Another prominent elderly man’s reputation damaged by a feminist’s false allegations. A piece in today’s Times (emphases ours):
A leading women’s rights campaigner who was promised a peerage if she had sex with a senior member of the Lords last night urged other parliamentary victims of sexual misconduct to have the confidence to come forward.
The bestselling author said that her decision to complain was prompted by a need to establish that “what he did to me wasn’t acceptable and wasn’t honourable”. “There needs to be a system in place that will give other victims the confidence to complain and to feel supported in doing so,” she said.
Ms Sanghera, a campaigner against forced marriage, worked closely with the human rights barrister in 2006 on the passage of a parliamentary bill. At the time he was 70 and she was 41.
An investigation found that Lord Lester persistently groped and made sexual comments towards her, offered her a “corrupt inducement” to become his mistress and threatened “unspecified consequences” if she refused him. [J4MB: The “investigation” found that despite there being no evidence of Lord Lester having done anything.]
It was the first time that the Lords commissioner for standards has investigated a peer for sexual misconduct. His proposed punishment, suspension until 2022, would be the longest in modern history. A Lords sub-committee recommended his expulsion. On appeal this was reduced to suspension, on which peers will vote on Thursday.
Ms Sanghera, 53, founded the award-winning charity Karma Nirvana and was appointed CBE in 2013. Lord Lester, 82, rejected her claims, saying that the investigation was seriously flawed and denied him the basic principles of fairness.
After 11 years of silence, Ms Sanghera’s decision finally to speak out came down to a question of honour. Indeed, honour — and silence — have loomed large throughout her 25-year campaign against forced marriage.
In 2006, she was contacted by Lord Lester. The architect of many of the UK’s civil rights laws wanted to make forced marriage a civil offence. She agreed to support his private member’s bill.
Meetings in parliament followed. After one that finished late, she missed her train home and the peer offered her a bed for the night at his home. His wife would be there, he assured her.
On the car journey to his house, Ms Sanghera says the barrister repeatedly touched her thigh. Each time, she removed his hand but felt “incredibly uncomfortable”. [J4MB: But not so uncomfortable as to ask to be dropped off at a hotel, to spend the night there.] After his wife left for work the next morning, she was standing at the sink in Lord Lester’s kitchen when he approached her from behind.
“He put his arms around my waist and I pushed him away. Again, he placed his arms around me and further up my body. I forced myself away and he chased me around the kitchen until I asked him to stop.” [J4MB: Chased around the kitchen? Does that ever happen outside Benny Hill sketches?]
The peer is then said to have declared his feelings for her. Ms Sanghera reminded him that he had a wife. She says she wanted to cut all ties with him but felt unable to because she was so committed to the proposed legislation. After another meeting at the Lords days later, she says that he pledged to make her a “baroness within a year” if she slept with him, warning that there would be repercussions if she refused.
As she continued to reject his advances, he allegedly stopped inviting her to meetings and became “aggressive in his language” towards her.
When she looks back on that time, the title of her 2007 autobiography, Shame, comes to mind. “I speak about forced marriage in front of thousands of people. I talk about breaking the silence, but I hadn’t spoken about what he did to me,” she told The Times. “I’m supposed to be this empowered woman but I began to feel like a phoney.”
Born in Derby, Ms Sanghera was disowned by her Sikh family and most of her community when she ran away, aged 16, after refusing to marry the man chosen for her by her parents. “Honour is important to me. I’ve had to define it in my own way, because my family see me as a woman with no honour and no sense of shame,” she said.
“My sister committed suicide in her early twenties. My family thought it was more honourable for her to take her own life than to speak out against her abusive husband.”
Ms Sanghera said the peer’s conduct “made me feel physically sick” but she felt in an impossible position. “I was acutely aware of the power imbalance. If I’d said anything, who would believe me?” The #MeToo movement led her to hope that “by speaking out, victims were creating a climate in which people were more willing to listen”.
After seeking legal advice, she complained to the Lords commissioner for standards and an investigation cost her thousands of pounds. Told of the commissioner’s finding that the QC had “failed to act on his personal honour” in his conduct towards her, she burst into tears. “The sense of relief was overwhelming. I wanted him to know that what he did wasn’t acceptable and honourable.”
She waived her anonymity to encourage others abused by parliamentarians to come forward.
Ms Sanghera’s lawyer, David Hooper, of the firm Howard Kennedy, said it was disturbing that the House of Lords “never imagined” a peer could behave this way. “The code of conduct is mostly about outside financial interests. That a distinguished peer felt able to offer these inducements and make threats shows the need for a radical overhaul.”
This morning Mr Hooper defended Ms Sanghera’s decision to raise a complaint years later, telling the Today programme: “It’s very difficult to take on powerful people like Lord Lester. She told people and she wanted to raise it at the time, but it was very unclear whether there was any proper procedure in place.”
Lord Lester “categorically denied” all allegations against him. He said he had evidence that the alleged conduct could not have happened and that he considered the investigation process flawed and unfair.
The Lords sub-committee that recommended his expulsion said it was a “tragic irony” that Lord Lester had for a short time become “obsessively attracted to the complainant to the extent that he completely lost all sense of judgment and propriety”.
The decision to investigate a peer for alleged sexual misconduct was a groundbreaking step for the Lords.
Its code of conduct offers guidance to peers “on the standards expected of them in the discharge of their parliamentary duties” but the focus is largely on matters of financial probity. There is no reference to sexual misconduct.
The only section of the code with the potential to relate to sexual propriety is its requirement that peers “should always act on their personal honour”.
Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, a former Law Society president, succeeded Paul Kernaghan as standards’ commissioner in 2016. Earlier this year, she stated that although it “may not be obvious” from the wording of the code: “I take personal honour to include personal conduct towards others.”
You can subscribe to The Times here.
If everyone who read this gave us just £1.00 – or even better, £1.00 or more, monthly – we could change the world. Click here to make a difference. Thanks.