A year on from the sexual harassment allegations that rocked Westminster, parliament has issued its first suspension for inappropriate behaviour – not to any of the MPs accused, but to a peer.
In the longest suspension of an MP or peer since the Second World War, Anthony Lester, who previously sat on the Liberal Democrat frontbench in the Lords, is set to be barred from the upper house until at least June 2022 after its standards watchdog found he had breached its code of conduct by sexually harassing a woman he met and worked with in his capacity as a parliamentarian more than a decade ago.
A 134-page report into Lester’s misconduct – which he denies – concludes that he offered the complainant “corrupt inducement to have sexual relations with her”, “persisted in unwanted touching, even when the complainant clearly objected”, and “persisted in making sexual comments and offers to her, even after she clearly objected”. He was also accused of telling the complainant: “If you sleep with me I will make you a Baroness within a year.”
So grave did the Lords sub-committee on conduct consider the complaint that it originally recommended Lester, who is 82, be expelled, a sanction he successfully appealed on the grounds that no mechanism existed to sack peers at the time of the alleged misconduct. Lester’s punishment is nonetheless severe, however, and is more significant than anything the Commons standards watchdog has done to MPs accused of sexual harassment by the simple fact that it exists (the only disciplinary sanctions given in those cases come from the parties themselves).
It also gives those involved in foundering attempts to beef up procedures for dealing with bullying and harassment in the Commons yet more cause for frustration. To the consternation of many, MPs on its standards committee voted against an investigation historical bullying allegations against John Bercow, the Speaker, in May. The question of whether parliamentary staff will be given the ability to make historical complaints, and have the confidence that proper sanctions will be pursued, is still a live one too. The decisive action taken by the Lords authorities against Lester in the meantime will raise uncomfortable questions as to why the processes available to their Commons counterparts have not delivered similar outcomes – and why politics keeps being allowed to get in the way of replacing them with ones that can.