A welcome piece in yesterday’s Times:
Peers have blocked the immediate suspension of Lord Lester of Herne Hill after an inquiry found that he had groped a woman and promised her a peerage in return for sex.
The House of Lords voted by 101 to 78 to send the case back to the Lords’ committee for privileges and conduct to look at again.
Today’s move comes after Lord Pannick, QC, a cross-bench peer, friend and colleague of Lord Lester’s, tabled an amendment saying that the procedure leading to Lord Lester’s suspension was “manifestly unfair”.
The Lords privileges and conduct committee ruled earlier this week that Lord Lester should be barred from parliament until 2022 after the commissioner for standards found that he breached the Lords code of conduct.
In a leading article today The Times also criticised the investigation into the 12-year-old allegations, saying: “Few will feel satisfied by the way an honourable life in public service has been brought to an abrupt end and by the shortcomings in the House of Lords’ disciplinary investigation.
“An amateurish process has brought no credit to the upper chamber and has dispensed rough justice.”
The QC and Liberal Democrat peer, the architect of the UK’s equality laws, the father of libel law reform and long-standing defender of freedom of expression, was accused of sexual innuendo, inappropriately touching the complainant and abusing his position of power.
The alleged offences took place a decade ago against a campaigner against forced marriage, Jasvinder Sanghera, founder of the charity Karma Nirvana. The woman waived her right to anonymity in an interview in The Times.
Lord Lester robustly denied her allegations, which were considered first by the Lords’ commissioner for standards.
Lord Pannick argued that the procedure was unfair as neither Lord Lester, who robustly denied the allegations, was given any opportunity, nor any lawyer on his behalf, of cross-examining his accuser.
He said that the standards involved in the investigation by the commissioner for standards, Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, were unfair to the point that “no reliance can be placed on her report.” [J4MB emphasis. Lucy Scott-Moncrieff is the former ‘chair’ of the Law Society’s Equality & Diversity Committee.]
Sarah Chilton, partner at CM Murray, the specialist employment lawyers, said: “The lack of ability to test the evidence in this case is a procedural concern. It is not that Lord Lester himself should have been allowed to cross-examine but that the commissioner should have done so.
“It is also of concern that the commissioner was not an expert in sexual harassment investigations.”
Mark Stephens, acting for Ms Sanghera, said: “Jasvinder would not now recommend that anyone in a similar set of circumstances should come forward. [J4MB translation into plain English: Female victims of sexual harassment by peers will not receive fair hearings if they bring complaints.]
“Jasvinder submitted to a process and Lord Lester was convicted by that process on three levels. [J4MB: But the process was deeply flawed. That’s the whole point.] But those findings have been undermined by the repeated protestations about Lord Lester’s reputation, with no reference to Jasvinder’s reputation or the impact this case has had on her.”
Lord Lester, speaking from a friend’s home in the West Country, said: “This is very emotional. It is a victory for the House of Lords, not for me. I am extremely grateful to David Pannick and to everyone who supported me. I hope this will lead quickly to a proper fair process for claims of sexual harassment.”
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