Peers block Lord Lester's suspension over sexual harassment claims

Lord Lester of Herne Hill Credit: Chris McAndrew/UK Parliament/PA

Peers have blocked the immediate suspension of a senior member of the House of Lords after an inquiry found he had groped a woman and promised her a peerage for sex.

The House of Lords backed a call to send the case of Lord Lester of Herne Hill back to the Lords’ Committee for Privileges and Conduct, amid claims the investigation was "manifestly unfair".

Following a lengthy and impassioned debate, members agreed by 101 votes to 78, majority 23, that the Commissioner for Standards Lucy Scott-Moncrieff had failed to comply with the code of conduct, which required her to act "in accordance with the principles of natural justice and fairness".

Lord Lester, 82, was facing the longest suspension in modern parliamentary history after he was found to have sexually harassed the woman and offered her "corrupt inducements" to sleep with him.

The prominent QC has strongly denied the allegations, saying they are "completely untrue".

The complaint had been made by women’s rights campaigner Jasvinder Sanghera, who although not identified in the committee’s report, waived her anonymity in an interview with The Times.

Ms Sanghera, a campaigner against forced marriage, had been working with Lord Lester on the passage of a parliamentary bill when the alleged incident occurred in 2006.

Women’s rights campaigner Jasvinder Sanghera. Credit: PA

The 53-year-old finally lodged a complaint in November 2017 with the rise of the Me Too movement.

According to her statement to the commissioner, Ms Sanghera said the peer had told her if she slept with him he would make her a baroness "within a year", but if she refused he would ensure she never gained a seat in the Lords.

The committee said: "Lord Lester made a dishonourable promise backed by a dishonourable threat."

Peers had been asked to support the recommendation that Lord Lester be suspended until June 2022.

But raising objections to the move, leading lawyer Lord Pannick, a long-time friend and colleague of the accused peer, said: "I do not know, your lordships cannot know whether Lord Lester committed the acts alleged against him. I would be very surprised but I don’t know.

"What I do know is that the procedure applied by the Commissioner for Standards was manifestly unfair."

He added: "It was manifestly unfair because if you are going to assess the credibility of competing contentions as to what occurred nearly 12 years ago, if you are going to apply a very serious sanction against someone, and if you are going to destroy their hitherto unblemished reputation, you have to allow them, through their counsel, to cross-examine the person who is making those allegations, which turn on credibility."

Leading lawyer Lord Pannick. Credit: PA

Lord Pannick said: "I find it quite astonishing that this House that lays down the law for everybody else does not comply with these basic standards of fairness.”

He added: "Lord Lester wanted the right to cross-examine, not because of some abstract principle, but because of what he sees as the gaps and inconsistencies in the case against him."

"Sexual harassment and abuse of power are serious wrongs. Nothing I say is intended to diminish their gravity. But those accused of such offences are entitled to have their cases fairly and properly considered.

"He (Lord Lester) is facing suspension for nearly four years, his reputation has been destroyed.

"It doesn’t take much imagination for Lords to contemplate how they would feel if they were now accused of such an offence said to have been committed over a decade ago and then subjected to this procedure."

Earlier, presenting the committee’s report in the Lords, Senior Deputy Speaker Lord McFall of Alcluith said the commissioner was “a highly experienced investigator”, who was a former president of the Law Society and now sits as a judge.

Senior Deputy Speaker Lord McFall of Alcluith. Credit: Parliament UK

Lord McFall of Alcluith said: "She applied the processes that this House has set down for enforcement of our code of conduct.

"She should not be criticised for doing exactly what the House tasked her with doing and which the Committee for Privileges and Conduct found she had done properly.”

Liberal Democrat peer Lord Thomas of Gresford, himself a QC, was critical of the disciplinary procedure, which he argued meant the commissioner acted as both “investigator and judge”.

He also said the commissioner "had made mistakes", and provoked cries of "shame" when he described her as a "part-time judge in a mental health tribunal".

Labour peer Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall argued the commissioner was "being traduced".

"What is being said of her is that either she is incompetent or she acted in bad faith," she said.

Former lord chief justice and independent crossbencher Lord Woolf did not believe Lord Lester "had a fair crack of the whip".

He said: "When it is clear that there has not been natural justice, we must do the right thing and send the matter back so that it can be clarified."

Lord McNally said: "We must not be intimidated by the present atmosphere about sexual harassment to make the wrong decisions in this place just because of that current climate."

Branding the four-year suspension "draconian", he said the process was flawed, and added: "I don’t think a lifetime’s reputation should be destroyed on a balance of probabilities. We got it wrong and should have the courage to say so."

Former lord justice of appeal and independent crossbencher Baroness Butler-Sloss said the committee should look at the case again.

"This case should be properly tried by whatever process is to be done but with the credibility of the witnesses properly tested,” she said.

"For us not to do that would be for us to send a message that we don’t really treat the rule of law sufficiently seriously."