Motion to Agree
My Lords, in moving this Motion, I will speak also to the amendment to the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick.
The report before us relates to a finding that the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, sexually harassed the complainant, offered her a corrupt inducement to have sex with him and warned her of unspecified consequences if she did not accept his offer. The complaint was investigated by the House’s independent Commissioner for Standards. She found that the conduct of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, was in breach of the provision in our code of conduct that all members must act on their personal honour. The commissioner’s findings were considered by the Sub-Committee on Lords’ Conduct, whose role it is to recommend an appropriate sanction. That sub-committee recommended that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, should be expelled from the House.
The noble Lord, Lord Lester, appealed to the Committee for Privileges and Conduct against the findings and the sanction. That committee considered a detailed set of papers on appeal and heard from the noble Lord, Lord Lester, in person. We dismissed the appeal of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, against the finding that he had breached the code and we endorsed both the approach and the conclusions of the commissioner.
In relation to the appeal of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, against sanction, we upheld his appeal against expulsion and recommend instead a period of suspension. The committee was conscious that at the time of the breach of the code, the power to expel a Member of the House, which has now been conferred by the House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015, was not available. At the time the noble Lord, Lord Lester, breached the code the maximum sanction available was suspension to the end of the Parliament in which the suspension started. We concluded that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, should be suspended for a period coterminous with the maximum expected length of the present Parliament. We accordingly recommend that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, be suspended from the House until 3 June 2022. I should be clear that this is our recommendation to the House irrespective of whether or not a general election takes place before 2022.
My Lords, it may be helpful to the House if I say a few words in anticipation of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. The amendment suggests that the Commissioner for Standards did not conduct her investigation in a way that conformed with natural justice and fairness. This is a serious claim and one that the Committee for Privileges and Conduct considered very carefully, because it was a central point of the appeal of the noble Lord, Lord Lester. We were very clear in paragraph 12 of our report that we did not,
“accept Lord Lester’s contention that the Commissioner was at fault in the way she carried out her investigation”.
That was the unanimous position of all 14 members of the committee. In coming to that position we listened with particular care to the opinions of two of our members with considerable judicial experience, the noble and learned Lords, Lord Mackay of Clashfern and Lord Hope of Craighead. I hope that they will both speak later in this debate.
The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, directs us to consider the procedures the commissioner followed in her investigation. Let me remind the House what they are. They are set out in the guide to the code and they are kept under review by the Sub-Committee on Lords’ Conduct, chaired by another member with considerable judicial experience, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-Under-Heywood.
Paragraph 124 of the guide to the code states:
“Proceedings are not adversarial, but inquisitorial in character.”
Then paragraph 127 says:
“Complainants have no formal locus once an investigation is under way: they have no right to be called as a witness, though they are expected to co-operate with any investigation and to supply all the evidence in their possession when asked to do so. Nor do members accused of misconduct have any entitlement to cross-examine complainants, though they are given an opportunity to review and, if they so wish, challenge the factual basis of any evidence supplied by complainants or others”.
This House has set out a process that does not include cross-examination but does allow for the rigorous testing and review of evidence. It is a process that has been in place for many years and has been used to investigate other extremely serious allegations against Members of this House. It is a process that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, himself vigorously defended in a speech in the House on Wednesday 20 May 2009. In that speech, the noble Lord, Lord Lester, referred to the conduct of the investigation into allegations against Lord Taylor of Blackburn. Lord Taylor’s solicitors claimed that Lord Taylor had been,
“denied basic procedural safeguards guaranteed by domestic and international law, and by the House of Lords’ own rules. Not least of these is the right to know the charges against you and to test the evidence against you through cross-examination”.—[Official Report, 20/5/09; col. 1411.]
The noble Lord, Lord Lester, then summarised his own position as follows:
“I do not consider that there is a breach of the principles of natural justice or fairness, which are flexible principles. They are not conceivably breached in this case, and the penalties are in my judgment entirely proportionate”.—[Official Report, 20/5/09; col. 1412.]
The view of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, was shared by the House in that case and remains shared by the House to this day.
I also suggest that if any noble Lord has any doubt about the care with which the commissioner tested the evidence, they should refer to her own description of the process she followed, as set out from page 94 of the published documents. Let me also remind the House that the commissioner is herself a highly experienced investigator. She is a former President of the Law Society and now sits as a judge. 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.
Perhaps I may finish by saying something about confidentiality and anonymity. Throughout the process the identity of the complainant was kept out of the public domain. That is why information and details in the report as published were redacted and a number of annexes have not been published at all. The complainant has, since the report was published, made her identity known. This is of course entirely her decision and I hope that noble Lords will respect that. That does not in any way undermine the approach taken to confidentiality during the process or the need to publish a redacted report. Looking ahead, it is important that we give confidence to others who may come forward with complaints about sexual harassment that their identity can be kept secret if that is what they wish.
I beg to move that the second report from the Committee for Privileges and Conduct be agreed to.
Amendment to the Motion
To leave out “agreed to” and insert “remitted to the Committee for Privileges and Conduct because the Commissioner for Standards failed to comply with paragraph 21 of the Code of Conduct which required her to act in accordance with the principles of natural justice and fairness.”
My Lords, I thank the Deputy Speaker for the way in which he has introduced this difficult matter. I declare my interests. I have been a close friend of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and we were colleagues at the Bar for almost 40 years. I assisted him during the process before the Commissioner for Standards and indeed at the hearing before the Committee for Privileges, but I was not allowed, because of the procedures of this House, to speak on his behalf either before the commissioner or before the committee.
I do not know—your Lordships cannot know either—whether the noble Lord, Lord Lester, committed the acts alleged against him. I would be very surprised if he did but I do not know. However, I know that the procedure applied by the Commissioner for Standards was manifestly unfair. If you are going to assess the credibility of competing contentions as to what occurred nearly 12 years ago, apply a very serious sanction against someone and destroy their hitherto unblemished reputation, you have to allow them, through their counsel, to cross-examine the person making the allegations, which turn on credibility. At the very least, the commissioner should appoint independent counsel to perform that cross-examination; that would also be acceptable.
Paragraph 21 of our code of conduct is very clear. I am sorry that the Senior Deputy Speaker did not mention it. It states that the commissioner,
“shall act in accordance with the principles of natural justice and fairness”.
The fact of the matter is that in every other regulatory, disciplinary or employment context in this country, if you are accused of serious misconduct where the issue turns on credibility and you face a serious sanction, you are entitled to your legal right to cross-examine the person making the allegations against you so that their credibility—and yours, because you must be cross-examined as well—can be properly assessed and determined. I find it quite astonishing that this House, which lays down the law for everybody, does not comply with these basic standards of fairness. With great respect to the Senior Deputy Speaker, the question is not about whether the commissioner is distinguished—she is—or whether she carried out this function very carefully; no doubt she did her best. It is essentially a question of principle. Can she fairly determine an issue that turns on credibility when she did not allow for any possibility of cross-examination?
The Senior Deputy Speaker relied on the guide to our code of conduct, paragraph 127 of which states, as he accurately pointed out:
“Nor do members accused of misconduct have any entitlement to cross-examine complainants”.
Of course they have no such entitlement, because fairness does not require cross-examination in all cases. In many cases, credibility is not an issue, but that paragraph cannot mean that the commissioner lacks any power or duty to allow for cross-examination if and when fairness so requires. If that paragraph so provided, it would conflict with the governing position in paragraph 21 of our code of conduct, which requires the commissioner to act in accordance with “natural justice and fairness”. In any event, even if our code were followed by the commissioner—which was not the case—the question before the House is whether the noble Lord, Lord Lester, was treated fairly and in accordance with natural justice by being denied the opportunity for cross-examination. It is very important to emphasise to the House that this is not a lawyer’s point. It is inherent in the very concept of fairness.
It is also important to emphasise to the House that the noble Lord, 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—as to when the harassment is said to have occurred, what meetings Ms Sanghera says she was denied access to and, most fundamentally of all, between her allegations and her own conduct. Your Lordships may have seen in the report that, one week after the alleged events, she signed her book for the noble Lord, Lord Lester, in affectionate terms. I quote:
“Anthony … Thank you so much for your love and support. It has been my pleasure to meet you … Love and admiration.”
One week after the alleged events, she expressed “admiration”. Two and a half years later, she sent him another book thanking him for his support and signing it—
I emphasise to the noble Baroness and noble Lords that I am most definitely not asking the House to take sides as to who is telling the truth and who is not. I am citing these matters as briefly as I can because, in the circumstances of this case, fairness cried out for cross-examination. I am giving an example of why, in the absence of cross-examination, fairness could not be achieved. I was telling the House that, two and a half years after the alleged events, Ms Sanghera sent the noble Lord, Lord Lester, another book thanking him for his support and signing it, with “love and respect”.
A great authority on evidence, Dean Wigmore, said—and he was right—that cross-examination is,
“the greatest … engine ever invented for the discovery of truth”.
I remind your Lordships that in 1999 the report of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, which was chaired by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead, stated at paragraph 281 that when the House deals with serious cases of contempt it is,
“essential that committees of both Houses should follow procedures providing safeguards at least as rigorous as those applied in the courts and professional disciplinary bodies”.
The Joint Committee set out what it described as a series of “minimum requirements of fairness” for a Member accused of wrongdoing. Those minimum requirements included,
“the opportunity to examine other witnesses”.
Mention has been made by the Senior Deputy Speaker of the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, himself in the case of Lord Taylor of Blackburn, who was disciplined for dishonest expenses claims, but what is fair depends on the context. The context in the present case is an allegation of misconduct nearly 12 years ago dependent on the competing credibility of two people. In any event, what the noble Lord, Lord Lester, said in 2009 cannot be determinative of the standards of fairness.
The noble Lord, Lord Lester, put before the Committee for Privileges an independent opinion from David Perry QC, who had advised Parliament in relation to its code of practice. He said that, given the serious nature of the allegations and the time that had elapsed since the events in question, the noble Lord, Lord Lester, had been denied a basic requirement of fairness in the circumstances of this case. He also made many other criticisms which I will not deal with.
Sexual harassment and abuse of power are serious wrongs and nothing that I say is intended to diminish their gravity, but those who are accused of such offences are entitled to have their cases fairly and properly considered. The more serious the allegation and the more severe the penalty, the greater the obligation on us to act fairly. The noble Lord is facing suspension for nearly four years and his reputation has been destroyed.
It does not take much imagination from noble Lords to contemplate how they would feel if they were now accused of such an offence, said to have been committed more than a decade ago, and then subjected to this procedure. If a report produced by this procedure were produced in the case of someone being suspended from his trade union, from the City of London, or from his golf club, I can tell noble Lords that I would have no difficulty whatever in overturning that report in the courts of this country. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, cannot go to court because of parliamentary privilege. It is therefore our obligation to apply at least equivalent standards in addressing these matters.
The procedure adopted by the Commissioner for Standards failed to meet the standards of natural justice and fairness. I hope that the House will agree that this matter needs to be remitted to the Committee for Privileges and Conduct so that it can be encouraged to begin the process, delayed for far too long, of devising a procedure ensuring that complaints of this nature are considered in a fair and effective manner, so that the injustice done to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, is not perpetrated. I beg to move.
My Lords, I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, that the statement in the Code of Conduct requiring the commissioner to act in accordance with the principles of natural justice and fairness transcends any statement in the guidance to the code that limits the cross-examination of witnesses. In an appropriate case, the evidence requires to be tested—and I can think of no more appropriate case than this, where the international reputation of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, is threatened by an allegation more than 12 years old of harassment, which is a criminal offence. The consequences for him are immense.
There is a further aspect of these proceedings which concerns me. The code does not lay down any detailed process for the investigation of complaints. The proceedings are inquisitorial, which means that the commissioner acts as both investigator and judge. Ironically, the working party, which published its Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme Delivery Report last July, recommends that the roles be separated: there should be an investigator to investigate and report and a decision-making body to receive the report and determine the complaint.
Without an explicit process to follow in this case, the commissioner made up her own. Her lack of forensic experience—although she is a very distinguished lawyer in other respects—and her lack of confidence are demonstrated by the need, as she saw it, to consult a friendly judge for guidance. She collected the evidence, interviewed such witnesses as she chose in informal interviews, some of them merely on the telephone, and ignored other witnesses suggested to her by the noble Lord, Lord Lester. She then came to a judgment on the facts and upheld the complaint. Her findings of fact under the code could not be reopened before the sub-committee on conduct, nor on the appeal before the full committee. The challenge on appeal of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, had to be as to the fairness of her investigation and the process by which she came to her conclusion. It was not and could not be a rehearing of the facts.
The commissioner made mistakes. For example, her approach to the evidence was in my view to reverse the burden of proof and to apply a standard of proof which did not reflect the severity of the consequences of her findings. I remind the House that the guidance at paragraph 128 states that in order to find against a Member,
“the Commissioner will require at least”—
“that the allegation is proved on the balance of probabilities”.
That means that in appropriate cases, the standard of proof should be higher than a mere 51 to 49. There are other flaws of forensic analysis which I will not trouble your Lordships with.
The most extraordinary aspect of these proceedings, however, was that the commissioner made herself a party to the appeal process. Between pages 94 and 111 of the report, there is set out the commissioner’s point-by-point refutation of the grounds of appeal of the noble Lord, Lord Lester. This is the first time that I have ever come across a judge making herself the respondent to an appeal against her own judgment.
So what submissions did she make to the appellate committee? First, she said that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, did not accept the legitimacy of her investigation. This is not surprising, since we are about to scrap it anyway when the report of the working party is received and put into effect. Secondly, she said that, as the noble Lord, Lord McFall, pointed out, the noble Lord had spoken in support of the procedures in 2009, when the question of the conduct of the four Peers who had been convicted by criminal processes was dealt with. The commissioner criticised the status of counsel’s opinion—Mr Perry’s opinion. She questioned the independence of his opinion of leading counsel, on the basis that he was instructed by the solicitors of the noble Lord, Lord Lester. In paragraph 30, she said that its status was,
“only an opinion, not an accepted decision made in an adversarial court”.
There is an irony in that, is there not?
Paragraph 31 states:
“In a standard appeal the appellant (Lord Lester) and the respondent (me) would both put up legal arguments (opinions) as to why the appeal should, or should not be allowed. I do not have that option, as the processes set out in the Code do not permit this. However, what I can say is that, if I had that opportunity, I have no doubt that I would be able to obtain a reputable, eminent opinion that disagreed in many, if not all, respects from that of Mr Perry and Ms Davidson”.
That is her view: she described herself as the respondent to the appeal. Nothing in the code suggests that the commissioner is entitled to such a role.
She then criticised the attempt by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, to introduce fresh evidence and submitted in paragraph 34:
“The Committee will be aware that it is not its role to reopen the investigation, but simply to ‘use their judgment to decide whether, on the balance of probabilities, they endorse the conclusions of the Commissioner’”.
“I do not believe the Committee should admit”,
this fresh evidence,
“or use it to re-open the investigation”.
These are submissions made by the judge, the finder of fact whose facts could not be challenged—and there she was, defending the process.
She continued to assert that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, was responsible for any inaccuracies in his grounds of appeal and alleges that he was guilty of unsatisfactory conduct during her investigations. In paragraphs 53 to 103 she sets out point by point her challenge to his grounds of appeal and her defence of her own conduct of the investigation. She—the judge against whom the appeal is being made—concludes in Paragraph 104:
“For the reasons set out in this paper and in the appendix to this paper I am confident in my findings and in the processes I applied throughout my investigation. I ask the Committee to dismiss Lord Lester’s appeal against my findings”.
I very much doubt that as a part-time judge in a mental health tribunal the commissioner has ever appeared in the Upper Tribunal to argue against an appellant appealing her own judgment and inviting the Upper Tribunal to dismiss the appeal.
So how did this travesty happen? Was she invited by the clerk or the chairman of the Committee for Privileges and Conduct to make these representations? Or did she jump into the arena of her own accord? Did the noble Lord, Lord Lester, consent to this? Was he asked whether she should make herself a respondent to the appeal?
The proceedings before the Committee for Privileges and Conduct were remarkable. Any Member who is brought before it on a charge of not acting on his or her personal honour should bear in mind that, however ancient the allegation, however old you are—the noble Lord, Lord Lester, is 82—however much you may have been touched by dementia like Lord Janner, whatever stress or illness you may be suffering—and the noble Lord, Lord Lester, was defending the potential ruin of a lifetime’s reputation—you, every one of you, will be on your own. You cannot have anyone speak for you, much less present your case—and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, was there ready to do it.
While my noble friend is setting out a very cogent case as a lawyer, does he accept that the commissioner was appointed by this House and that he and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, need to accept that the procedures are the procedures that were adopted by this House and that, whether they are fit for purpose or not, they are the procedures that we have today? They are the procedures that will affect all of us as we sit here in this House. It is our honour and our integrity, and my noble friend impugning the integrity of someone this House has appointed does not help the case of his and my noble friend Lord Lester.
They may be here today, but they will be scrapped next week when the report of the committee is received. This is the only time that these procedures have been used in a sexual harassment case. That is why the commissioner was left on her own to invent the procedures.
My noble friend Lord Lester was entitled reasonably to expect that he could present his grounds of appeal to the committee without them being undermined beforehand by the submissions of the commissioner. Her submissions were before the committee in written form, but she was never required to present them in person to have them examined, questioned and tested. By contrast, as the report shows, my noble friend Lord Lester was given 30 minutes to make his oral submissions and, contrary to the traditions of the Judicial Committee of this House, of happy memory, he was heard in silence without the engagement, questioning, teasing out of points or discussion of any of the matters raised by the commissioner by way of refutation. He was not questioned at all.
Lest the commissioner or anyone else, including my noble friend, should suspect that I am acting as a mouthpiece of my noble friend Lord Lester, let me make it clear that although on many occasions I have worked with him in this House and many times deferred to his views in the field of human and women’s rights, our paths have not crossed socially or professionally. I have had no discussion with him at any stage or with anyone else, including the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, about these allegations and was unaware of the progress of these proceedings until I read the report on Monday evening. The analysis of the report that I have set out is entirely mine, and I do not pretend to speak for my party in any way.
After 22 years in this House, I am distressed at the distance that I consider the House has fallen from fairness and natural justice. I am also shocked that, after all the attempts to protect the identity of the complainant and redact the report, she herself, on the day that this report was published, should have given an exclusive interview to the Times together with personal photographs. If anything goes to credibility, that does. It makes a mockery of our procedures, and I can only hope that a charity has fully benefited from her.
My Lords, I wonder if it would be of assistance to the House if I were to speak next. I should explain that one of my duties as Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers is to sit upon the Committee for Privileges and Conduct. That is a responsibility that I bear on behalf of my colleagues on the Cross Benches, and I had the important duty of sitting on this particular committee. I shall explain succinctly why I felt unable to accept the contention of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, that the commissioner was at fault in the way that she carried out her investigation. I have of course listened with great care to what my noble friend Lord Pannick has said in presenting the amendment.
I shall concentrate on two matters: what the commissioner did and what she was required to do. The first thing that she did, as required by paragraph 119 of the guide, was to seek and obtain the agreement of the sub-committee, chaired by my noble and learned friend Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, to investigate. That is because the alleged incidents occurred more than four years before the complaint was made. She obtained that consent from the sub-committee and proceeded to receive the details of the complaint and then meet the noble Lord, Lord Lester, to provide him with the details that were contained in it.
The noble Lord then began a process of challenging the process being adopted by the commissioner. First, he asked for an alternative procedure by way of a dialogue to be adopted so that he and the complainant could meet together with the commissioner to discuss the incidents that she was complaining about. The commissioner was uncertain as to what she should do about that, so she went back to the sub-committee to find out what its advice was. In the meantime, the noble Lord, Lord Lester, had complained to the sub- committee about the fairness of the procedure. The important point to note is that the commissioner was told by the sub-committee that she was bound to investigate the complaint under the procedure laid down by the code and the guide to conduct. I emphasise that point because I think it should be realised that if there is any basic fault in the procedure, which is my noble friend’s essential point, the sub-committee shares the responsibility for the way in which the case proceeded, as does the sub-committee that looked at the matter afterwards.
The instruction from the sub-committee was to follow the procedure laid down by the code and the guide. The Senior Deputy Speaker very helpfully set out a good deal of what is contained therein and I do not want to go over it, but there is a crucial passage at paragraph 124 that has to be understood and that has been in the guide for many years. It says:
“Proceedings are not adversarial, but inquisitorial in character”.
That is a crucial passage in the guide, which is followed through in the following paragraphs that talk about no entitlement to cross-examination. The point is that an adversarial process is one where cross-examination is indeed resorted to and, as I think my noble friend was suggesting, one might well have counsel to assist in putting those questions. That is the nature of the adversarial process that all of us who have sat as judges, and indeed who have appeared in courts as lawyers, are familiar with, but this was an inquisitorial process where the conduct of the inquiry was in the hands of the commissioner, appointed, as has been pointed out, by the House to conduct this process as an independent and impartial investigator.
One has to understand that because, when one comes to the phrase, which has also been quoted, that the commissioner,
“shall act in accordance with the principles of natural justice and fairness”,
one has to understand what that phrase means. The principles of natural justice have been established in our common law for many years. There are two of them, assuming of course that the investigator is impartial. Principle number one is that the person complained against shall have fair notice of the case being made against him. Principle number two is that the person complained against shall have a fair opportunity to answer to the complaint. Those are the principles of natural justice that are universal and which are referred to in that paragraph in the guide. Cross-examination is the essence of an adversarial process, and one must assume that when the House approved the guide in this form it understood very well that this was the nature of the process that it wished to adopt. One might say that the important point was to keep the adversarial element—counsel and all the rest of it—out of it and put it in the hands of the commissioner so that she could conduct the inquiry as best she could.
If one follows through what the commissioner actually did—I do this not to reopen her inquiry, which we are not allowed to do, but to test the coherence of what she did—one sees that she interviewed the noble Lord, Lord Lester, to discuss aspects of his statement. She said she gave him the opportunity to tell her anything else that he thought was relevant, applying the principle of natural justice. Significantly, his response was to deny the allegations in every particular. As she said, his case was not that it was a misunderstanding or a misinterpretation, so either the complainant or the noble Lord was not telling the truth, and she had to decide that issue.
As we know from the report, she then contacted witnesses, and she used her discretion as to how best to do that. She provided the noble Lord, Lord Lester, with copies of the statements by these witnesses. She then considered no fewer than 12 challenges that the noble Lord made to the progress of the investigation so far. Here your Lordships see the second principle, the opportunity to reply, being applied. She then showed him her draft report. He made 10 more representations, each of which she considered and dealt with before the report was finalised. So if one works through the report, one finds that she conducted the process in accordance with fairness and the principles of natural justice.
She noted that there were discrepancies between the complainant’s statement and those of the witnesses but, as she pointed out, that was not altogether surprising in view of the lapse of time. Indeed, on the contrary, if they had been exactly fitting with each other, that might suggest collusion, which, in her judgment, was absent in this case. She accepted that the witnesses were telling the truth as best they could.
She said she did not need to examine each of the allegations in great detail, the reason being that the complaint was not said to arise from a misunderstanding or misinterpretation and she was not provided by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, with material to conduct a penetrating investigation of the kind where one might put to the complainant alternative explanations for what might have happened. I think she was saying to us in the report that it was not for her to construct the noble Lord’s excuse if he did not provide that excuse to her himself.
I have two final points. She said that when she was dealing, as so often with these very difficult cases of sexual misdemeanours, with competing positions of the two people involved, on the whole she might have regarded this as a 50/50 case where the balance was not tipped against the noble Lord, Lord Lester. That was why she had regard to the witnesses to see if she could test, by some independent evidence, whether there was a cogent reason for preferring the complainant’s account of what had occurred. All that is perfectly orthodox, coherent and understandable.
The last and most important point is one that every judge who sits in an appeal has to appreciate and I suggest to your Lordships that we should grasp it too: the commissioner had the great advantage of seeing, interviewing and assessing the complainant herself. We do not have that advantage. The commissioner’s advantage is one that she alone had, and it was her assessment of credibility that was crucial to the determination of this case.
There has been a lot of criticism of the commissioner’s conduct. I respectfully suggest that she conducted the process to the best of her ability and in accordance with the rules provided for her by the House, which the House looked at in 2010, for example, and has not sought leave to change. I do not think the process could be said to have been at fault if tested by the principles of natural justice and fairness, and I respectfully submit to your Lordships that the amendment should not be agreed to.
My Lords, as a non-lawyer, I support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Pannick and agree with everything he said. In doing so, I recognise that I am raising serious doubts about the fairness of our procedures in cases such as this involving sexual abuse and harassment. I also recognise that my actions could be interpreted by people outside the House as special pleading for one of our own. This latter point is in no way my intention, and I claim in no way whatever that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, is innocent. I simply do not know. I am not a personal friend of the noble Lord, although I have known him for more than 20 years, and I do not know him socially.
My only concern is the same as that of my noble friend Lord Pannick: that we are operating a flawed system that can unfairly totally damage a distinguished person’s life and reputation. As I said, I am not a lawyer, but I have been involved in a case where I was cross-examined in a tribunal when I sacked a black manager for sexually abusing a child in care. I accepted that cross-examination because I had taken a serious action that would damage that individual and their livelihood. I was cross-examined for more than an hour about my actions and the evidence I had for taking those actions. So I have had the experience of being cross-examined and having my judgments tested in, in effect, a court.
At the heart of my concern is whether our procedures are fit for purpose to deal with allegations of historic sexual abuse or harassment. That is the issue. These are notoriously difficult issues to address fairly, as other jurisdictions have found. I accept that we do not wish to prevent complainants—very often women —coming forward, often after a long period after inappropriate conduct has occurred. Equally, we now have enough experience of false claims to know that evidence must be properly tested before people’s reputations—usually men’s—are trashed unfairly. This balance can be difficult to achieve to everyone’s satisfaction, particularly given the historical discrimination against women.
In this case, my reservations about accepting this report as it stands turn on whether the noble Lord, Lord Lester, was given an adequate opportunity to legally and forensically test the credibility of the complainant’s evidence before adjudication was made. I do not think, on the evidence available to me in the report, that he has. That therefore could lead to a possible unfair adjudication that destroys his reputation.
Given the serious consequences of the report for the noble Lord, Lord Lester, I feel extremely uncomfortable about simply nodding it through because it conforms with flawed guidance that we have given the commissioner. I can also foresee that if we do not examine our procedures more carefully now, we could mishandle many further cases that come forward. You would have to be a great optimist to think that there will never be further cases. For those reasons, if my noble friend Lord Pannick wishes to test the opinion of the House, I will support him.
My Lords, I, too, am not a lawyer and I venture into this space with great trepidation, having heard the speeches that have gone before, but the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, for whom I have the greatest respect—I mean that very sincerely—has moved an amendment which we are now discussing. The amendment tells us that it is his view that the commissioner failed in her duty. That is not the same as suggesting that our procedures are flawed. Our procedures may well be flawed, but that is not what we are debating.
What has occurred this morning and in the lead-up to this debate—the comment in the press and elsewhere—is that the commissioner is being traduced. What is being said of her is that either she is incompetent or she acted in bad faith. Both of those are very serious allegations—
Well, my Lords, I say that for this reason. It has not been put to us in the amendment that the Code of Conduct and the guidance that goes with it is flawed. That has been said by other speakers, but it is not in the amendment. The amendment says that the commissioner has failed to apply the Code of Conduct and the guidance that goes with it effectively and in accordance with the principles of natural justice and fairness.
If it is not said that the Code of Conduct is in itself flawed and therefore cannot be applied in that way, the fault appears to be hers and it therefore must be—must it not?—that she has applied it either because she is incompetent or knowing that she was applying it unfairly. That is a grave allegation to make against someone who this House has appointed to carry out its wishes in respect of a Code of Conduct which, we are now being told, is or may be flawed and is or may be in the process of being discarded. She could only apply the Code of Conduct before her at the time of the investigation.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the case that she considered—like everyone else here, I am in no position, nor would I wish, to make any comment on that at all—it is, and I shall choose my words carefully here, perhaps regrettable that Members of the House have chosen to attack a public servant who is acting on its behalf when there is apparently no evidence that she acted either incompetently or in bad faith. For that reason, I must say that I cannot support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick.
My Lords, it is with degrees of trepidation that I take part in this debate, particularly as it is dominated by wonderful legal brains. My reason for speaking is that many years back now, I was asked by the then Leader of the House to lead the group that was to set up the Code of Conduct. In November 2009, our recommendations for the Code of Conduct were unanimously accepted by this House. Since then, with some technical adjustments, that code has remained in place and we have all lived with it, under it and, in a sense, for it. It is on a sad day—I use those words explicitly—such as this that we have to re-examine what we have accepted for many years. I am therefore in no way questioning what has been said in the amendment by my noble friend Lord Pannick, nor what has been argued by other lawyers. I want briefly to appeal to the House to remember that in the early stages of our current Code of Conduct, there was real anxiety on the part of the House that it should not become a lawyer’s charter and that we should avoid the adversarial approach to cases that were brought before us.
The background to that early production of a code was the self-regulation philosophy of your Lordships’ House. We have protected that and argued for it over the years, and it is something that we should be proud of and protect to the end as being one of the strengths of your Lordships’ House. So it was in those early days, when people argued that there would be occasions such as this when a case would be raised which would have something to do with the wording of the code, that we had to have some form in which we could avoid that adversarial approach or, I say again, the lawyer’s charter.
We came up with a phrase which has now endured all those years. It is simply put: personal honour. If you examine the wording of the report which we produced, and which still stands on page 4 of the Code of Conduct, you will see that we tried to analyse what personal honour means. We did so in ways and in words that I believe envelop individual cases, not least the case of the noble Lord, Lord Lester. In the list of the words that we have put in our report, we have covered virtually every incidence that could come before the Privileges Committee and then to this House; for example, selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness and honesty are some of the words that we suggested. I am not referring to the individual facts of this case, but I am defending the Code of Conduct and our method of investigating issues such as this case, and appealing to the House to remember that the spirit of this House demands the degrees of honesty and consistency, which I submit is present in the way in which we operate the Code of Conduct in this House.
I have listened to the speeches that have already been made, and I start off by declaring my interest. I am afraid that, in relation to issues before us, I have more than one interest to declare to the House. The first is that I have known the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for many years, and my family and his family are friends. I emphasise that I am not acting on his behalf; I was never approached to act on his behalf in submitting to this House my view on the issues before us. Secondly, I emphasise my professional career as it appears in the register, which I do not need to elaborate on because I know it is before the House and, I respectfully say, speaks for itself.
I should disclose that I have conducted a number of investigations. I have been fortunate in that I have been entrusted by Governments, not only in this country but in others, to conduct those investigations and advise. I disclose that I am the editor of one of the leading textbooks, now in its eighth edition, which deals fully with the question of natural justice. I refer to that because natural justice is central to the issues before us. Although the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, is absolutely right about the problems of getting involved with court procedures—to use a euphemism for what he was seeking to describe—the fact is that whether you are deterred by that or anything else, anyone whose life’s work and reputation, acquired during his working life, are challenged is entitled to natural justice as a minimum, basic element of any form of investigation. Knowing what natural justice is, and being conscious that we are at the 20th anniversary of the Human Rights Act, I emphasise that that is particularly important when a person is put in a position such as that of the noble Lord, Lord Lester.
The word adversarial is one that nearly always involves cross-examination. But the word inquisitorial does not mean that you cannot have cross-examination. That is contrary to the sense of the word, and the ignorance about that is very worrying to me. For a time, I was chairman—as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, is now—of the sub-committee which dealt with these matters as they then were. Having done that job for a time, I decided that the provisions were wholly unsuited to the purpose they were meant to cover. I was deeply uncomfortable that they were not fit for purpose, and I made that clear to the authorities of the House. That is based on my experience, to which I made reference.
With that background, I come to look at the code as it is now. There is nothing that I would object to in it. There is nothing I would object to in many cases—not allowing lawyers to come anywhere near the process—but I emphasise that that is on the basis of looking at the issues that have to be determined and deciding what procedure is appropriate. The ones we are dealing with—what the commission had to deal with and two committees had to consider, as well as the commissioner—were peculiarly difficult to resolve in some cases. They are peculiarly difficult especially when there is a sexual connotation, which is what is complained of here.
I go back a long way as a judge and barrister, and remember when it was required in common law that when an allegation is made, corroboration is required. In addition, it was the duty of judges to warn a jury that it was dangerous to convict unless there was corroboration. It was also well-established that complaints made at the time are not corroboration. I say that only because—I do not blame the commissioner—the position in law today is much more flexible. A complaint is not corroboration but it is very easy to see it as such, and the commissioner in this case saw it as corroboration. She was saying that because of the complaint, there was no need to investigate other things. She was wrong on that because unfortunately, the common law acknowledged what we have to acknowledge today: that there are sometimes motives for making false allegations in cases involving sexual conduct which disguise the reality of the situation.
It is all too easy to say that, because a complaint is made, the matter is proved, because you think that the person who gives evidence of the complaint is speaking the truth. They may be, but that does not avoid the need to answer the question whether the person making the complaint is telling the truth when she makes it. This is just the basic experience of lawyers such as myself who have had to try these cases.
When you read the commissioner’s report—I do not criticise her in any way—you realise she had a very difficult task. I believe that any one of the lawyers in this House would say that if they were given the task she had of determining whether this matter was proved or not, they would conclude that if they were not allowed to have cross-examination—were not at least allowed to confront the complainant by the person complained against—it would be difficult, if not impossible. They would feel uncomfortable about coming to a view that one person was guilty or innocent with regard to the critical issue of where the truth lies. I do not know where the truth lies here, but I do not think the commissioner had the opportunity to determine that issue.
On the complaints made about the guidance as opposed to the Code of Conduct, the first point has already been made that the guidance is subsidiary to the code. However, if you read the guidance very carefully, it does a fairly good job. First, it says that the process in the normal way has to be not adversarial, but inquisitorial. As I have indicated, that does not mean—although I think that the commissioner believed it meant—that she did not have any discretion. The code, like the guidance, said in terms that natural justice had to be observed. That meant that there would be some cases where there should be a different procedure to see that justice was done. However, neither of the committees that oversaw the commissioner pointed that out to her. With the greatest respect to them, and without seeking to undermine those very important committees, I think they should have done. Again, in my view, she did not apply the right burden of proof, which goes right to the essence of this matter.
The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, has already drawn attention to the critical words “at least” in respect of the balance of probabilities. This is a case where that balance cannot be decided on just 51%, as the noble Lord has pointed out. It has to be adjusted to the seriousness of what is alleged. This is the course that all courts, civil and criminal, take. If they want to deal with balance of probabilities, they recognise that the balance can fluctuate according to the seriousness and gravity of the issue at stake.
Again, I do not criticise the commissioner in any way. I believe that she did everything she possibly could to try to resolve the matter. However, it was not clear to her in some respects and I suggest that that is worrying. She should not have been asked to deal with this matter without assistance. If it was thought that the parties should not have legal advice, she should at least have had an experienced tribunals assistant and assessors with her who could have assisted in these matters.
I have taken up quite a bit of the House’s time and ask noble Lords to forgive me for doing so. However, I think the House has a very serious task today. I do not think—and I am quite satisfied about this—that it can be shown that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, had a fair crack of the whip, and a famous judge described natural justice as requiring a fair crack of the whip. It was unfair because, as anybody who shares my experience of such procedure would know, with the best of intentions it has gone wrong at all three stages. We cannot leave the matter in that way. We have to show that we believe in natural justice as well as the code and the guidance. 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.
You heard from the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, that a distinguished judge—a contemporary of mine, Lord Nicholls, whom we all respect—recommended that what I have just been saying should have happened. That part of his report was not implemented, and it should have been. I am afraid that the truth of the matter is that the House has become over-protective. When I was chairman of this sub-committee, I felt it wanted to underrate the responsibilities involved and that the matter had not been given the attention that it should. Since that day, greater attention has been paid and a real attempt has been made to improve the position. It is much better than it was, but that does not mean that there cannot be occasions when, although the offence alleged is very serious—or, as I would say, because it is very serious—special steps should be allowed to be taken so that justice can be done.
The reputation of this country for justice depends on the leadership this House gives. This House cannot and must not send out a message that it is not really interested in natural justice. If people are worried that this might deter from doing so others who are in a position to complain properly, that is worrying and we should be concerned about it. However, our concerns for them must not enable us to overlook apparent injustice, and that is what has happened here.
My Lords, I asked to speak because I was leader of the Liberal Democrats for nine years from 2004 to 2013 and this case happened on my watch. I understand the difficult task of getting the balance right in the system. There is a worrying development, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, has rightly said. We have to get the right decision in terms of fairness and natural justice. Simply getting behind the commissioner because we have appointed her or because this committee, or that committee, or the Senior Deputy Speaker has put his name to it, misses the point.
The report has been put before the House for debate and, I hope, for the Senior Deputy Speaker to listen to what has been said. If we just follow the book, if we just make it that the rules are the rules, we are in grave danger of a great miscarriage of justice. I have two hopes: first, that the Front Bench, which I see is getting very restless, realises that this goes to the very heart of what this House is about and that those who want to speak in this debate should be heard, because it is very important; and, secondly, that in listening to the debate, the Senior Deputy Speaker will realise that some very valid points have been made and need to be addressed.
Benjamin Franklin said:
“It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it”.
We know how easily a reputation can be destroyed and how difficult historical cases are. We have only just come through the passage of suffering that had to be faced by Lord Guthrie and the family of Lord Brittan before their historic cases were dealt with. In destroying a reputation we have to be very careful that the accused has protections as well. Certainly in the case of the noble Lord, Lord Lester—Anthony—the report makes it very clear what is at stake in paragraph 11:
“for decades past the respondent has been one of the most widely known, effective and admired of those campaigning for racial and sexual equality in this country, a renowned supporter of human rights and freedoms across the board”.
What has been on trial is that reputation, which is not something that should be destroyed by a flawed process on the balance of probabilities.
I said in opening that I had been leader of the Lib Dems; I have also known the noble Lord, Lord Lester for over 40 years. Given that one of the “public interest” reasons given in paragraph 42 by the commissioner for initiating her inquiry was:
“Those who behave in the way alleged sometimes do so repeatedly”,
let me put it on record that, until the matter came to light, I had never heard any such accusation being made against the noble Lord. It is interesting that we have not seen any evidence that the complaint was part of a “pattern of behaviour” that the commissioner was seeking.
I have acknowledged the difficulty of getting the balance right between complainant and accused. This is doubly difficult in dealing with historic cases, and even more so when what was in operation was not a tried and tested process but one created ad hoc because the code, as it existed, did not cover sexual harassment. I was in fact on the committee—with the noble and right reverend Lord, whom I still refer to as the Bishop—when we put together that code. What happened, as we know, was instigated by a journalist who was known to the complainant and who set up the ground rules for what became the complaint by questions in a letter set out in paragraph 34. They raised no specific case but produced the reply set out in paragraph 35. The ad hoc nature of those ground rules is conceded in the final sentence of paragraph 35:
“It would be open to the House in the future to amend the Code of Conduct to require members to abide by an anti-harassment policy”.
So this is a work in progress. Nobody has ever been tried for sexual harassment under that code. We are in grave danger of finding, through this debate and rigorous examination by this House, the flaws in the code, but of leaving the noble Lord, Lord Lester, stranded on the sandbank of rectitude because we have to back the commissioner and the recommendations before us. That is not what this House is about. That is not why this report is on the Order Paper—it is so that this House can give it rigorous examination and, if it has failings, for those in charge to have the courage to say that they will take it back and look at whether those grounds are sustainable.
I am not a lawyer so I will not go into the matter of the cross-examination, although I think that, for those who have not gone through all the report, the constant use of the term “witnesses” is misleading. There were no witnesses to this event, other than the complainant and the noble Lord. The nearest that there was to a witness was Lady Lester. We must not bandy about that the complainant had six witnesses in her support; she had six people who heard her account of what had happened. The case is about the relations, the things between them after the event, but I notice even today that in her book Shame Travels, published in 2011, her publishers quote the noble Lord, Lord Lester, making a complimentary comment about the book. It seems strange, but never mind.
It was also in the report that somehow the complainant was overawed by the power of the House of Lords. But as the noble Lord points out in paragraph 121—and as we now know because she published her name herself—the lady in question was in her forties and a “confident and determined campaigner”. She is more than that: she is a very successful woman who, at the time we are discussing, was in her mid-forties and had been rightly recognised, both nationally and internationally, for her courage in standing up for women, including powerful and life-threatening prejudices within her own community. Likewise, the idea of her being promised a peerage in exchange for sexual favours is I think given far too much credibility in the report. Surely the noble Lord, Lord Lester, is right in paragraph 56 when he says:
“I have no power to make such offers or threats in respect of peerages”.
Yet it is the accusation of “peerage for sex” that seems to have tipped the balance towards bringing the case within the remit of the code of conduct—and of course given it extra media appeal.
In many ways, the noble Lord, Lord Lester, lost his reputation at the outset of the investigation, when reports appeared in the Times and, a little later, the Sun—the two papers to which the complainant also revealed her identity immediately after the report was published. Yet the commissioner can only say about the initial flagrant breach of confidentiality:
“I have no evidence as to the source of the press reports”.
I notice that the Senior Deputy Speaker did not even refer to what I think was the most serious breach of confidentiality during the process, which was that leak to the press.
When we get to the issue of exceptional circumstances, which caused the commissioner to waive the four-year rule to let in a complaint over 10 years old, the first two reasons given in paragraph 41 have nothing to do with the merits of the case. They refer to,
“the current concern of Parliament to deal with sexual misconduct by its members”,
“the publicity given to endemic sexual misconduct and abuse of power in many fields of work, which encouraged the complainant to come forward”.
We must not be intimidated by the present atmosphere about sexual harassment to make the wrong decision in this case just because of that current climate.
Finally, I come to the draconian sentence of four years for a man of 82, which was changed from complete expulsion only because of a technicality. I in no way belittle the seriousness of the complaint, but the noble Lord, Lord Warner, is quite right: this will not be the last case of sexual harassment that we get, and given that my noble friend Lord Lester was accused of an indecent proposition, I wonder what the committee will recommend for more serious cases of sexual harassment. By deciding on expulsion, it seems to have gone for bust in the very first case.
If the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, decides to divide the House, I will be in the Lobby with him. But I sincerely hope that what was said and will be said in this debate is that the House should be doing its proper duty in this process. That proper duty is not to rubber stamp, tick a box, or to give votes of confidence to this or that chairman, but to get the right decision about the person we are dealing with at this time.
This case did not merit breaking the four-year rule, with all the dangers of historic cases. The process is flawed—the committee has conceded that it is looking for a major review. But most of all, a lifetime’s reputation should not be destroyed on a “balance of probabilities”. For those cogent reasons, we have got this wrong and we should have the courage to say so.
I have known the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for 60 years and declare at the outset that I should be very surprised if he were guilty of the offences alleged, but that is immaterial; I cannot know what happened, neither can any of us know what happened. My concern is entirely with the process by which the conclusion in this report has been reached. We have had a number of weighty and wise speeches, so I can be very brief.
I was worried as the debate began that the speeches of some contributors seemed more about whether we should support the process or whether we should be more concerned about whether the noble Lord, Lord Lester, had received a fair crack of the whip, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, put it. Our priority must be to ensure that these allegations are properly investigated and tested and that both the complainant and the noble Lord, Lord Lester, are subjected to the most intense examination so that a view can be formed.
Whether or not our processes are fit for purpose is another matter. On the basis of the debate so far, I have come to the conclusion that, in matters of this kind, our processes are not fit for purpose. They may well be fit for purpose in allegations regarding expenses and things of that sort, but this is a very different sort of situation. We should have the courage to recognise that a process that is satisfactory in one set of circumstances is not satisfactory in this set of circumstances. I hope very much that, either as a result of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, dividing the House, or as a result of the Senior Deputy Speaker withdrawing his Motion, it will be possible for a second look to be taken.
So far as the case against the noble Lord, Lord Lester, is concerned, it really does seem to me incredible—and I am not a lawyer—that such a serious matter can be concluded on the basis of a balance of probabilities and, as is said in paragraph 18, of the commissioner considering that,
“she was more likely than not to have been telling the truth”.
“More likely than not” and “balance of probabilities” seem wholly inadequate in a situation of this sort. We should, as far as possible, get beyond all reasonable doubt.
I also refer to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Warner, who talked about his experience of cross-examination, and I should like to do the same. I remember vividly an occasion when I appeared before a Board of Trade inquiry—it was investigating not me but someone else—and gave evidence on oath. I was absolutely convinced that what I was saying was right; all the events had occurred many years before but I was convinced that my memory was serving me correctly. I remembered where the individuals had sat at the board meeting in question and what people had said. Under cross-examination, however, it was borne in upon me that, although almost all my recollections were correct, I had the date of the meeting wrong. I had no interest in giving false evidence. I was trying to help the inquiry. I got almost everything I remembered right, but I got the date wrong, and the date was a very material point. That is why it is simply not good enough for the commissioner to say:
“I considered that she was more likely than not to have been telling the truth”.
I am sure that the witness, or whatever the appropriate word is, was telling the truth, but that does not mean that she was right. That can be determined only as a result of cross-examination.
I will not delay the House any longer. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, said almost everything that could possibly have been said, in the most convincing fashion, and the noble Lord, Lord McNally, made a very powerful speech. I was certainly impressed by what the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, had to say. In this case, justice is not being done. That is not a judgment on whether the noble Lord, Lord Lester, is guilty or not, or on whether he or the complainant is telling the truth. My judgment is based on the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, has not been given a fair crack of the whip. We owe it to the honour of this House and the honour of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, to ensure that he is given one.
Finally, in recent years a number of institutions, when dealing with questions of sexual harassment and other matters, have put the interests of the institution and its rules ahead of justice towards the individuals. There is a great danger that we are going to become too bound up in our own rules and too little concerned with the fate of the man at the centre of the allegations.
My Lords, I feel impelled to add something because of the importance of this debate, although I appreciate that many other noble Lords have already spoken. I declare a number of interests. First, I have known the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for many years; he used to appear before me, and he is in fact a friend. I also know Jasvinder Sanghera quite well. She is a member of a commission on forced marriage which I chair, and I greatly admire the work that she has done with Karma Nirvana to move forward the work on behalf of women who are victims of forced marriage. As it happens, I also know the commissioner well, because she and I were fellow members of a panel appointing Queen’s Counsel which I briefly chaired. I have the greatest possible respect and admiration for her. I thought it was important to say that because they are basically the three important people about whom we are speaking.
For me, the issue here is not the guilt or innocence of the noble Lord, Lord Lester. That is why we are here, but this is a matter of principle and a matter of enormous importance, as a number of other speakers have said. The wider issue for this House is how it should arrange for allegations of serious misconduct attaching to the personal honour of a Peer, particularly in the contexts of not only sexual abuse but abuse of power, because that is the most important allegation—that he offered her the prospect of becoming a Peer. However, much more importantly, he is alleged to have said that if she did not sleep with him she would never become a Peer because he would stop that happening. If that is true, it is a very serious abuse of power and it affects this House.
I listened with great interest to my noble and learned friend Lord Woolf, whom I have followed over many years in the courts as one of his judges. Interestingly, he said that he saw nothing wrong with the code or the guidance, so what we are talking about here is the application of the code and the guidance to the way in which the commissioner was asked to deal with these very serious allegations, which, if found proved, breach our rules of conduct and personal honour.
I was a judge for 35 years in various positions and I was taught from an early age about the importance of the rule of law, natural justice and due process. I say that with the greatest diffidence compared with my noble and learned friend, Lord Woolf, who has written a marvellous book on the subject. Natural justice and the rule of law, in this House as everywhere else, require due process. Consequently, serious allegations require greater consideration than allegations of less importance.
The financial misconduct matters that came before this House were very serious but, as far as I can remember, there had already been criminal convictions, so it was not very difficult for the process of this House to take its course. This is a very different situation because we are looking at the credibility of competing evidence. Everything that the complainant says, the noble Lord, Lord Lester, disputes. The real problem is how on earth the commissioner is to assess credibility without having the opportunity for the evidence of each to be tested, one against the other.
It appears that the commissioner was not well advised about how to conduct the case, and I have nothing but sympathy for her in the way in which she did it. It appears that, having consulted within the very tight constraints of the rules that she was told existed, she did not allow cross-examination and she did not test the evidence with a view to arriving at the sort of decision on credibility that we would have decided. However, I do not believe that she should be criticised for that, because she did her conscientious best with what lay before her.
It was very difficult for the Privileges and Conduct Committee, on appeal, to do anything other than what an appeal court would have done. However, as has already been said, particularly by my noble and learned friend Lord Woolf, it should have picked up on the fact that there was no proper testing of the credibility of the two main witnesses. Consequently, we have this very unhappy situation. We really cannot allow this House, in 2018, to continue with an inquisitorial system—which is not to be criticised—without the sufficient amount of testing that is required according to the seriousness of the offences.
I want to make a final important point. There has been a suggestion about what the standard of proof should be. There is nothing wrong with the balance of probabilities if one applies the rule set down by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead. I was involved at an earlier court in the case in question, so I remember it well. He pointed out with great care that the more serious the allegation, the more cogent the evidence has to be. That is not saying that there is a sliding scale for the standard of proof that goes from being satisfied so as to be sure before a jury to the minimum balance of probabilities being 51% rather than 49%—we are not talking about Brexit now. It is saying that what really matters is whether there is sufficient evidence to meet the seriousness of the allegations. The one criticism that I would make of the commissioner is that she preferred to adopt a later decision to that of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nicholls, whose rule was to use the balance of probabilities but with sufficiently cogent evidence appropriate to the case.
Therefore, I ask the Privileges and Conduct Committee not to press this matter to a vote but to say at the end of this debate, “Perhaps we should think again. We think that perhaps Lord Lester should have another crack of the whip”, as my noble and learned friend Lord Woolf called it, “and that this case should be properly tried by whatever the process is but with the credibility of the witnesses properly tested”. Not to do so would send a message to the whole country and the whole world that we do not treat the rule of law sufficiently seriously.
My Lords, I rise to speak as a minority in this debate. First, I am a woman; secondly, I am not a lawyer; and thirdly, I am not a friend of the noble Lord, Lord Lester. Having said that, I am very friendly with him—he is a colleague and I respect him enormously for the work he has done over his very long and distinguished career. Also, I have helped and supported women and girls who have faced unwanted sexual harassment in the workplace. Over 20 years ago in my career in local government and as a trade unionist, I sat on many disciplinary hearings of harassment in the workplace at which decisions had to be taken on whether the accused or the accuser was telling the truth. It was not a court of law but an internal disciplinary hearing and decisions had to be taken.
