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Time’s up for misogynistic attitudes in the Lords?

Charlotte Proudman

6.12.18

The House of Lords is the latest institution at the centre of the #MeToo movement. Last month, Lord Hain sitting in the House of Lords named Sir Philip Green as the individual accused of sexual and racial abuse towards employees. Meanwhile, the Lords’ Commissioner found as a fact that Lord Lester had offered a woman a peerage for sex. The actions of Lord Hain and Lord Lester were subject to vigorous debate and disagreement by fellow peers. Scrutiny of their words and deeds shows that some peers’ attitudes are archaic and patriarchal, and that some consider themselves worryingly above the law.

Only a few weeks ago I praised Lord Hain for naming Sir Philip Green in the House of Lords. Although there was an injunction prohibiting the media from outing Sir Philip, Lord Hain invoked parliamentary privilege and named the Arcadia chairman in the interests of ‘justice and liberty’. The public purpose served by such an action is to encourage other women to come forward and report wrongdoing. An entirely predictable debate ensued about whether Lord Hain had undermined the rule of law in acting contrary to the court’s decision to prohibit the identification of Philip Green. Surely the real question is: should the law be used as a tool for powerful men to silence women through non-disclosure agreements and injunctions? Lord Hain’s determination to speak truth to power made me re-evaluate my own scepticism about the role and purpose of our unelected Upper House - the second largest decision-making body in the world after China’s National People’s Congress. But the Lord Lester case demonstrates the persistence in parts of the Upper House of antiquated and misogynistic attitudes.  

The Lester case revolved around Jasvinder Sanghera, a women’s rights campaigner, reporting  Lord Lester to the Lords’ Commissioner for saying to her, ‘If you sleep with me, I will make you a Baroness within a year’. That sordid inducement was followed, the Commissioner found, by a threat of consequences if she did not capitulate. Lord Lester vehemently denied the allegations. After an investigation that lasted some 12 months, Sanghera’s allegations were vindicated. Three House of Lords inquiries later and the decision remains upheld. 

The Lords is the living personification of the Old Boys’ club. Founded in 1539, the average age of Peers in the Lords is 70 and only a little over one third are women; though there has been reform, it has not gone nearly far enough. Yet the MeToo movement, which hit institutions across the world including Westminster, left the House of Lords unscathed until Sanghera had the courage to share her story of sexual harassment by Lord Lester.

I have had the great pleasure of sharing a feminist platform with Sanghera. She spoke passionately about campaigning against forced marriage and honour-based violence for the last 25 years. Sanghera left home at the age of 14 to escape a forced marriage. Meanwhile her sister, Robina, set fire to herself at age 24 when her family pressured her to remain in an abusive marriage. Sanghera recently decided to waive her anonymity as the woman at the centre of the Lord Lester complaint – an exceptionally courageous step.  She explained that she felt a ‘phoney’ encouraging other women to break the silence about abuse while she had remained silent. Sanghera hoped that sharing her story would encourage other women to come forward to report abuse. And she was right. Since the story broke, friends have privately shared their own stories of sexual harassment in Westminster.

With depressing predictability, an old guard of peers mobilised to attack the Lords’ Commissioner’s investigation process and undermine Sanghera’s credibility, whilst re-building the reputation of Lord Lester. Their unapologetic and unrepentant approach seems to transmit unmistakably dangerous messaging: (1) a privileged white male lawyer is to be believed over an Asian woman of immigrant parents; or (2) even if Sanghera’s allegations are true, what’s the big deal?

Lord Lester and his powerful allies have intemperately complained about the Lords’ Commissioner’s investigation process. Sanghera has been publicly traduced by Peers who have described her as incompetent or acting in bad faith. Lord Gresford described the Lords’ Commissioner as a ‘very distinguished lawyer’ but said that she lacked ‘forensic experience’ and ‘confidence’. Ironically, Lord Lester and his colleagues supported the complaints process in 2009 when other peers were subject to it. Lester only criticised the process when a decision was made to his detriment.

The Old Boys’ network complains that the cards were stacked against Lord Lester because he was not able to cross-examine Sanghera himself - himself. Yet in criminal sexual abuse trials, the accused are generally prohibited from cross-examining complainants to avoid retraumatising complainants. In family law it is also rare for those accused of sexual abuse to be allowed unrestricted cross-examination of complainants. Baroness Butler-Sloss stated that the Lords’ Commissioner dealt with Lord Lester’s request for cross-examination as follows, ‘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’. The investigation involved extensive questioning of both Sanghera and Lord Lester, as well as their respective witnesses. Jasvinder Sanghera put forward six witnesses, including a judge, who spoke with Sanghera immediately after the event – paradigmatic of what in law is called ‘recent complaint’ evidence. Even if Lord Lester had cross-examined Sanghera, how would that have changed the outcome? Is this complaint a principled objection or a pretext to undermine the process?   

