The House of Lords allows men to hide behind their privilege at the expense of victimised women, write Charlotte Proudman
The House of Lords is the latest institution at the centre of the #MeToo movement. Jasvinder Sanghera, women’s rights campaigner, reported Lord Lester to the Lords’ commissioner for offering her a peerage for sex. Lord Lester vehemently denied the allegations. After three House of Lords inquiries, Sanghera’s allegations were upheld. Lord Lester will be suspended from the Lords until 2022.
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 just over one third are women. Really, I shouldn’t have been surprised that the MeToo movement, which hit institutions across the world including Westminster, left the House of Lords unscathed. That was until Sanghera put her head above the parapet and shared her story of sexual harassment by Lord Lester.
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 pressurised her to remain in an abusive marriage. Sanghera has campaigned for women’s rights for over 25 years. She bravely decided to waive her anonymity, as the woman at the centre of the Lord Lester complaint. She explained that she felt a ‘phoney’ encouraging other women to break the silence about abuse yet she had remained silent.
In a predictable fashion, the old vanguard of elite peers mobilised to attack the Lords’ Commissioner’s investigation process and undermine Sanghera’s credibility whilst re-building the reputation of Lord Lester. Lord Lester and his powerful allies complained about the Lords’ Commissioner’s investigation process. There is one major fly in the ointment, Lord Lester and his colleagues supported the complaints process in 2009. He only criticised the process when a decision was made to his detriment.
The old boy’s network argue that the cards were stacked against Lord Lester because he was not able to cross-examine Sanghera himself. In criminal sexual abuse trials, perpetrators are prohibited from cross-examining complainants because it would re-victimise complainants all over again. The investigation involved extensive questioning of both Sanghera and Lord Lester, as well as their respective witnesses. Sanghera put forward six witnesses, including a judge, who spoke with Sanghera immediately after the event.
Lord Lester’s cronies then embarked on a media campaign to discredit Sanghera. Exercising a fatal error of judgment, Lord Pannick who is supposedly one of our country’s greatest 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. 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. Honestly speaking, so what? That doesn’t prove that Lord Lester did not offer Sanghera a peerage for sex.
Lord Pannick then 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. One by one, Lord Lester’s comrades spoke in support of him whilst giving a distorted assessment of Sanghera’s credibility. 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. 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. Fortunately, the conduct committee stands by its decision to suspend Lord Lester.
The Lords’ debate was a means of maintaining the status quo, where the power of those in the Lords remains unchecked, and women fear the devastating repercussions of reporting sexual harassment. But we must not underestimate the progress that has been made. Sanghera’s allegations were investigated and upheld despite a range of barriers: the incident was historical, occurring over 12 years ago; Sanghera was the first woman to report a peer for sexual harassment; and the perpetrator had the establishment at his beck and call. The House of Lords is in dire need of radical transformation or eradication. It is an outdated institution that is representing the interests of the few, not the many.
Dr Charlotte Proudman is a barrister at Goldsmith Chambers and an academic at Queens’ college Cambridge
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