Ministerial Career

Department of Transport 1979-81

During this time, Norman Fowler put into effect a range of policies which he had developed in Opposition.  He was responsible for three transport bills in three years and carried out the first privatisations of the Thatcher years.  Helped by his single minister, Ken Clarke, he privatised the National Freight Corporation, a management buyout with all the 230,000 employees being offered shares.  The result was not only a successful company (profits rose tenfold between 1983 and 1989) but also the attendance of several thousand employees at annual general meetings. He worked very closely with Sir Peter Thompson who became the chairman of the company. 

The second privatisation was the British Transport Docks Board which ran ports like Southampton, Hull and Cardiff and accounted for about a quarter of the nation’s ports business.  This became Associated British Ports and financially, according to one survey, was the most successful privatization for anyone who initially invested in the new company.

Fowler also privatised some of British Rail’s subsidiary companies like the cross Channel ferry company, Sealink, and the hotels which were underperforming even though they included such famous names as Gleneagles.  In addition to the privatisation measures, he deregulated the coach industry which led to the intercity coaches we have today.

In the road safety area he introduced the points system for traffic offences and took action against drink driving including the introduction of the breathalyser. He also strengthened training for motor cyclists and made it compulsory to wear helmets. His 1981 bill made seat belts compulsory leading to a large reduction in deaths and injuries. A further reform which he had brought back from his tour of European countries in his time in Opposition was the totting up arrangements and the removal of many traffic offences from the courts.

Department of Health & Social Security

In 1981 Norman Fowler was promoted to Health & Social Services Secretary in charge of both health and social security. This department was set up by Harold Wilson in 1968 to give a major job to Richard Crossman.  He served there for six years which was longer than any of his predecessors such as Keith Joseph or Barbara Castle.  In that time, he concentrated upon making the health service more efficient rather than embarking on a new reorganisation. He set up the Griffiths inquiry into health management; introduced new measures to contract out ancillary services like catering; and reduced the drugs bill by the use of generics in routine cases. His best known action in the health area was against Aids in 1986/87 when he mounted the biggest public health campaign since the Second World War and introduced clean needles for drug users who otherwise shared needles and spread the HIV virus. (see HIV/Aids)

In social security, he took action to prevent early leavers from pension schemes losing out and introduced personal pensions. In 1984/5 he headed a complete review of social security which resulted in the abolition of many outdated benefits – like the death grant – and the reform of others. He introduced Family Credit which brought help to working families and changed the second state pension SERPS. Treasury opposition prevented him from abolishing it altogether and introducing a compulsory occupational scheme – which 25 years later was carried out by the Cameron government.

With junior ministers Tony Newton, Edwina Currie, John Major, Baroness Trumpington and Nick Lyell

Department of Employment

After the 1987 election he become Secretary of State for Employment. With the economy strengthening unemployment fell in every month he was in office. He concentrated upon improving training and set up Training and Enterprise Councils around the country. His last action was to abolish the notorious dock labour scheme. The government, including Margaret Thatcher, had been nervous at taking this step, although it prevented development in port areas. In the event it was abolished without any significant industrial action.