Lord Lester’s supporters then embarked on a deplorable media campaign to discredit Sanghera. Exercising a fatal error of judgment, Lord Pannick who is supposedly one of our country’s most eminent lawyers, took to the airwaves on Radio 4’s Today’s Programme and wrote an article in the Times newspaper to highlight an irreconcilable inconsistency in Sanghera’s story. After the incident, Sanghera signed a book for Lord Lester with a personal message of gratitude. First, Lord Pannick failed to mention that the book was signed at Sanghera’s book launch at the request of Lord Lester in front of a large audience. Second, he failed to acknowledge that the Lords’ Commissioner had considered the perceived gaps and inconsistencies as part of the investigation. Third, he appears to have no understanding that people do not act rationality when in flight-fight mode. Finally, there is often a misconception that upstanding citizens cannot be perpetrators of sexual abuse. Perpetrators are not lepers. To the contrary, a perpetrator could be a family member or a friend of the person they abuse, and perpetrators are often gregarious individuals who use the mask of geniality to groom and exploit.

Lord Pannick mobilised his colleagues and organised a debate in the Lords which culminated in the Lords voting 101 to 78 to block the imposed suspension of Lord Lester until June 2022. Instead, the case was sent back to the committee. The debate descended into a trial of Sanghera, with peers acting as both judge and jury. Baroness Jones described the attitudes during the debate as ‘misogynistic’ and ‘victim-blaming’, whilst Baroness Hussein-Ece said she became ‘more and more incredulous and angry’. Lester supporters unleashed all the unsavoury myths of bigoted sexual discourse that we have been trying to dispel in our criminal courts. 

One by one, Lord Lester’s comrades spoke in support of him whilst giving a distorted assessment of Sanghera’s credibility. Lord Taverne argued that if Sanghera had been cross-examined, it was likely that ‘sufficient doubts would have been raised for the charge to be dismissed’. Lord Thomas added that Sanghera’s decision to waive anonymity and give an interview to the Times ‘makes a mockery of our procedures, and I can only hope that a charity has fully benefited from her’. Lord Warner commented that ‘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.’ The same tired trope that women falsely cry rape is churned out with no empirical evidence. Evidence from the Home Office found that only 3% of rape reports are false. The Lords’ debate was a means of maintaining the status quo, where the power of an old guard (of mostly men) in the Lords remains unchecked, and women fear the devastating repercussions of reporting sexual harassment.

Peers attempted to usurp justice by demanding that Lord Lester’s punishment is reconsidered. During the debate, his supporters gave the impression that those in the highest echelons of power are ‘untouchable’ and immune from accountability, which can only serve to undermine faith in our democracy. Indeed, Lord Thomas commented that the rules ‘may be here today, but they will be scrapped next week…’ The suggestion is that when the rules do not work for the benefit of men subject to them, they will be overturned. Some other peers (mainly women) were horrified by this behaviour. Fortunately, the conduct committee confirmed that it stands by the decision to suspend Lord Lester and consequently, it looks likely that he will be suspended.

We know from the watershed movements of MeToo and Time’s Up that sharing stories about sexual abuse encourages other women to come forward. It can engender a cultural shift in attitudes towards gendered abuse. At first glance the Lester case might appear as an example of the regression of the women’s rights movement rather than progression. Jasvinder Sanghera said she felt that she had been ‘victimised all over again’; she had no faith in the process and would not encourage other women to make complaints against peers. The case shows that women who allege sexual harassment and abuse continue to experience a backlash in a concerted effort to silence them.

But we must not underestimate the progress that has been made. Sanghera’s allegations were investigated thoroughly. They were upheld, despite a range of barriers: the incident was historic, occurring over 12 years ago; Sanghera was the first woman to report a peer for sexual harassment; and the perpetrator had powerful friends willing to speak for him. The support publicly offered to Lord Lester from those allies starkly contrasted with Sanghera who often seemed alone in challenging a powerful man. It is unfortunate that Lord Lester and his colleagues have not been reprimanded for their gross mishandling of the outcome of the complaint.

It is no longer permissible for women’s bodily autonomy and integrity to be undermined by men in positions of power and when that does happen, men need to be held accountable. A section of the House of Lords is clearly out of step with modern times and is certainly not representative of our society.

Long-lasting change will only ever occur when there is gender parity in male-dominated spheres. An equal workplace gives women tangible power to hold men to account for their wrongdoing. The House of Lords is an outdated institution that represents the few not the many. It is in dire need of radical transformation, and if that is not possible, then it should be replaced entirely with new, modern, democratic institutions underpinned by equality.

Charlotte Proudman is a barrister in family law and public law at Goldsmith Chambers, Junior Research Fellow in Human Rights at Queens' College, Cambridge, and has a PhD from Cambridge on the law and policy on FGM in England.

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