Lib Dem Peers split on Lord Lester vote

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.

Meral said:

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

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23 Comments

  • David Warren 18th Nov '18 - 2:02pm

    Would this have happened if we had an elected House of Lords?

    I think not.

    One of the tragedies of recent times is that the legislation on reform failed to progress under the coalition.

    This has left all parties not just the Lib Dems with a group of people in positions of real power accountable to nobody.

    That is always a very dangerous situation.

  • It is with some trepidation that I make a comment and I feel for anyone who has suffered any abuse. From what I know of the case, if I had been a peer I would have voted to accept the report. But given we have this situation where there is a debate on the report then it must be allowed for peers to vote against accepting it and certainly to send it back.

    Lord Pannick made some points: “If you are going to assess the credibility of competing contentions as to what occurred nearly 12 years ago, apply a very serious sanction against someone and destroy their hitherto unblemished reputation, you have to allow them, through their counsel, to cross-examine the person making the allegations, which turn on credibility. At the very least, the commissioner should appoint independent counsel to perform that cross-examination; that would also be acceptable…

    “.. David Perry QC, who had advised Parliament in relation to its code of practice… said that, given the serious nature of the allegations and the time that had elapsed since , Lord Lester, had been denied a basic requirement of fairness … He also made many other criticisms which I will not deal with.”

    Baroness Butler-Sloss – a cross-bencher and former Lord Justice of Appeal – also made criticisms of the process: “It appears that the commissioner was not well advised about how to conduct the case… the Privileges and Conduct Committee, on appeal… should have picked up on the fact that there was no proper testing of the credibility of the two main witnesses. Consequently, we have this very unhappy situation. We really cannot allow this House, in 2018, to continue with an inquisitorial system—which is not to be criticised—without the sufficient amount of testing that is required according to the seriousness of the offences.

    We also believe as Lib Dems in fairness and justice – now I believe it was followed in this case but we should allow fellow Lib Dems leeway if they feel that it hasn’t.

  • Meral Hussein-Ece 18th Nov '18 - 3:14pm

    Caron, thank you for highlighting this. There’s no way to convey how disappointing it was to witness last weeks debate, with shameful misogynistic comments about the victim, Ms Jasvinder Sanghera CBE. The woman who complained of being sexually harrassed by Lord Lester QC, had her behaviour, age, confidence, all publically questioned by friends of Lord Lester, who complained the procedure was ‘unfair’ Yet when Ms Sanghera submitted her complaint to the Commissioner, she was subjected to the same procedures as Lord Lester. The very procedures that were agreed by the House of Lords, and endorsed by Lord Lester himself. The Lords have voted to refer the Report back. This does not mean Lord Lester is exonerated, and the matter will be considered.
    There is public interest in how Parliament deals with this case, and an urgent need for the House of Lords to demonstrate that sexual harassment complaints will be taken seriously ( we’re told more women have filed complaints of harrassment against other peers) It may be time to end the practice of a ‘self governing House’
    There is also strong interest in how Liberal Democrats who claim to want more gender equality and more women to join us, conduct themselves in cases like this. Declaring support for equality is pointless if male and female peers find difficulty being objective and understandably support their friend. As a result a well respected woman who has worked tirelssly for 20 years to outlaw forced marriages, and was brave enough to complain, was traduced and in effect accused of lying.

  • paul barker 18th Nov '18 - 4:40pm

    At some point we are going to have to sort out our supporters in The Lords but we should realise that we will probably end up with a much smaller group. The problem is that we have no power over them except that of withdrawing their right to call themselves an Official Liberal Democrat group. I dont doubt that most of them will prefer to stick with their mates.

  • Andy Hinton 18th Nov '18 - 4:53pm

    I agree with Meral and all the above comments. It was really disappointing to read the balance of names from our benches who voted on this. Much of our Lords party seems to have learned nothing in this area from the last few years.

  • Yeovil Yokel 18th Nov '18 - 6:14pm

    Merel Hussain-Ece – Please use the term ‘victim’ with great care, because it presupposes that a offence has been committed before the evidence has been tested before a court or tribunal. The correct term used to be plaintiff, and is now ‘complainant’ as used by Caron above.
    A serious false allegation was made about me many years ago and the police’s case notes referred to the ‘victim’; had the case gone to trial I felt that use of the term might well have prejudiced the minds of the jury towards feeling that a crime had definitely been committed. Fortunately the case was dropped through lack of evidence but the months of profound stress I experienced at the hands of the English legal system almost caused to me take my own life.

