but win arguments. They win arguments in such a way that the Minister then goes away and comes back with a better formulation of what they wish to do. In other words, the Back-Benchers do not set out to wreck the Government’s policy but to make it work. That has been helped enormously by the very positive way in which the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, has acted.

My final two points are these. First, I appreciate the Sunday emails; I hope the Lord Speaker will continue this tradition, because it keeps us in touch and means that we know what is happening. Secondly, I also appreciate the fact that, throughout his service, whenever I approached the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, his office always responded courteously and pretty fast. I have never had the feeling that Back-Benchers are second in the queue. I thank him for his courtesy in always responding to me and, I am sure, to many other Back- Benchers.

All I will say to the Lord Speaker—I cannot work it out but I have known him now for somewhere in the region of 47 or 48 years—is that he has a lot to live up to. I am delighted to see him in his place and I have every confidence that he will live up to the reputation that has been so highly set by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler.

My Lords, there are three Deputy Speakers in the Chamber at the moment—or four if we include the Lord Speaker, who of course has been promoted from Senior Deputy Speaker. We welcome him. It has been a pleasure to work with the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, as Lord Speaker. We had marvellous meetings on Thursdays, where we would talk through the business due to come up the following week and pick up some of the gossip we had heard around the Chamber. The leadership of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, of our group of deputies has been a delight to us, and I hope that he enjoyed those meetings as well. Certainly, from that point of view, we wish him every good fortune, not in retirement, as everyone else has said, but in his new existence.

The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, referred to the commitment of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, to improving the image of the House. I thank him for inviting me to be the first chair of a Lord Speaker’s communications group, which has attempted to redress some of the bad media coverage that the House has received. This is very much unfinished business and I was delighted to hand over the chair to the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope, who I am sure will do an even better job when that gets going.

I very much endorse what has been said about the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, gave Back-Benchers the opportunity to play a greater part through Private Notice Questions—and I can understand why the Lord Privy Seal might not be so enthusiastic about that. I should also say that the establishment of the Burns committee and the determination to keep it going is also a piece of unfinished business which I hope will go on and come to fruition.

I finish by saying that I first came across the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, on 7 November 1979, when he was Secretary of State for Transport and found himself answering questions in the House of Commons about a Guardian report of that morning on the likelihood of 41 local rail services being axed—a product of what was quite clearly a conspiracy between the British Railways Board and Department of Transport officials. This was put to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler—he was not Lord Fowler then, obviously—as the Secretary of State, and he was able, on one day and in one statement, to put to an end all the speculation about cuts to the rail network on anything like that sort of scale. He said:

“Let me make it absolutely clear that the report in The Guardian is untrue. I read it with astonishment … I see no case for another round of massive cuts in the railways.”—[Official Report, Commons, 7/11/1979; col. 380.]

Those of us who care about the railways—we are now supporting the Government’s initiative to reverse the Beeching closures—are deeply grateful for what Norman Fowler did on that day and the support that he has given to our railway system since. I thank him particularly for the support that he has given me.

My Lords, I would like to say a few words of my own to close the tributes to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. What a joy it is to see him here today in his new place on the Cross Benches.

He and I began as Lord Speaker and Senior Deputy Speaker, respectively, in 2016; little did we know what was to come. The past five years have seen the House go through political turmoil, Supreme Court cases and, of course, the Covid-19 pandemic. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, was present on the Woolsack for the first Saturday Sitting since the invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982, and he recalled the House for the first Christmas Sitting since the civil war. Throughout it all, the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, steered the ship admirably. He and I worked well together—I know only too well that his job was not easy, but he bore the burdens, and sometimes frustrations, with patience, calmness and good grace. He was always courteous to me, and I speak personally when I say that the support and encouragement that he has given to me over the last five years have meant a great deal.

He has been a fierce champion of the House and of our Members. I have lost track of the number of letters and articles that he has penned and speeches that he has given in defence of our work and the valuable role that we play in shaping legislation, adding value and holding the Government to account.

