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House of Lords Speaker steps down to campaign on HIV/Aids and LGBT rights

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The Speaker of the House of Lords has announced he will be stepping down early to campaign on HIV/Aids and LGBT rights internationally.

Lord Fowler was due to end his five-year term as Lord Speaker in September, but has brought his return to the backbenches forward to April.

As health secretary in Margaret Thatcher’s government from 1981-87, Norman Fowler headed the government’s response to the Aids epidemic and oversaw the implementation of the ground-breaking “Don’t Die of Ignorance” awareness campaign.

Documents released by the National Archives showed how he had to overcome the reluctance of Mrs Thatcher to allow any mention of risky sexual practices in campaign material. Memories of the 1980s campaign, and the LGBT community’s struggle for recognition of the scale of the epidemic, have been revived in the Channel 4 drama It’s A Sin. 

Lord Fowler, now 83, said: “In those days an HIV positive diagnosis was a virtual death sentence. The drama showed the cruel consequences on the victims and their families.

“We need to remember that these are the very consequences being faced today in many countries overseas and we have an important duty to ensure their suffering is never forgotten.”

He said: “As an independent backbencher, I now want devote my energies to continue campaigning on HIV/Aids.

“Around the world we have lost the lives of around 35 million men, women and children since the onset of that pandemic.

“Moreover, there are examples beyond count of the persecution of LGBT people worldwide.

“Even now, in 2021, there are some 70 nations where homosexuality is illegal and where there are obvious barriers against people coming forward for HIV/Aids-related treatment.

“So, I want to spend the next years campaigning against these modern evils and trying to support the many individuals and organisations in the field who are working to turn the tide.”

Since being elected as Lord Speaker in 2016, Lord Fowler has led a series of changes in the running of the upper chamber, including steps to tackle bullying and harassment, and efforts to reduce the size of the House.

He has been publicly critical of fresh appointments to the upper house made by Boris Johnson, which have increased the number of members on the red benches.

Lord Fowler also oversaw the introduction of a fully virtual chamber and then hybrid working during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle paid tribute to Lord Fowler for 50 years of continuous service in politics.

“His decision to step down as Lord Speaker to continue his relentless campaign for awareness of HIV and Aids is commendable,” said Sir Lindsay.

“I am in no doubt that his ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ awareness campaign when he was health secretary was a life-saver, in that it showed his grasp of the enormity of the Aids epidemic at a time when gay sex was a taboo topic.”

The timetable for an election for the new Lord Speaker will now be decided by the Upper House’s Procedure Committee.

Additional reporting by Press Association

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