Lord Lester: I won't get into a fight with my accuser

Peer under fire over sexual harassment allegations speaks exclusively to the JC


The peer at the centre of a controversial sexual harassment storm has told the JC that he was “completely devastated” by the claims made against him by Jasvinder Sanghera.

Lord Lester of Herne Hill, QC, often described as the father of Britain’s Human Rights Act, was speaking at the end of a turbulent week in which a House of Lords inquiry recommended that he be suspended from Parliament for a three-and-a-half years. On Thursday, however, a debate in the Lords overturned the suspension by 101 votes to 78. 

An angry Ms Sanghera said she felt “victimised all over again” in the wake of the change of heart by the peers.

Ms Sanghera, who waived her anonymity earlier in the week, complained to the House of Lords privileges and conduct committee in November 2017 that 12 years ago, Lord Lester, then aged 70, had sexually harassed her, offering her the inducement of a peerage if she would sleep with him.

She said that she had missed her train home after she and Lord Lester had been working together on women’s rights issues. He told her she could stay at his home, adding that his wife was there.

But Ms Sanghera said that on the way to his house the Liberal Democrat peer repeatedly put his hand on her thigh, though she told him to remove it. She said that she slept that night with a chair up against the door of her room but that in the morning, after his wife had left the house, he had approached her in the kitchen and told her that she could become “Baroness Sanghera” if she would sleep with him.

Lord Lester, who denies all the allegations made against him, told the JC that he had had no memory of Ms Sanghera staying at his house, although his wife did. He had had no contact with her for the past 12 years, he said, and her accusations had come as “a huge shock”.

He said: “I have no idea why she has made these allegations against me, and all these months later [since the inquiries began against him] I still have no idea, I wish I knew.” He added that it was not in his gift to offer her a peerage.

Lord Lester said it was “right” that women should be able to complain about inappropriate behaviour and that he hoped that next week it would be possible to begin a reform of the complaints procedure. But he said he did not know why Ms Sanghera had not made a police complaint at the time, and had instead gone to the House of Lords so much later.

“If she had something to complain about, she should have done it 12 years ago”, he said. Noting that Ms Sanghera had spent most of Friday “touring the TV and radio studios”, the peer said: “I won’t get into a fight with her. I have never criticised her and I have never sought to do so”. Though he has previously said he has evidence to refute her claims, he refused to give details.

Asked what he made of the decision of the Lords to stop his suspension, Lord Lester described the change of heart as “a victory for Parliament, not for me.” He said he had had nothing to do with the debate which ruled out the suspension, but praised Lord Pannick, a fellow member of his legal chambers, for his initiative in bringing the debate about. Lord Pannick, he said, had been “amazing”.

Ms Sanghera said on Friday that “if the Lords really believe that the outcome of today isn’t going to deter victims, then I don’t know what world they are living in. The Commissioner, sub-committee and Committee of Privileges upheld [my complaint] and believed me and from what I’ve watched unfold today I can only describe it as reliving the whole thing again. Why would I want any victim to put themselves through that when they do this to me.”

After three inquiries, peers concluded that Lord Lester had both sexually harassed Ms Sanghera and had made “corrupt inducements” by promising her a peerage if she slept with him. He was initially suspended until June 2022.  The suspension had to be approved by peers, but Lord Pannick’s intervention meant that the case is due to be sent back to the privileges and conduct committee next week. Lord Pannick argued that the suspension ruling was flawed because Lord Lester had had no opportunity to cross-examine his accuser.

On Tuesday it emerged that more than 70 members of parliamentary staff had written to the senior deputy Speaker of the Lords to protest against the peers' vote to overturn Lord Lester's suspension.

The letter, signed by 74 House of Lords employess including clerks, policy analysts, committee assistants, Hansard reporters and librarians, stated: "We were dismayed to see that the result of an investigatory process which has been created and approved by members was so easily disregarded by those same members, none of whom had previously objected to the process and many of whom referred to their friendship with the accused.

“The unique nature of our place of work creates a power imbalance between staff and members. Instances of bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct by members towards staff are far too common.

“We need to have confidence that allegations of bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct against members in the context of their parliamentary work will be properly considered and complainants not subject to humiliation or criticism.”

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