Within four months of his Speakership, he established the Burns committee, and the efforts to reduce the size of the House ran like a golden thread through his time on the Woolsack. That the scheme commanded widespread support in the House and that No. 10 followed a policy of moderation in new appointments are both significant achievements. As the Burns committee report published last Sunday set out, we, the Members of the House, have delivered our side of the bargain; others have more to do. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, will continue to champion this cause from the Back Benches, where, ironically, he now has much more freedom to pursue it, with his characteristic resolve and determination.

His weekend emails over the last year came to punctuate the week and drew us together during a time when so many of us were apart. His lecture series showcased the best of the House and projected that to those beyond our walls. The lecture given by Sir David Attenborough in the Royal Gallery was a highlight, although he was not a Member of the House, and the spontaneous standing ovation showed the power and impact that his address had on those of us who were present.

The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, was not only a formidable champion for the House; he did a great deal to compound and grow the office of Lord Speaker. As noble Lords will know, the office is relatively new, and the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, was only the third incumbent. His willingness to grant PNQs from both the Front Benches and the Back Benches allowed more urgent business to be brought to the Floor of the House. The small but important changes that he secured, which mean that the Lord Speaker now announces business from the Woolsack, have allowed those outside the House, and some of those inside it, to better understand our proceedings.

There has been no formal review of the role of Lord Speaker since the Constitutional Reform Act 2005—yet, as noble Lords will know, the first three Speakerships have already seen significant evolution and growth. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and I spoke about this only last week, and we are united in the view that the office should continue to mature and that this will most definitely be of benefit to the House. I am grateful to him for the support that he has offered in this regard in these early days of my Speakership.

Two hallmarks of an effective politician and parliamentarian are, first, that they listen and, secondly, that they persevere. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, possesses both qualities in abundance. As Secretary of State for Health and Social Security in the early days of the AIDS crisis, he listened to the advice that he was given and persevered in a course of action that he believed to be right. His resolve held firm—in the face of considerable opposition at the highest levels, I think it is fair to say. His resilience over the decades that have followed has strengthened rather than diminished; in my view, this speaks volumes.

Finally, I congratulate him on being appointed as an ambassador for UNAIDS; this is a cause that he cares deeply about and has championed for decades. UNAIDS is fortunate to have him as such an effective and determined advocate, and I know that all noble Lords will join me in wishing him every success for the future and thanking him most sincerely for his loyal and selfless service to this House.

I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, wishes to say a few words.

A very few words. I thank the Leaders, the Convenor of the Cross Benches—who is now my boss—the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham and, of course, the Lord Speaker, as well as the noble Lords, Lord Balfe and Lord Faulkner, for their very kind and generous remarks. Had I known that this was the collective view, I might not have stood down quite as early as I did—but, seriously, I am very grateful. I did not know that the Front Bench was so enthusiastic about Private Notice Questions, but I hope that will be noted by all Back-Benchers. Seriously, I am very grateful, and it has been a great pleasure working with them all.

I am also grateful for the good wishes in my new post as ambassador for UNAIDS. I know that it was just a coincidence, but I noted that my appointment came at a time when the Government cut aid to the organisation by 80%, but that is perhaps an issue for another time.

Most of all, my thanks and tributes go to the Members of this House for their help and encouragement over the last five years. I do not thank just Members; I also thank the excellent staff that we are fortunate enough to have in this House. I must mention my own private office, which has been quite exceptional. I mention in particular on this day the appointment of Chloe Mawson as Clerk Assistant, announced earlier today; 10 to 15 years ago, she was invaluable to me in setting up the first Select Committee on Communications, which I chaired. I was always very grateful for that assistance.

It has been a great privilege to have been Lord Speaker. Having served almost five years in this job and seen the Lords at work, I can say with some authority that my view is that there is a range of talents here that serve this nation very well.

Lastly, I say this to the Lord Speaker personally: thank you for your quite exceptional help over the last five years. No one could have been better supported than I was by you. Lord Speaker, we all now look forward to your period of office and wish you the very best of fortune in the future. Thank you very much.