  • Tony Greaves 18th Nov '18 - 8:47pm

    Whoops – it was me that miscounted! I have not taken a public position on this matter as such and do not intend to do so – Liberal Democrat peers were asked at the group meeting not to comment on social media and I thought we had all agreed to that. I’m sorry that my good friend Meral feels she needs to do so.

    I do however think that this posting is unbalanced and some of the comments are out of place. A fair coverage would have given similar prominence to the points made in the debate by Martin Thomas (Lord Thomas of Gresford), a highly reputable Liberal lawyer of long standing in and out of the party.

    I am not going to join in the argument about the nature or content of the contributions. I will however say that I don’t think that the Liberal Democrats who voted for the Pannick amendment are particular friends of Lord Lester, except in the historic parliamentary sense that he was a member of the LD group and therefore a “noble friend” under the Lords rules of procedure. A colleague yes, but not socially a friend. Lord Lester may well have good friends in other parts of the House but the only one I am aware of is Lord Pannick himself, who is a Crossbencher.

    It’s interesting to see how members of the groups in the Lords voted. The Tories split 25-36 on the amendment (ie 25 for Pannick and 36 against). The Crossbenchers split 32-15. Labour split 29-18. LD split 13-5. Others split 2-4. The Bishops did not vote.

    Looking at the names, across the other parties and none, more liberal
    peers tended to vote for the Pannick amendment and more right-wing ones against;
    lawyers were mainly for the amendment but not all; more establishment
    minded peers (in terms of the Lords) and government loyalists tended to be against the amendment – including members of the Procedure Committee; there was a scatter across the parties of strongly pro-women’s rights peers against – but again not all were.

    The truth is that it’s not a simple matter. You can take the view that what matters on something like this is of providing justice to the complainant, how it will be reported, and the reputation of the Lords/party/individuals – or you can take the view that what matters is natural justice and proper due process, and whether that has been observed in this case.

    Before making generalised attacks on Liberal Democrat peers or the House of Lords as a whole, I suggest people read the full report and the debate. Then and only then make up your mind.

  • Tony Greaves 18th Nov '18 - 8:48pm

    By the way, given the free vote and the numbers I report above, the heading “LD Peers split” is surely not appropriate?

  • Meral Hussein-Ece 18th Nov '18 - 9:18pm

    @Yeovil Yokel
    Yes the complainants complaint was investigated by the House of Lords Commissioner for Standards. Then the findings and Report was agreed by the Privileges & Conduct Committee, whose members included the following whose grasp of legal procedure has been so heavily criticised:

    Lord Brown (Supreme Ct Justice)
    Lord Hope (Supreme Ct Justice)
    Lord Mackay (Former House of Lords, Lord Chancellor)
    Lord Irvine (Lord Chancellor)

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 18th Nov '18 - 11:13pm

    Tony, I’ve read the whole report with all its appendices. I’ve also read the debate.

    And even if it was a free vote, 13 Liberal Democrat peers voted one way and 5 the other. I share Meral’s view about the conclusion of the debate and the way the complainant was talked about.

  • I think it is worth pointing out that Baroness Butler-Sloss voted for Lord Pannick’s amendment to send it back to the Committee for Conduct. As the first female Lord Justice of Appeal, she is clearly has a first class legal mind. And she said in the debate that she admired the work of Jasvinder Sanghera. She is also a cross bencher. I think on all these grounds she would not have supported the amendment lightly.

    Reading through the debate, it is not said by Lord Pannick and supporters of his amendment AIUI that the procedures of the committee were not followed as laid down and to that end the Lords that Meral Hussein-Ece mention acted correctly.

    For me – and IANAL that would have meant that I would have voted for the report. But the point is made that if such a report were to go to judicial review then it would look at whether the procedure was fair even if it was carried out to the letter. And this AIUI cannot go to judicial review because of Parliamentary sovereignty etc. And so, to some degree this debate formed a bit of the role of a judicial review.

    It is contended that the procedure was unfair because it did not allow cross examination – even by someone other than Lord Lester or someone representing him.

