This week, Editor-in-Chief Oli. A sits down with Nigel Evans, Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons and Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means. Read for a truly insightful and insider perspective on life at Westminster from one of the men closest to the podium.
Interviewer: Have you found the constraints of the Speaker’s impartiality challenging when trying to represent your constituents in Parliament.
Nigel Evans: Yes, it’s really difficult. I don’t have any public views, but clearly I have views. It’s really strange, we had a debate today in the House of Commons about MPs leaving Parliament and tribute was paid to people who occupy the chair because of the role that we’ve got, and it was the first time that I heard anybody in the House publicly saying that, which I thought was lovely. Not all deputies and speakers around the world have to behave in the same way we do. In some parliaments they can chair, and then after their chairing go and sit in the bulk of the hall in the chamber and then they vote and speak in the debates, but we don’t. When I hear people expressing views, I’m mentally saying I don’t think that’s right or I believe something completely different. It’s really strange because I’ve had two stints as Deputy Speaker, from 2010 to 2013 and then 2020 until now. So the bit in the middle meant I went back to becoming a backbencher and it couldn’t have been at a more interesting time because Brexit was going through and it gave me a great opportunity to remind myself why I got into Parliament in the first place.
You pose a sort of secondary question, which is how do you represent your constituents by not standing up and speaking. The only comparator on that one is that if you become a government minister, let’s say you’re Secretary of State for Health, then normally in the House I’m only ever going to hear you talk about health. They’ll never talk about transport or education or anything else, it’s just health. You could say that they are therefore not representing their constituents on every subject other than health. What they do, and what I do, is that if we wish to see a minister on any issue, they will come and see us. I’ll give two examples: one was on the cyber security force that’s going to be set up, me and Lindsay, because we’ve got neighbouring constituencies both campaigned to get it based in the Ribble Valley, which is the seat I represent. We spoke to the Foreign Secretary, we spoke to the Defence Secretary, and the Prime Minister we spoke to on three occasions. And the cyber security is now coming to us. So we lobby in a different way. It wasn’t in a public way, but it was very effective.
Interviewer: Baroness Hoey is quoted as saying you were ‘an excellent Deputy Speaker and a lovely man’ at the time she was a Labour MP. Do you think this type of cross-party closeness is useful in a world that is seemingly becoming more and more partisan?
Nigel Evans: That debate I talked about a moment ago is one of the rare occasions when you hear everybody being polite to one another. Somebody was asked about how we get the public to understand that we are human beings after all? And the answer from one MP was do not watch Prime Minister’s Questions, but to come and watch normal debates or committee work where MPs do work together in a lot of cases, people from different political persuasions all get together because they believe in whatever the issue happens to be. If you watch PMQs, I just call it gladiatorial, because that’s what it is. It’s a complete bearpit, whereas the vast majority of debates are nothing like that.
Interviewer: Do you think there are enough inter-party relationships or do you think that needs to be more done so that parties work together?
Nigel Evans: I think there’s a lot of inter-party stuff, I really do. It’s just you don’t get to see it. If you watch Question Time, the one that’s on the BBC, I mean, that’s a disaster because it’s basically people pitted against people and that’s all it is. Whereas in Parliament there is a lot of agreement that takes place. During Brexit I used to be vice chair of the International Trade Select Committee and the chair was Angus MacNeil and I believe in Brexit and he didn’t. And so whenever we had visiting delegations, we would normally send me and Angus to speak to them. And Angus would spend 10 minutes saying how dreadful Brexit was and how it isn’t going to work and it’s awful for the country. And I’d spend the next 10 minutes basically having a go at Angus. But in a lot of stuff like the International Development Select Committee, which I was on, everybody worked together. We went round lots of counties looking at abject poverty and saw some of the great work that British taxpayers’ money is doing in these countries, and we all worked together. You didn’t have arguing on that committee.
Interviewer: Do you think the governments ‘levelling up’ agenda has been a success? And if so, can you talk about some of its benefits that you’ve seen in your own constituency?
Nigel Evans: Because I don’t have any public views, I’m not going to stray into that, if you don’t mind. We call it levelling up, but what is taxation other than taking money off people, some who’ve got a lot of it and then just redistributing it in certain ways? I think they’ve just given a name to something that’s always existed. There are parts of the country like London, you walk around London and it’s incredible. Look at the cranes there, the building that’s going on, the investment – London’s going to be okay. But when you go around bits of Liverpool or Manchester or parts of Wales, the Southwest, there’s a lot of poverty in a lot of these places. I think that the cyber security force coming to the Ribble Valley, you can call that levelling up if you like, because we’re going to have three and a half thousand well-paid jobs in the Northwest of England, which can be fantastic. The rippling effect of that alone is going to be seismic and will be felt for generations.
