Baroness Hussein-Ece: The House of Lords should not be allowed to 'mark our own homework'
We have a duty to ensure all staff and peers feel safe and confident of the complaints procedure, writes Baroness Hussein-Ece
It’s welcome news that the House of Lords has announced new plans for a more effective and independent system to deal with allegations of bullying and harassment after severe criticism over the action taken following the allegations of sexual harassment against former Liberal Democrat Peer, Lord Lester, which he denied.
The woman who made the complaint, Jasvinder Sanghera, who waived her right to anonymity, called for a shake up in the way the House of Lords deals with harassment complaints, after the final report of an investigation into alleged misconduct undertaken by Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, the House of Lords Commissioner for Standards, was debated on the floor of the House of Lords last November, and voted down.
I attended that debate, and made an intervention after feeling increasingly uncomfortable, and dismayed, when peer after peer spoke and declared that they had known Lord Lester for very many years and that he would never do such a thing, with some even calling the complainants character into question.
It was shocking.
In a court, or in a local authority committee, an admission of decades long friendship with the accused would immediately lead to being disqualified from taking part in any debate. Only in the House of Lords, it seems, would being a good mate of the man in question particularly qualify another man to adjudicate on his case.
Many of the speakers declared the findings unsound, because the complainant was not subjected to ‘cross examination’ to ‘test’ her version of events. Imagine a junior member of staff being cross examined by a leading QC? Hardly acceptable in an internal complaints procedure.
By the evening of that debate more than 70 Parliamentary staff had written to Lord McFall, the senior deputy Speaker of the Lords to protest the peers’ decision to veto the inquiry, highlighting just how prevalent harassment is and how vulnerable many staff have felt.
We have a duty to ensure all staff and peers feel safe and confident of the complaints procedure.
I believed then, as I do now, that we as the House of Lords should not be allowed to ‘mark our own homework’, in what appeared to the outside world, as an ‘old boys network’ and then to veto an investigation and its findings.
Under the proposed new system, the Commissioner for Standards would decide on wrongdoing and on any necessary sanctions, with the new Conduct Committee acting as the appeal body for the peer against whom the allegations were made and the complainant, as well as allowing complaints to be made via email or an independent helpline rather than only in writing.
It was clear from the previous system, that complainant had very little support, and this I hope will be addressed.
I welcome these changes and hope this restores confidence in an unedifying episode in our procedures.
Baroness Hussein-Ece is a Liberal Democrat peer