1.The Committee for Privileges and Conduct has considered a report by the House of Lords Commissioner for Standards (“the Commissioner”) on a complaint about the conduct of Lord Lester of Herne Hill. The Committee has also considered a report by the Sub-Committee on Lords’ Conduct on the same issue.
2.The procedure in cases such as this is set out in the Guide to the Code of Conduct. Under this procedure, the Commissioner investigates allegations against Members. She reports her findings to the Sub-Committee, which, if the Commissioner has found the Member to have breached the Code, recommends a sanction to the House. The Sub-Committee does not reopen the Commissioner’s findings, which are reported without amendment to the Committee for Privileges and Conduct. The Member may appeal to that Committee against the Commissioner’s findings or the Sub-Committee’s recommended sanction, or both.
3.In November 2017, the Commissioner received a complaint alleging that Lord Lester of Herne Hill 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. These allegations were connected to Lord Lester’s conduct of his parliamentary duties.
4.The Commissioner’s assessment of the alleged behaviour, including the alleged element of sexual harassment, was that it engaged the requirement in the House of Lords Code of Conduct that Members should act on their personal honour in the discharge of their parliamentary duties.
5.The Commissioner sought the agreement of the Sub-Committee on Lords’ Conduct to investigate the complaint as the alleged breaches of the Code of Conduct occurred more than four years previously. The Sub-Committee agreed that the Commissioner should investigate the complaint.
6.The Commissioner’s report is at Annex 2. It sets out in detail the allegations, the evidence put forward by both sides and the process of the investigation. The Commissioner concluded that:
“My decision must apply the standard of the balance of probabilities. Where the allegations are particularly serious, it is important that the evidence is suitably strong and cogent. Applying the test of the balance of probabilities I find the complaint upheld, on the basis of the strong and cogent evidence of the complainant and her witnesses. I have carefully considered the challenges to this evidence, but do not find that those challenges undermine the strength of the evidence to any significant degree.”
7.Additionally, during the investigation, Lord Lester admitted telling another Member of the House that the complainant had been responsible for him being suspended by his political party since February 2018. The Commissioner found that this was a breach of the confidentiality requirements of the process.
8.The Sub-Committee on Lords’ Conduct received the Commissioner’s report and supporting documentation. Its role is to recommend an appropriate sanction. The Sub-Committee recommended that Lord Lester should be expelled from the House of Lords. The reasoning given was that the allegations taken together constituted a grave abuse of power in the performance of parliamentary duties. The Sub-Committee’s report is at Annex 1.
9.Lord Lester appealed to this Committee against the findings of the Commissioner and against the sanction recommended by the Sub-Committee. His appeal set out various objections to the processes in the Guide to the Code and to the way that the Commissioner had applied those processes. He also appealed against the Sub-Committee’s recommendation for expulsion.
10.The role of the Committee for Privileges and Conduct when there is an appeal is set out in paragraph 144 of the Guide to the Code:
“On appeal, the Committee will not reopen the Commissioner’s investigation. Rather members of the Committee will use their judgment to decide whether, on the balance of probabilities, they endorse the conclusions of the Commissioner; they will also consider whether or not the recommended sanction is appropriate.”
11.Accordingly, we have considered the reports of the Commissioner and the Sub-Committee. We have also considered Lord Lester’s written appeal and heard oral evidence from him. The grounds of Lord Lester’s appeal and related papers are at Annex 3.
12.As the Guide to the Code of Conduct requires, our first task was to consider whether in our judgment, on the balance of probabilities, we endorse the conclusions of the Commissioner. We do not accept Lord Lester’s contention that the Commissioner was at fault in the way she carried out her investigation. We have also been mindful that it is not in our remit to re-open the investigation of the Commissioner. On this basis we do not uphold Lord Lester’s appeal. It is not disputed that the complaint relates to Lord Lester’s conduct in the course of his Parliamentary duties. We endorse the conclusions of the Commissioner that in respect of that conduct Lord Lester of Herne Hill breached the provisions of the Code in failing to act on his personal honour by sexually harassing the complainant and offering her corrupt inducements to sleep with him.
13.Our second task was to consider the Sub-Committee on Lords’ Conduct recommended sanction of expulsion from the House under the relatively new provisions of the House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015. Lord Lester appealed against this sanction on several grounds and we listened carefully to the points raised in his appeal.
14.In coming to our conclusion we have reflected on the nature of the complaint and the Commissioner’s findings. We agree with the Commissioner that Lord Lester, in offering the complainant corrupt inducements, failed to act in accordance with his personal honour, that is in accordance with the standards of conduct expected of individual members. Lord Lester made a dishonourable promise backed up by a dishonourable threat. The Sub-Committee, in reaching its recommendation for expulsion, described this conduct as a “grave abuse of power”, which is somewhat stronger than the Commissioner’s own finding which we accept. She did not describe the abuse of power as grave. We have also reflected on the fact that at the time the behaviour giving rise to the complaint occurred the penalty of expulsion was not available. We have accordingly decided that Lord Lester’s appeal against expulsion should be upheld and replaced by a term of suspension, and so recommend to the House.
15.In considering the appropriate term of suspension to reflect our considerations above, we have taken into account the length of previous suspensions as well as the seriousness of this case. Until the passage of the House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015, the longest the House could suspend a Member was to the end of the Parliament in which the suspension started. This was the maximum penalty available at the time that Lord Lester breached the Code. We have concluded that taking those factors into consideration the suspension should be coterminous with the maximum expected term of the present Parliament. Under the terms of the Fixed-term Parliament Act 2011 this Parliament should be dissolved by 28 March 2022 so a period of suspension to cover this date would in effect mean that he could not return to the House until the new Parliament met in May or June 2022. This date of return should be the same whether or not this parliament lasts its maximum expected length. We accordingly recommend that Lord Lester of Herne Hill be suspended from the House until 3 June 2022.
16.We conclude with some important considerations about confidentiality. The complainant is not named in this report or in any of the papers to be published. The identities of the witnesses are also redacted. As far as is consistent with justice we have removed information that could identify the complainant, or the witnesses, by triangulation. We earnestly hope that the House and others will understand the value of offering anonymity in these circumstances and that nobody will seek to identify her or them following publication of this report. We would regard any breach of confidentiality as a potential contempt of the House, as described at paragraph 130 of the Guide to the Code of Conduct.
17.If any member of the House, ahead of the debate, wishes to see the appendices to the Commissioner’s report or the appendices to Lord Lester’s appeal documentation they should contact the Clerks of the Journals.
1 Two sets of documents have not been published. That is the appendices to the Commissioner’s report and the appendices to Lord Lester’s appeal. These documents contained a considerable amount of identifying material and the other documents stand alone without them.