This week, the House of Lords debated a recommendation from the Committee for Privileges and Conduct which recommended that Lord Lester of Herne Hill should be suspended from the House until 2022. The House of Lords Commissioner for Standards made this ruling about a complaint of sexual harassment against Lord Lester:
Applying the test of the balance of probabilities I find the complaint upheld, on the basis of the strong and cogent evidence of the complainant and her witnesses. I have carefully considered the challenges to this evidence, but do not find that those challenges undermine the strength of the evidence to any significant degree.
Lord Lester also admitted a further breach of the Lords’ Code as outlined in the Commissioner’s report which is annexed to the Committee report.
At a late stage in the investigation I was informed that Lord Lester had told another Member of the House, who knows the complainant, that it was she who had made the complaint against him. The Member confirmed that this had happened (Appendix AB) [reference is to a document that has not been published].
This was a breach of the confidentiality requirement in the Guide to the Code (paragraph 130), and I therefore asked Lord Lester to respond to the evidence of a breach of confidentiality. He replied:<
“As regards the allegation that I named the complainant to [another Member] this is correct. I spoke briefly and privately to the Member. I apologise. I am not responsible for what occurred thereafter.”
Since the report has been published, the complainant, campaigner Jasvinder Sanghera has waived her right to anonymity. That was her decision to do so. It was not acceptable for Lord Lester to identify her to anyone during the investigation.
On Thursday, the Lords voted to send the recommendation back to the Committee for further consideration. 18 Lib Dem peers voted in that debate, 13 in favour of sending the recommendation back, 5 in favour of accepting it.
There are things that really worry me, reading the Lords debate. Regrettably, some of our peers chose to try to discredit the woman making the complaint. This led Ms Sanghera to say in today’s Sunday Times (£) that she felt a bit like Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who so bravely faced a Senate Committee to describe her experience of being sexually assaulted by Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
“I watched Kavanaugh, and I felt for that woman [Christine Blasey Ford] . . . watching them try to discredit her. That’s exactly how I felt watching that House of Lords debate. I knew they were going to vote in his [Lord Lester’s] favour.”
I get that people in our Lords group have worked with Lord Lester for a long time. I can understand that they might find it hard to believe that he could behave in that way. The line for me comes when they actively try to discredit the complainant. That is not a good look.
For all the complaints about the process, nobody seems to have pointed out how bizarre it is to have the outcome of a disciplinary process voted on by colleagues of the person being investigated.
Our peers Kishwer Falkner and Meral Ece both spoke in favour of accepting the Committee’s recommendations.
I urge that, if this motion is not supported today, we do not send out a message that women are not to be believed or that, because they delayed coming forward, somehow they—or the process we have chosen and used, the commissioner we voted for—should be criticised. We thought it was fine—why would we vote for this? With respect to many of the noble and learned Lords here, why did they never before flag up that this was not fit for purpose? Why did we not hear about that? I am sure we should have. With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps we need better procedures. More cases may well come forward. I have huge respect for my noble friend Lord McNally, but I just heard that he had never heard a whisper before.
In the #MeToo movement, it takes one brave person to come forward. I have already heard rumours of others. Other women—it is usually women—think “I can come forward too now”, because there is a precedent. It was the same with the child abuse scandals. It took decades before those who were abused terribly as children had the courage to come forward. I am sure that is the case with many women as well. I am sure there will be other women—I am not speaking here about the noble Lord, Lord Lester. It has happened with MPs. We must not judge that women who come forward years or even decades later are somehow not telling the truth. Mentioning their age is irrelevant. It could be anybody. I admire what the noble Lord, Lord Lester, has done over the years; we all admire him. But I saw this written somewhere and I thought it very apt: human rights have been enshrined in laws, but we must begin at home. How do we treat people who are not powerful, who do not have powerful friends or friends sitting in your Lordships’ House who can speak and advocate on their behalf? We must begin at home and remember why human rights have been enshrined in our laws. It is to protect the little person as well.
After the debate, she told the Guardian how angry she was at its outcome:
Hussein-Ece said the debate seemed an attempt by Lester’s friends to force a vote on a Thursday afternoon, when many peers had left London.
“It was pretty awful. I just couldn’t believe how it was unfolding,” she said. “The debate was all about how unfair it was to Lord Lester, and how he was a great friend of all of them. It was the establishment, the old boys’ network, coming together to look after their own.”
I just wish there was as much desire and political will to get justice for the women who are victims of abuse as there was to protect men who have been found on the balance of probabilities by independent investigators to have behaved wrongly.
* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings