Peers have narrowly voted not to sanction Blackstone Chambers member Lord Lester of Herne Hill over allegations that he sexually harassed a woman and offered her ‘corrupt inducements’ to sleep with him.
The House of Lords voted today by 101 votes to 78 in favour of an amendment put forward by Lord Pannick (also a Blackstone Chambers member) to send a report recommending sanction back to the Lords Privileges and Conduct Committee.
After a four-hour debate, the peers accepted the motion which arugued that the investigation into Lord Lester (Anthony Lester QC) was unfairly conducted.
Earlier this week the committee recommended that Lester be suspended until 2022, in what would have been one of the longest suspensions for a parliamentarian.
In its report, the committee said it received a complaint in November last year that Lord Lester ‘had sexually harassed the complainant, had offered her a corrupt inducement to have sexual relations with her, and had warned her of unspecified consequences if she did not accept his offer’. The complainant, who has waived her right to anonymity, is Jasvinder Sanghera, a campaigner against forced marriage.
The allegations are not related to Lord Lester’s work as a barrister.
Crossbencher Pannick proposed that the report be sent back to the committee, arguing that the Lords commissioner for standards, former Law Society president Lucy Scott-Moncrieff CBE, had failed to ‘act in accordance with the principles of natural justice and fairness’. The commissioner did not allow Lord Lester, or an independent QC, to cross-examine the complainant.
Pannick claimed it would be impossible fairly and effectively to decide on the truth of allegations of sexual harassment said to have occurred nearly 12 years ago, without allowing for the cross-examination of the complainant.
Sanghera told the Gazette she watched the debate 'with horror' and that it brought back memories from when she first decided to make the complaint. She noted the number of peers speaking who declared personal relationships and connections to Lester.
The idea that someone accused of harassment could cross-examine their accuser is abhorrent, she said, adding that she feared the vote would encourage other victims not to make a complaint. Sanghera said that Scott-Moncrieff followed due process and the evidence was tested thoroughly.
Several lords, including former Supreme Court judge Lord Brown and ex lord chancellor Lord Mackay reviewed the report.
In a statement to the Gazette earlier this week a Blackstone Chambers spokesperson said: ‘We take any allegations of sexual harassment made against members of chambers or staff extremely seriously and have strict internal policies and procedures in place to ensure they are dealt with properly. The complaint against Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC was made to the House of Lords, which then conducted its own investigation. Given the possibility of further proceedings, it would be inappropriate to comment further.’