You will be forgiven if you missed the debate on privileges and standards in the House of Lords on Thursday, given that over in the House of Commons Brexiteers were trying to dislodge the Prime Minister, but to give you a quick summary, the upper chamber decided to show the world what an anachronistic, out-of-touch, old boys’ club they are.
In an utterly deplorable move, members of the House of Lords voted to overturn the decision of their own Commissioner for Standards – and their Committee for Privileges and Conduct – about the conclusions in the report of the sexual harassment allegations against (Lord) Anthony Lester.
The FDA, the trade union for senior civil servants, has been very vocal about the issues of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment in the House of Commons, and has long called for a fully independent system for complaints. This shameful display of peers scrambling to protect one of their own, at the cost of justice and fairness, absolutely proves our point: self-regulation does not work, parliamentarians will always side with each other.
The debate on privileges and standards on Thursday was intended to agree a 134-page report which upheld Jasvinder Sanghera’s complaint that she was sexually harassed by Lester – including that he offered her “corrupt inducements to sleep with him” and warned her of unspecified consequences should she refuse – and enact Lester’s suspension until June 2022. Lester denies all the allegations.
However, David Pannick put in an amendment to overturn the decision of the Commissioner and the Committee, and the Lords closed ranks, voting to block the suspension.
Pannick justified his amendment by saying that Lester should have had the right to cross-examine the complainant, saying he was denied “natural justice”.
But this was not criminal proceedings and shouldn’t be treated as such. A far better comparison is an employment context. In a disciplinary proceeding, where an employee has been accused of sexual harassment, there is absolutely no way that the accused employee would be able to cross-examine a witness in the disciplinary proceedings. This employee, and their trade union rep, would be allowed to read and challenge the witness statements and provide evidence themselves. This is what happened in this investigation.
Ironically, Lester understood this himself, when in 2009 he told the House that not allowing cross-examination did not breach the principles of natural justice.
In the House of Lords, many expressed concerns about the damage to a distinguished man’s reputation and the need to “examine the complainant’s credibility”. It is an important point that everyone should have trust and confidence in the system so that reputations are not unfairly affected. This is why the entire investigation process is kept confidential until the decision is reached. And in this case a decision had been reached.
The debate in the Lords should not have re-investigated the case, but at times the peers were doing just that. Their parliamentary privilege protected them in second-guessing the decisions of the Commissioner and the Committee, which of course the complainant would not be able to do. This is power imbalance at work.
The Lords did not think about the woman who made the complaint, Jasvinder Sanghera. She showed great courage and bravery putting in the complaint in the first place, let alone going through the process of the investigation, which can be understandably very distressing for all involved. She said, watching the debate, that she felt bullied all over again. She went through the process in the same way that Lester did and her complaint was upheld. Those on the Committee believed her.
The Lords also haven’t thought about all the other staff that have watched this debate and will now be deterred from ever putting in a complaint themselves. In her inquiry about the House of Commons, Dame Laura Cox found that staff were deterred from putting in complaints because they have no trust and confidence that their complaint would ever be treated seriously or a sanction applied. It is shameful that in this case the complaint was upheld, the appeal against the conclusion was not upheld (although the sanction was reduced) and yet the Lords still blocked the sanction.
This is not natural justice. This is a national disgrace.
Amy Leversidge is the assistant general secretary of the FDA union.