On Wednesday 12 December 2018, the day Theresa May fought off a confidence vote from her own party, the House of Lords Committee for Privileges and Conduct published its Further Report on the Conduct of Lord Lester online. Going relatively unnoticed due to the timing of its publication, the report was damning of the Lords attitudes on sexual harassment in the corridors of power. It was later debated in the Lords on 17 December 2018, when a motion was passed censuring the peer.
In its report, the Committee expressed regret that members of the House of Lords failed to take the opportunity to read all the relevant paperwork pertaining to Lesters case. The Committee explained that “no member of the House, other than those on this Committee, took up the opportunity they were given to read the confidential annexes to the report (not published in order to protect the witness anonymity)”.
The story began earlier this year when Liberal Democrat peer and human rights lawyer Anthony Lester was accused of sexual harassment by the campaigner Jasvinder Sanghera. An investigation led to Lester facing a four-year suspension from the Lords. Lester appealed, but his appeal was dismissed. He denies the allegations.
On 15 November 2018, however, the House of Lords voted to block the proposed suspension. David Pannick tabled an amendment, arguing that “the Commissioner for Standards did not conduct her investigation in a way that conformed with natural justice and fairness”, as it did not allow for a cross-examination of the evidence.
Pannicks amendment was highly critical of the Commissioner for Standards. However, the Committee for Privileges and Conduct insisted it had “set out a process that does not include cross-examination but does allow for rigorous testing and reviewing of evidence”. Its worth noting that these processes were written with the support of the Lords.
The Further Report expressed regret that members made such severe criticisms against the Commissioner “without any apparent acknowledgement of the procedures drawn up by the House with which she was bound to comply”. The report stated that, if they had read the confidential annexes, members would see the documents “refute many of the criticisms made against the Commissioner” – criticisms which formed the substance of Pannicks amendment.
This is concerning. Serious allegations were made in the House against the Commissioner – her “professional reputation impugned by some members in the debate and by members using their influence in the national media”, as the Further Report put it. She was accused of having “latitude to vary established and codified procedures” when she did not, and Pannick told the House she had failed “to act in accordance with the principles of natural justice and fairness”.
What the report makes clear is that many members did not conduct due diligence and do their homework on this case. Instead, they used Pannicks amendment as an opportunity to repeat damaging rape myths, celebrate Lesters good reputation, condemn his accuser for lacking credibility, and talk about the need for men accused of harassment to have a “fair crack of the whip”. That phrase was used in the November debate seven times.
The Further Report noted how the Committees attention was drawn to the fact that “in the debate on 15 November reputation was invoked (positively) 15 times to describe Lord Lester” while not used once in relation to Sanghera. Instead, her “credibility and motivations were questioned”.
For example, Pannick talked about the “gaps” between Sangheras allegations and her conduct – asking why if she had been harassed, she “signed her book for the noble Lord Lester in affectionate terms” and expressed her “admiration” a week after the alleged events.
Norman Warner raised the spectre of false allegations, saying “we now have enough experience of false claims” where mens reputations are “trashed unfairly”. Meanwhile, Tom McNally questioned the initial reports statement that Sanghera was “overawed” by the House of Lords, saying “the lady in question was in her 40s and was described as a confident and determined campaigner”. McNally went on to say he worried how the Lords would sanction “more serious cases of sexual harassment” when an “indecent proposition” led to such a long suspension.
These kinds of statements fuel a damaging rape myth of the "perfect victim" – where a woman's behaviour following an incident of sexual harassment is expected to follow a set pattern. If she diverges from that pattern, her claims are undermined. However, this does not take into account the complexity of women's lives, or their responses to sexual misconduct. Many women will continue to have a relationship with an alleged perpetrator for all sorts of reasons including shame, self-blame, professional relationships, or to protect themselves from further abuse (especially in cases of domestic violence).
In response to statements such as these, the Final Report wrote that members of the House “used their position to make wholly inappropriate comments about [Sangheras] character and behaviour”. It stated “we have concluded that [Sanghera] was a victim of sexual harassment”, and expressed concern “that some of the contributions to the debate will have deterred other victims of bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct from coming forward”.
It is extremely worrying that a year after the #MeToo revelations shook Westminster, the House of Lords own Committee for Privileges and Conduct believes the level of debate on sexual misconduct would put women off coming forward with their own allegations. This was echoed by Sanghera herself, who said that she would not advise any woman to report following a process she believed “undermined victims”.
On 17 December 2018, when the Lester case came to the House of Lords once again, the peers did vote for a motion censuring the Peer. Lester resigned from the Lords on 12 December, on health grounds.This means he will not be subject to formal sanctions.
Yet even in this debate, peers were simultaneously admitting their ignorance while questioning the disciplinary procedures. Douglas Hogg admitted during his speech on the risks the Lords were taking in undermining the principle of innocent before proven guilty that he had not read the full transcript of Sangheras interview with the Committee.
Since the #MeToo revelations broke, people have repeatedly raised the issue of men being found guilty in the court of public opinion. But despite Hogg and others concerns, this was not the case here. A thorough investigation was made into Sangheras claims, they were found to be credible, and the Commissioner for Standards acted in accordance.
It was heartening however, to see some male Lords speak out to dispel rape myths (many female peers also did so, including Helena Kennedy). Ken Macdonald told the House that, during his years as a lawyer, he felt progress had been made “as judges repeatedly warned juries about the dangers of making stereotypical assumptions about the way that traumatised people react to the source of their trauma”. He concluded by saying, “Let us not find ourselves, in this House, moving backwards.”
A year on from #MeToo, we cannot have a situation where members of the House of Lords are accused of voting on an amendment, without having read annexes that refute the claims making up the substance of the amendment. Neither must women feel they will have their credibility and character undermined if they come forward with allegations of sexual harassment. In the future, lets hope Macdonalds words hold.
Sian Norris is a writer and journalist. She is the Founder and Director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival. She is currently the Ben Pimlott writer-in-residence at Birkbeck University's politics department.