    To disparage those that voted for the amendment, such as Baroness Butler-Sloss even though I disagree with them, is I think harsh.

    It is not an either/or choice between fairness and justice and supporting people who have suffered abuse. Indeed ultimately if systems are not fair and just they will fall into disrepute and harm those who have suffered abuse.

    As Lib Dems we should, I venture, be careful of being too critical of those that stand up for justice and fairness as they see it. Society relies on them and so may we as individuals one day.

  • I know nothing about this case, but do know that my opinion is that we should campaign to abolish the House of Lords as part of a campaign to extend democracy in our country.

  • Tony Greaves 19th Nov '18 - 10:21am

    I am not commenting on the issue or on the debate. I am commenting on the fact that – Caron – you allowed your own views to colour the way you reported it in the initial posting. Given that Liberal Democrats took different views, surely your role is to report both sides fairly?

    I am interested to know which bits of “the way the complainant was talked about” – I assume you mean by a Liberal Democrat? – you think was unacceptable?

    David Raw: fair enough. But since the Hansard report does not seem to cover the attempted intervention and I was not present, I am not sure what you are referring to.

    I am happy to hear from you both by email ([email protected])

  • What happens next? I decided to do a bit of reading on all this and I’m up to the point before the Lords voted in favour of the “Pannick amendment”.

  • Having seen only the highlights of the debate on television and read the reports in the newspapers. I am in absolutely no position to give an opinion on the right or wrongs of this case of on his lordships culpability.
    However, the debate here does seem to be yet another example of the “liberal paradox”, where our natural concern for victims of any form of descrimination comes up against fundamental liberal principles such as the rule of law and due process. I do think it relevant that this decision in favour of Lord Lester was supported by a number of female members and, as I understand it, the majority of lawyers.

  • Robert (Somerset) 19th Nov '18 - 5:27pm

    It seems to me that the process for dealing with these kinds of complaints isn’t fit for purpose and is not fair to either the complainant or defendant. There was a significant amount of newspaper coverage on this over the weekend and in one article I saw that the complainant claimed her leg had been inappropriately touched, more than once, by the defendant as he changed gear while driving the car in which they were both present. The defendant responded that the only car he owned was an automatic. How on earth does one get to the bottom of that conflicting evidence by one person carrying out a desktop exercise?

  • Having watched the debate, all 3 of the Lib Dem peers who spoke in favour of the amendment felt the need to discredit the claimant. I didn’t agree with the arguments made in favour of the amendment but I can accept people have differing opinions. However, there was no need for anyone to try to discredit the claimant.

  • OnceALibDem 19th Nov '18 - 8:06pm

    This is the relevant bit of the guide to the House of Lords procedure:
    “Complainants have no formal locus once an investigation is under way: they have no right to be called as a witness, though they are expected to co-operate with any investigation and to supply all the evidence in their possession when asked to do so. Nor do members accused of misconduct have any entitlement to cross-examine complainants, though they are given an opportunity to review and, if they so wish, challenge the factual basis of any evidence supplied by complainants or others.”

    That was adopted adopted by resolution on 16 March 2010 and amended by resolution on 9 November 2011, 6 March 2014, 13 May 2014, 24 March 2015, 25 February 2016, 9 February 2017 and 3 April 2017.

    Each time it was agreed without division and none of the eminent legal figures referred to above spoke against any of its provisions or proposed any amendment.

    On Lord Greaves point, two of the Lords who spoke in favour of Lord Lester referred to him as a friend in the conventional usage and two others made reference to the length of time they had known him. Lord McNally also – unusually – referred to him by first name.

  • Chris Nelson 21st Nov '18 - 1:33pm

    I think it is a pity that Baroness Meral Ece is being left out on a limb here. I think there is definitely a risk here that we are showing women that the default position is that they will be disbelieved. The comments in the debate inferring aspersions on the complainant is particularly regrettable.

    This needs to be resolved by the Lords quickly, fairly and the Lords themselves need to respect the processes they themselves have set up.

  • Ruth Bright 22nd Nov '18 - 3:02pm

    Thank goodness Meral Hussein-Ece and Jenny Jones were there. It was hard to believe one’s ears when a Lib Dem Lord said that the alleged victim was a confident woman in her 40s! One assumes then that him and his mates would have been more likely to believe a not very articulate young woman in her teens!

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