I myself was subjected to harassment when I was younger. I did not feel that I could complain about the individual, who was much more powerful than me—I was a very junior member of staff. I certainly do not think that I would have the courage to do what Ms Sanghera has done in this instance: make a complaint about someone who is obviously well connected and powerful. When looking at balancing this debate, we need to bear in mind how we are perceived outside our bubble here. Towards the end of his contribution, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, said that he would be concerned if, as a result of these sorts of cases, women were reluctant to come forward. If you think about it, why would they? There is adverse publicity and stress, and the effect on their family and friends is enormous.
I am disappointed that some contributions have strayed into discussing Miss Sanghera as an individual, cherry picking from the report about what she did and did not do, her age, her conduct and what she may have achieved as a well-known woman in public life. When she came forward—I read what she said—she felt that she was a woman who for many decades had been encouraging other women to come forward, particularly from her and other minority communities. We in this Chamber express a lot of concern that these women do not have a voice. We care that in their own communities they may be repressed and not encouraged to go out into the workplace. She has done a lot of work encouraging girls and women to come forward—for example, those who might be subjected to forced marriage or FGM, or child brides. She has done a lot of work on that.
Because of what she alleges happened to her, she felt it would be hypocritical to advocate other girls coming forward if she herself could not come forward. That is a very logical explanation, and I accept that that is why she felt the need to do it after so many years, with the benefit of hindsight. She has been criticised, as have other women who have been victims of historical sexual abuse, rape or assault, for not coming forward at the time. I heard a Member of this House this morning on the radio saying that women should come forward straightaway. If they do not go straight to the police—she did not say this, but it was implied—somehow they should not be believed. That is such a dangerous thing to say. What about those who have experienced historical child abuse? How is that going to be proved? How brave must those men and women be to come forward after decades when they suffered in the past? We have to be very balanced and cautious in this debate. I am not going to stray into the legalities—I am not a lawyer—but I know about natural justice. I know what women go through and how difficult it is. I have some personal experience. My daughters have had personal experience. Most women have had personal experience of this.
Look at the report produced in the other place, in Parliament, on sexual harassment and bullying. The sheer numbers of staff being sexually harassed and bullied in the workplace by MPs was staggering. The argument could have been that maybe this is a new phenomenon. It is not, is it? The new phenomenon is that, thank God, we live in a society where women and girls can speak out. This is not acceptable behaviour. That we have not heard of it before does not excuse it. It is a good thing to shine a light on this sort of behaviour and, as lawmakers, stand up to ensure that it is unacceptable. We do not want this in a modern society. Why should women and girls be harassed sexually or made to feel uncomfortable in their workplace, and that they cannot complain because they may lose their jobs? This is totally wrong. I have been very uncomfortable. I know I am in a minority on my Benches, but I do not think I am in a minority with women outside this House. I believe that the tide has changed now, and we need to catch up with it. The fact that this is the first time these procedures were used for a case like this, and that there was never a procedure for sexual harassment before, makes the case that it was perceived that it could never happen. We know it does take place. We do not know the numbers or all the cases, but we know it happens.
I put it to those here who are better placed to put together a new set of procedures that we need procedures, if these are not fit for purpose, for this situation. I note that our procedures were never challenged before, with other Members who were judged and suspended from this House, or had sanctions against them. Why were they never challenged before if they are not fit for purpose? It seems strange that now they are being judged as not fit for purpose.
I urge that, if this motion is not supported today, we do not send out a message that women are not to be believed or that, because they delayed coming forward, somehow they—or the process we have chosen and used, the commissioner we voted for—should be criticised. We thought it was fine—why would we vote for this? With respect to many of the noble and learned Lords here, why did they never before flag up that this was not fit for purpose? Why did we not hear about that? I am sure we should have. With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps we need better procedures. More cases may well come forward. I have huge respect for my noble friend Lord McNally, but I just heard that he had never heard a whisper before.
In the #MeToo movement, it takes one brave person to come forward. I have already heard rumours of others. Other women—it is usually women—think “I can come forward too now”, because there is a precedent. It was the same with the child abuse scandals. It took decades before those who were abused terribly as children had the courage to come forward. I am sure that is the case with many women as well. I am sure there will be other women—I am not speaking here about the noble Lord, Lord Lester. It has happened with MPs. We must not judge that women who come forward years or even decades later are somehow not telling the truth. Mentioning their age is irrelevant. It could be anybody. I admire what the noble Lord, Lord Lester, has done over the years; we all admire him. But I saw this written somewhere and I thought it very apt: human rights have been enshrined in laws, but we must begin at home. How do we treat people who are not powerful, who do not have powerful friends or friends sitting in your Lordships’ House who can speak and advocate on their behalf? We must begin at home and remember why human rights have been enshrined in our laws. It is to protect the little person as well.
My Lords, the most severe burden that anyone has to carry is adjudicating upon the conduct of our fellow citizens. Many of us have done that as judges and even more as magistrates. It is a very heavy burden indeed, and one which, in this situation, we have to shoulder in respect of a colleague in this House. The responsibility has been put on the Committee for Privileges and Conduct to refer the result of an inquiry to the House. That is what we have done. The committee is composed of the leaders and Chief Whips of all the parties and the Convenor of the Cross Benches. There are also one or two others in it, of whom I happen to be a member. I have been a member for a long time.
I certainly find it a heavy responsibility, because two parties are involved: the complainer and the person against whom the complaint is made. When the complainer decides to come forward with a complaint, they have before them the rules that are to govern the procedure. Therefore, I do not think it is open to this House, if it is to be fair, to alter the rules as they apply to this case. We are bound to apply the rules as they were to this case. As the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, has pointed out, these rules, in substance, have been approved by the House for a long time. Certainly, my noble and learned friend Lord Woolf says he gave up because he thought it was not fit for purpose. I never heard that complaint and, as far as I know—I am subject to correction and, like many of my friends, I am not at all infallible—it has not been put by any Motion on the Floor of the House. That is my recollection.
The procedure has been laid down in considerable detail in the code of conduct, which says that the procedure to be used is that which is set down in the guide. Therefore, the commissioner and all the committees that dealt with this were bound by the rules that presently exist. It would be extraordinary to try to alter these rules while a case is being considered and after the complainant has put in her complaint. The commissioner is directed as to what to do if there is a conflict. She has to consider both sides and make sure that the person complained against has the opportunity to object. She put all the evidence she had before the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and he had full opportunity to comment on it.
Cross-examination has been referred to. It is, for example, an important part of our criminal procedure. But look for a moment at the opinion that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, obtained. On page 75 of the report, there is a quotation from the High Court of Australia, and it is interesting to see how it puts it—I had better put my glasses on so that I can read it properly. It states:
“Confrontation and the opportunity for cross-examination is of central significance to the common law adversarial system of trial”.
That is the adversarial system. The system applied by the rules that this House has approved for almost 10 years —it is nine years, I think—is the inquisitorial procedure. Therefore, it is left to the commissioner to assess the credibility of the people involved by conversing with them in detail, as she has done with both the complainant and the noble Lord, Lord Lester.
I have to say that I have known the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for a long time. He knows that I have very high confidence in him, for reasons that I do not need to go into. However, we now have two people before this House: the complainer, who came to the House on the basis of the current rules, and the noble Lord, Lord Lester, who has sat under these rules for nine years without, as far as I know, bringing forward any complaint or amendment. In that situation, the Committee for Privileges is bound to consider the report of the commissioner and come to a conclusion, one way or the other, but it is not entitled to reopen the proceedings. The commissioner is given the responsibility of deciding where the truth lies.
The commissioner applied the balance of probabilities, which is required by our rules, but she said that, in the particular case she was dealing with, the consequences were serious and therefore she felt that—as the conclusion makes clear—there was cogent evidence from the complainer and her witnesses that this was proved. Therefore, she applied the balance of probabilities in the light of judgments such as that of Lord Nicholls. In that situation, I find it very difficult to see how we can modify the procedures that the complainant expected to confront when she launched her complaint.
She was the investigator and complaints were made about the nature of the investigation. She submitted to the Committee for Privileges a document containing that information. That was submitted to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, for his consideration—the committee was not going to take one side or the other. He then submitted a supplementary comment on that also. The last person we heard speak on this was the noble Lord, Lord Lester. The commissioner was not asked to speak after that. We were firmly of the opinion that the commissioner’s report had to be taken on the basis of what she said, and the committee had the duty of deciding, on the balance of probabilities, whether that was a reasonable decision in the circumstances or to reject it. We also had the knowledge that, if we rejected the commissioner’s report, we were in fact saying that the complainant’s account of the matter was a complete lie. The evidence she submitted on paper was detailed and circumstantial, and the commissioner went over it with her.
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord will know that I intervene with great reluctance. Is he saying that, if the feeling of the House is that, for whatever reason, the process was unfair, nevertheless we are compelled by the rules to do an injustice to an individual?
Not at all. I am saying that the process is perfectly fair. The commissioner gave the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and the complainant exactly the same balance. I do not accept for a moment that this House has approved unfair rules and only discovered that today. These rules have been in position for a long time, and you have to bear in mind that the complainant made a complaint on the basis of these rules. As far as I can see, there is nothing unfair about the rules, so long as both sides get the full account of what the other side has said. In my opinion, that is natural justice: that you have the full account before you. Natural justice would not allow, for example, supplementary evidence to be taken by the commissioner without it being shown to the noble Lord, Lord Lester. As far as I know, there is no complaint to suggest that he was not shown every piece of paper that the commissioner had. He was given his opportunity to explain.
The process then requires the commissioner to make up her mind and submit her report to the Committee for Privileges. The committee’s only responsibility is to decide whether it accepts the report. As far as I can see, nothing has been suggested about the facts of the matter on which she reported which can be shown to be wrong. In the recondite speeches we have heard on the subject of procedure—
I said it was obliged to obey the rules laid down by this House for the conduct of these proceedings. It was 11 years ago, but the rules have been subject to review by the sub-committee ever since. They are still the rules, and they were the rules when the lady came along. We must give that fact a fair hearing on the side of the lady. She came to this place complaining on the basis of the procedure laid down in our rules, and these rules were completely obeyed. No one has submitted that the commissioner did not know what she was doing or had not obeyed the rules: she obeyed the rules as she had them. The idea that she could have employed someone to cross-examine the complainant does not have any support in the rules whatever. She had no authority under the rules to ask someone to cross-examine the complainant.
We accepted what she has put in. It was just an elaboration of what she had said already. As I say, we gave the noble Lord, Lord Lester, a full opportunity to comment on what she had said, and he did so. That was the last part of the proceedings.
In my view, we were as fair as we could possibly be. I take this responsibility very heavily and no one in the Privileges Committee considered this matter lightly. We considered that the matter had been given a fair hearing according to the rules—to both sides—and the commissioner decided the matter.
Perhaps I might point out to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, that the Guide to the Code of Conduct states specifically in paragraph 143:
“A meeting will be scheduled to hear the appeal and the member will be given an opportunity to appear in person, if he or she so wishes. The Committee may also take evidence from the Commissioner”.
So that is the basis for the commissioner giving evidence. On the day, the Privileges and Conduct Committee did not hear from the commissioner but, because later appeals were put in, we ensured that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, had the last word, and he was brought in for that.
My Lords, of course we cannot change our procedures and rules once a case has started, but if we discover that there has been a breach of natural justice it would be right for the committee not to impose any penalty, and thereafter we would need to look at those rules and make sure that we got them right.
Four important issues have arisen from the debate on which the House should focus, because all of us feel uncomfortable about the present state of uncertainty on these matters. The first point is that it is quite clear from this case—if it was not clear already—that conviction under this procedure has the effect of being totally destructive of both the personal and professional reputations of the accused. It is analogous in that respect to a conviction in a criminal case. It is therefore right that the burden of proof should be the one that is applied in a criminal case and not the one applied in a civil case, where simply losing a civil dispute is not at all the same thing. That change ought to be made as soon as possible.
The second point which has arisen from the debate—and which is a matter of concern to a great many of us—is the issue of cross-examination. It is inherent in these cases that there is rarely any forensic evidence and the whole case turns on statements that are inconsistent with each other and facts which are disputed between the various parties. In those circumstances, it is right and essential that we are entirely clear that there must be a way of dealing with these disputes and this uncertainty. In the history of law no one has found a better solution than cross-examination, and so it should be introduced. As has already been said, cross-examination does not necessarily mean that we should give up our inquisitorial approach. It would require the commissioner or somebody on her behalf—a counsel or, indeed, the committee itself—to undertake the cross-examinations required.
I do not know when the rules were changed but I remember, shortly after I entered this House, reading with great admiration the deadly cross-examination carried out by my noble and learned friend Lord Irvine of a Member of this House who had been accused of a serious offence of a different type. There is no reason why we should not have cross-examinations carried out by the committee itself in those circumstances.
There should be a way of looking through the statements—many of which may be inconsistent and not entirely credible—to get at the truth. That has not been done in a rigorous way in the present situation. I was surprised and alarmed at the casualness of the way in which the commissioner dealt with the various witnesses. Some were contacted by email, some by telephone and some were apparently uncontactable. But it is not clear why they were uncontactable or what efforts were made to contact them—and there were no transcripts of any of the conversations between the commissioner and the complainant, the commissioner and the accused or the commissioner and the various witnesses. That is a thoroughly unsatisfactory situation.
Another thing that has not been mentioned and which emerges clearly from this case is that there are obviously great dangers and risks to justice when there is a long interval between an alleged offence being committed and the complaint about it being made. That is an undesirable situation. We all know that memories fade and erode over time and that after some years people can get muddled about conversations and events that took place. It is difficult to see through that and establish what the facts were.
Furthermore, such a situation works to the disadvantage of the accused. The accused might have the ability to produce an irrefutable alibi if he or she has the opportunity to do so within a few weeks or months of the events complained about taking place, but it would be impossible in most cases to produce that alibi if there is an interval of 10 or 12 years between the two events. This works to the disadvantage of the accused in a way that is worrying.
The committee has taken note of this danger and it has tried to produce a remedy—a rather extraordinary remedy—which, if I understand it correctly, is as follows: complaints will not be entertained more than four years after the events complained about took place, except that the commissioner may, if she wishes, override that and simply accept complaints that are older than that. The sub-committee would have the right to veto that decision by the commissioner.
This procedure is wrong in many respects. First, the commissioner should not be in the position of deciding on the rules of procedure, not on the basis of objective criteria but on the basis of her feelings about a particular case—ad hoc, ad hominem and ad feminam. That is not the way in which due process works. I am concerned about that. We should have a full statute of limitations—we have a half-statute of limitations here—and it should be quite clear that complaints that are made, let us say after four years, because that is the figure that already exists, will not be entertained on any basis.
The thing that concerns me most is that, although there are no objective criteria for deciding when you can accept a complaint after the four-year deadline, the commissioner in this case set out the reasons why she felt she should override the four-year limit which normally applies and accept the complaint, as she has done. The reasons she gave are on page 19 of the document before us. The relevant part, which is of great concern, states:
“There are exceptional circumstances that justify an investigation being conducted in accordance with paragraphs 119 and 120”.
That is the paragraph which provides for the possibility of overriding the four-year limit. It continues by referring to,
“the current concern of Parliament to deal with sexual misconduct by its members … the publicity given to endemic sexual misconduct and abuse of power in many fields of work”.
The report goes on in that respect. This is of deep concern to me because the duty of the commissioner and the committee in a case like this is a single one. It is for them to do their best to establish the guilt or innocence of the accused and to set out the reasons for coming to their conclusions so that the House and the wider world can understand them. Other extraneous considerations—public policy, public opinion, current fashion and the agitations of the press—are all completely irrelevant. They should not begin to come into any of these considerations at all—and I am very worried indeed that in this case they did.
The Cross Benches!
My Lords, I practised at the Bar for 11 years a long time ago, but I have no experience of criminal law and I do not claim to have any special expertise. I think that noble Lords should look at this case from the point of view which has been put by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf: has the person complained about had a fair crack of the whip?
There were some cases recently where a court said that statements made by someone bringing forward the accusation of rape were completely contradictory to the accusation—not only the statements but also the behaviour of the person making the accusation were quite inconsistent with her original charge. This was clearly an instance where the cross-examination of the person making the charge was essential. Looking at it from the point of view of whether my noble friend Lord Lester had a fair crack of the whip, can anyone doubt that there should have been a cross-examination, in this case of the accuser, of her reaction to the production of the books, how much she admired him, how on another occasion she asked after his health and had sent “love and kisses”. According to one witness, she behaved in a manner that suggested great friendliness for the accused some time later.
It is highly appropriate. In those cases there was a complete inconsistency between the behaviour and statements after the event which conflicted with the accusation made. The convictions were quashed. Can anyone really argue that if there had been the possibility of cross-examination of the witness about the kind of examples which the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, gave in his original speech—the confessions of a very close relationship with the defendant—that sufficient doubts would have been raised for the charge to be dismissed?
I add my support to the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Pannick. Having spent nine years investigating allegations against police officers, including allegations of serious sexual harassment by chief constables, I am very aware that process is absolutely everything. I remember that time and again I would be completely persuaded by allegations that would appear on my desk. They were obviously true, were they not? However, further down the line, under cross-examination, those very persuasive allegations crumbled to sand.
Our process is either faulty or it is open to misinterpretation; my inclination is to think that it is open to misinterpretation. That is because cross-examination is clearly appropriate where serious allegations are being made with very serious consequences for the person complained against. I hope therefore that my noble friend Lord Pannick will test the opinion of the House. I hope too that noble Lords will support the amendment in order to make it clear that this House stands for the highest possible standards of fairness and justice.
I want to draw the attention of the House to my experiences as a director of a major self-regulatory authority, the Securities and Futures Authority, which used to regulate a major part of the financial community of the City of London. When you are investigating things like the collapse of Barings Bank, issues of money and reputation rank very high indeed. There are some lessons which can be read across to the difficult, problematic and painful case that we are discussing today.
I should make it clear that I am not a lawyer and I do not know the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, although obviously I have seen him in action in your Lordships’ House. I know of his reputation both here and in the wider judicial field. I have played no part in any of the committees that have looked into this case. I want to focus on the process and, following up on the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, draw on the experience of the Securities and Futures Authority when it was trying to regulate the City of London. Before the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 was passed and we got the statutory framework that we now have, there was a self-regulatory framework in which practitioners made up the governing body. Given that, we felt particular stresses and strains, some of which we are seeing reflected in the contributions to this debate in your Lordships’ House.
As a body, we always struggled with the accusation that we were too close to the people we regulated. As newspapers would put it very disobligingly, we let our friends off over lunch. To fend off those accusations, we ensured that independent individuals with no links to the financial services community formed part of our panels and our body. One of them was the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, a distinguished Member of your Lordships’ House on the Benches opposite, but he is not in his place today.
The issue that was always put to us by our legal advisers was that in a disciplinary case, we could never change the rules. The rules were the rules. They might have needed updating and they might even have been inadequate, but they could not and must not be changed in midstream because of course the authority, which made its own rules, would inevitably suffer a stupendous loss of public confidence if an “unpopular” decision was being reached and the rules were subsequently changed, perhaps to achieve a different result.
My question for the noble Lord, Lord McFall, when he comes to wind up the debate, is this. Can he assure the House that the rules now in play were followed to the letter and that no potential avenue which might have advantaged the case for the noble Lord, Lord Lester, was denied to him? If he can give that undertaking, I will have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, that while I understand his case for change and I have read his article in the Times, and I acknowledge how powerfully he and others have argued their case in this debate, that surely must be a discussion for another day. If we were to accept the amendment and therefore put aside our rules in this case, it is all too easy to see the accusation that we, too, are letting off our friends over lunch.
To accommodate the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, I shall be very brief indeed. I have read the report from beginning to end and I am extremely uneasy about convicting a fellow Peer for misconduct with that standard of investigation.
I am not against women coming forward—indeed, I encourage it—but to be balanced, the accused person must be given the right to answer fairly and be investigated. That is justice. I fear that if we do not support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, the noble Lord, Lord Lester, will be expelled from this House without having had the opportunity to have the accuser’s evidence forensically tested. In the practice in which I operate, which is not a criminal practice, written statements are put in the bin unless the person who wrote them goes in the witness box to stand for them and be cross-examined on them. This is a very serious allegation. We should rethink whether we are proud of the way it has been handled and whether it really is justice.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for their 18 contributions. Some of them made points that we consider absolutely valid; I think the noble Lord, Lord McNally, made that very point.
My noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts made the point that rules are rules. I can say definitively that the rules are the rules and that we and the commissioner adhere to them. Noble Lords will see that the first page of our code of conduct states:
“The following Code of Conduct for members of the House of Lords was adopted by resolution on 30 November 2009 and amended on 30 March 2010, 12 June 2014, 25 February 2016, 9 February 2017 and 3 April 2017”.
No one who suggested that the rules are flawed came here with any suggestions to change them. We in the sub-committee and the committee observed the rules faithfully.
A point was made about the commissioner freelancing. The commissioner went to the sub-committee and specifically asked to investigate this case. That sub-committee is chaired by an eminent judge, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, was on that committee. Permission was given to the commissioner, so she followed every rule of this House.
I have been the chairman for two years and this is the first case I have had; I undertake faithfully to write my noble friend on that question. That is not a problem.
My noble friend Lady Shackleton and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, made a point about testing the evidence. The commissioner covered that point in the committee’s report, saying:
“I am not entirely sure what Lord Lester means by cross-examination … but if he means testing the evidence where there is a challenge or a good reason to do so, then the report shows that I did this, throughout the process, and where I did not, I gave my reasons”.
She refers to paragraphs 156 and 93 to 152 of her report. The evidence was tested very carefully.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, said that the rules are not fit for purpose. Following his chairmanship, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, looked at that point in the leader’s report and used the experience of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, so that they could take account of the problems. They did that by establishing an independent commissioner.
Other points have been made about the process being reviewed next week when the committee will meet, following the Cox report in the House of Commons. We will look at bullying and harassment. We want to ensure that the system is more accessible to complainants but there is no current suggestion to adopt a procedure involving cross-examination. If any Member wishes to put that to the committee for consideration, we are here to listen to all the evidence.
My Lords, in what sense is cross-examination not part of an inquisitorial system? It is perfectly possible under such a system. We are looking at precedents in the United States where a lot of students are being accused of sexual misconduct in universities and university tribunals have been taken to court for their procedures. It is quite clear that the American courts expect an inquisitorial procedure under which the fact-finder questions the evidence.
We could be dancing on a pinhead here in that sense. The main issue, as outlined, is the testing of evidence. I take comfort from the fact that the sub-committee included eminent legal people such as the noble and learned Lords, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood and Lord Irvine of Lairg. They are as distinguished as they come. I take great comfort from the fact that of the 14 members of the Privileges and Conduct Committee last week, both the noble and learned Lords, Lord Hope and Lord Mackay of Clashfern, gave evidence. If I were looking for legal representatives, those four would always be in my first team; they would never be on the subs bench. I have every confidence in them.
I listened to the noble and learned Lords on that issue. They were satisfied that the evidence was tested thoroughly, which is as good as anything. I took comfort from what they said. Having listened to the points that have been made, I hope that Members will uphold the internal disciplinary procedures relating to the code agreed by this House way back in 2009. Those processes have been in place for many years; we have used them many times for the investigation of allegations. The Members who spoke in favour of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, have not previously criticised or sought to change those processes even though they were used to investigate other serious allegations that led to suspensions for four Members in 2009, as I mentioned in my opening speech. As other members of the committee have said, we cannot criticise the independent commissioner for her processes.
My Lords, I understand that if the verdict is passed that the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, should go through, the noble Lord, Lord Lester, could not appeal to the UK courts. Could he appeal to the Strasbourg court instead or would he be denied justice everywhere?
I am being told that I could give an answer but I am advised that it is not a matter for me to refer to. In his comments on 20 May 2009, the noble Lord, Lord Lester, took the issue of the European courts into consideration in looking at the case and appeals of the four Members accused of taking money from the Sunday Times. It is good to look at that.
As I mentioned, other committee members said that we cannot criticise the independent commissioner. She followed the procedures set down by this House and kept under review by the committees of this House, not least the sub-committees. I invite the House to reflect on why we have an independent commissioner. We have one to build public trust in the House as an institution and because one of the principles of natural justice is having an impartial decision-maker. The House deliberately delegated active investigation and assessment to an independent commissioner; it would be wholly wrong for the House to seek now to substitute the commissioner’s conclusions with its own.
We are here to listen to Members’ views, which I said I would take in. The sub-committee made its declaration. By the way, we used our judgment as a committee, because the sub-committee recommended expelling the noble Lord, Lord Lester. We modified that and made it a suspension. Those judgments were made by the sub-committee and the Privileges and Conduct Committee. We are here to listen to points of view. I shall take forward in the committee next week the comments that have been made today so that we can add to and refine our processes. That is the essence of this.
My final remark is that we must not forget the complainant in all this, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, said. This is a woman who reported a series of highly distressing events that have gone largely unmentioned, other than by the noble Baroness, today. She has been criticised in some parts of the media.
I thank the noble and right reverend Lord. I do not know whether I agree enthusiastically with him, but I shall nod to that comment. The points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, were highly relevant in that regard. The complainant has been criticised in some parts of the media for not formally reporting what happened at the time. She did not report what happened in 2007 to this House, but she told six people of considerable standing. We should remember that, at that time, she would have had to report the incident directly to Members of this House. We had no independent commissioner or other mechanism for reporting at that time. I should also point out that it was not the commissioner who unilaterally decided that it was appropriate to investigate; she sought the permission of the sub-committee, which unanimously decided that the case should be investigated fully under our current procedures. With that, I invite the House to approve the Motion in my name and to agree to the report of the Privileges and Conduct Committee. I invite the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, to withdraw his amendment.
I thank the Senior Deputy Speaker. It is one of my remaining ambitions in life to get into his first 11 of lawyers.
I thank all those who have contributed to this important debate. It is striking that no one who has done so has disputed that in all other regulatory, disciplinary or employment areas in this country—in the City as well—if you are accused of a serious disciplinary offence that turns on credibility and have your reputation destroyed, you are entitled to cross-examine, or have cross-examination conducted of, the person who accuses you. It is not a question of “special pleading”—the noble Lord, Lord Warner, used that phrase—for Members of this House; I am asking for the protection accorded to everyone outside this House who faces accusations of similar conduct. It is simply unacceptable for us to apply lower standards.
Perhaps I may briefly respond to the main arguments that I understand to have been advanced. The first is that these are our rules; we are stuck with them. I have to tell noble Lords that if I were appearing in a judicial review for any public body accused of adopting an unfair procedure and I were to say to the court, “Well, those are the rules”, the judge would not for a moment tolerate such an argument. The court would say, “This is not fair”, and it would set aside the decision. In any event, the code, which is the governing instrument, at paragraph 21 requires compliance with,
“the principles of natural justice and fairness”.
There is nothing in the rules which prevents the commissioner in the exercise of her discretion allowing cross-examination in an appropriate case.
The noble Lord is talking about a judge applying the law made a by third party. The difference here is that we are talking about us applying rules that we have made ourselves. It is a distinctly different matter. A judge is applying the law of the land; we are applying rules that we have created ourselves.
We are the High Court of Parliament. One cannot go to court to challenge the fairness of this procedure. This House is obliged to ask whether what has been done in this case is fair. The argument seems to be, “Well, the current rules might be unfair. We don’t accept that they are, but in the future we’ll consider doing something about them”. This is no comfort to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and it should be no comfort to your Lordships in considering this case. He is entitled to a fair procedure.
The point was then made by the noble and learned Lords, Lord Hope and Lord Mackay of Clashfern, that these are inquisitorial, and not adversarial, proceedings, but we cannot inquire into a matter of this sort and reach a fair conclusion without a process of cross-examination for all the reasons that the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, eloquently explained.
She did not conduct a cross-examination, and it is very difficult for the person making the decision to enter into the arena to do so. The experience of all distinguished inquiry chairmen, of whom there are many in the House—particularly the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf—is that when they are making a judgment in an inquisitorial inquiry on a question of fact which depends on credibility, they either allow the parties to cross-examine or they appoint counsel to the inquiry to conduct that process, which would also be entirely acceptable.
Is the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, suggesting that this lady, appointed by the House as a commissioner, did not have the necessary skills to probe the evidence on both sides? According to her, that is what she did and she had to form a view about it which she presented to the committee. I have no reason to suppose that she did not reach the correct conclusion.
I have no quarrel with the good faith of the commissioner. She did not conduct a cross-examination; she did not appoint someone to do it; nor did she allow the noble Lord, Lord Lester, through his counsel or his solicitor to do so. If the noble and learned Lord were to look in the Times today and see the letter from the solicitor to Ms Sanghera, he would see that he does not suggest that a cross-examination was carried out; his argument is that it was not necessary and fairness did not require it.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, expressed concern about how we are perceived outside this House and said that we must be careful not to deter complaints. I do not accept that for us to follow a fair procedure that applies in all other contexts would either deter genuine complainants or damage our public reputation. On the contrary, we would be recognising and applying standards of fairness that are universally recognised in all other contexts.
Of course I am concerned about that. The noble Lord seems to suggest that the procedures that we have adopted are not fit for purpose, but he has not said why his friend, the noble Lord, Lord Lester, went along with it. If it was so unfair, as someone as eminent as him would know, why on earth did he go along with that procedure and why was nothing said before?
I am sorry to say to the noble Baroness that that really is a very bad point. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, faces a disciplinary inquiry by this House: he either plays no part in it or he does the best he can. It really is no answer to the complaint that the commissioner applied an unfair procedure that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, did the best he could in order to satisfy the commissioner that the allegations were unfounded.
I have had the privilege of being a Member of this House for 10 years and I have always regarded the House as a very fair-minded place. We listen to the arguments and try to take a fair decision. We do not proceed, as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, pointed out, on the basis that we have to get behind the commissioner, the sub-committee and the Committee for Privileges, for all of whom, on a personal level, I have a very high regard. The question is whether the procedure applied to the noble Lord, Lord Lester, accorded with paragraph 21: was it in accordance with fairness and natural justice? I am very disappointed that the Senior Deputy Speaker did not think, in light of this debate, that the appropriate response would be to say to the House that he would withdraw his Motion and take it back to the Committee for Privileges and Conduct for further consideration. He has not adopted that approach. As your Lordships know, very strong feelings are felt on both sides of this debate, so I would like to test the opinion of the House.