Interviewer: In 2012, you supported the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, and then you later expressed regret over this when it directly affected your own life.. Do you think that MPs have the necessary life experience to effectively represent their constituents?
Nigel Evans: Well, that was a bit of life experience that I didn’t want, but nonetheless it did teach me that there are a lot of people out there who can lose their life savings through the judicial system. I think we’ve got a great judicial system, but I do think that we’ve just got to be incredibly alert to people who don’t have the wherewithal. I was very lucky. I had just sold a shop in Swansea, so I had the money. It just meant that when I was acquitted, I didn’t get the money back. There does seem to be an injustice there I think. But it’ll be for others to have a look at how that system works.
To answer your wider point, though, we’ve got 650 MPs. I am not only the son of a Swansea shopkeeper, I was a Swansea shopkeeper. I actually ran the shop for ten years. Having that sort of experience, if anybody says we are remote, forget it. There may be some people who are a bit more remote than others. But everybody’s got some form of life experience that they can bring to Parliament. And so we’ve got all sorts of professions there. When I went to Swansea University, my lecturer was Barry Sheerman, who is now Barry Sheerman MP, the MP for Huddersfield. Whenever I see him showing groups of people around Parliament, I always say Barry taught me everything I know about politics. So you’ve got some of the professions that are overrepresented, like the legal profession, but it’s surprising, and particularly with the red wall seats, the professions that a lot of these people did before they came in. I mean, it’s wide and varied. So, yes, I think we’re doing okay.
Interviewer: Do you think that we ought to start to support more initiatives like ‘No Hate, No Fear’ that you started in 2016? And if so, what subjects and topics would you like to see tackled?
Nigel Evans: Well, being a gay guy, there’s a lot of stuff that still needs to be done on the LGBT front, both here and internationally as well. In some countries it’s still illegal. I remember standing up in Westminster Hall, giving a speech once about Iran when two young guys were executed by the regime, and I almost broke down crying. To think that there are so many people around the world living in fear because of what they are. I think there’s a lot more we can be doing on that. I read in the Mail on the way over here that the Church of England will now bless gay marriages. I don’t think that’s enough. Discrimination is still going on in that field. What I read was you’re still not going to marry gay people. I once had the opportunity to speak to the Archbishop of Canterbury. I said, I’m a Christian and I’m gay. If somebody ever is insane enough to marry me, I can’t get married in my own church. So I’m a first-class gay, but a second-class Christian. He felt my pain and they have just made one step towards what I want. But there’s still lots more to do. So that’s definitely one area. There’s lots of places where we need to take action on bringing people together. The hatred that some people seem to have – I mean, when I came out as gay, a guy emailed me and said, why is it that you guys always have to, you know, make a big thing about coming out? And I emailed him back and I said, because of people like you writing stuff like this, you know? So I think now we can do a lot more.
Interviewer: What’s been your favourite moment of your political career so far?
Nigel Evans: This. In 31 years, there’s been lots, to be honest. I’ve got a bit of legislation on the statute book, which delighted me. The vast majority of what I do where I help people is not seen, where I sit in rooms in the constituency where they come to me with problems and I help them. The most public one I did though once was a problem with people getting their passports. This couple got in touch with me and said they’re getting married on Saturday and their passport hadn’t arrived so they couldn’t go on their honeymoon. Could I help them? So I stood up during Home Office Questions and asked Jack Straw if he would ensure my constituents, after they get married on Saturday, are able to go on their honeymoon? He said yes, and they got their passports. Of course, there was a lot of publicity about it, so they also got upgraded on the cruise ship they were going on. So I thought that was brilliant. Getting elected as Deputy Speaker was brilliant as well because all the MPs vote. Getting recognized in that way by my colleagues is fantastic. When I first stood for Deputy Speaker, I wasn’t openly gay, but when I stood in 2020 I was. And for them to endorse me again as Deputy Speaker is just fantastic and I hope it will send the right signals as well to other parliaments around the world about what you do with a gay Swansea shopkeeper. You make him Deputy Speaker!