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Privileges and Conduct - Motion to Agree

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 30th April 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Hussein-Ece Baroness Hussein-Ece Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Equalities) 4:00 pm, 30th April 2019

My Lords, last November we had rather an unedifying debate on the conduct of Lord Lester. After that debate, more than 70 members of House of Lords staff were so strongly moved by it that they put pen to paper and a public letter protesting that their concerns were not being addressed was published in the media. They were so alarmed by what took place here. Noble Lords will recall that the sentiment was expressed that harassment, sexual harassment and bullying were commonplace. How many of us would have known that that was the case? How many of us would even be aware that the staff here felt so strongly that they would come together and publish such a letter? It was quite unprecedented.

I think it was the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, who said that this is a new phenomenon—that staff now come forward because harassment has increased. I disagree. I think staff—women and others—are now much more aware of their rights. They expect to be treated properly and fairly in their workplace. Be they employed by the House of Lords establishment or by individual Peers, they expect to be treated as they would be in any other forum in public life or when employed by any other public body. We have to respect that and rise to that challenge. That is why I support the report of the Privileges and Conduct Committee. It is a positive step from what we have already. I disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, that we cannot agree to this; we simply cannot leave the status quo as it is. It is not acceptable. We have all agreed that it is not acceptable and we need to move forward. This is going in the right direction. It is not perfect but we are waiting for the report in July. I hope that will throw up some more answers to the questions raised by noble Lords around the House this afternoon.

I am concerned that because this is about us as Peers and we sign the Code of Conduct, we are worried about how fairly we will be treated if we come up before a committee following a complaint. Of course we should be worried, but we should have confidence in the system. We are in positions of privilege and power, while the staff who work here are not. It is an unequal relationship, so we must make sure that the most junior member of staff in this place—the intern or the volunteer—has the confidence to make that complaint. As the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, said, of course we must be wary of vexatious complaints, but someone would have to be pretty unusual to want to make a vexatious complaint and go through the kind of scrutiny that a lay person would have to go through. We know that there is underreporting rather than overreporting of these matters. We know from the staff who complained that it is commonplace. How many of them did not feel empowered enough to complain because they did not feel confident that they would be listened to or believed? Whatever we put in place, we must make sure that people who do not have a voice—who do not have access to a QC colleague or the means to employ somebody to defend them—have confidence that they will be treated equally to the Peer who is the subject of that complaint.

In the debates in November and December, the issue of cross-examination kept coming up. We are not talking about a court of law or a legal body. It would be a civil case and a civil procedure. To compare it to a court of law with cross-examination is not comparing like with like. In the previous debate, the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, made a very powerful point when she asked whether we could imagine a very junior member of staff being cross-examined by a leading QC. How on earth would he or she be able to afford to employ a QC to defend him or herself to balance it out? It just would not happen. The idea of cross-examination and testing is not the way forward. Investigating properly is the way forward. That is the way to test evidence: to receive it from both sides and make a decision on it. That is the best way forward. I hope that the House will support the committee. This is an interim report. It is not the final report but, my goodness, it is a step in the right direction compared with what we had before.

I heard what my noble friend and others said about Peers being on the committee. I would have expected Peers on the committee who knew the Peer being complained about to recuse themselves from taking part in this interim report. I could not imagine a situation in which any Peer would try to vote something down when they were clearly very close friends or colleagues of the Peer being complained about, but unfortunately that is what we saw last year in this Chamber in the case of Lord Lester. That was completely improper and it reflected very badly on us. It would never happen in local authorities up and down the country, where you would have to leave the room, never mind recuse yourself. You would not be allowed to take part in any decision that involved anyone who was a member of your family or a friend and so on. I think we were stretching matters last year in doing that, and we did not cover ourselves in glory.

We are moving away from that and going in the right direction. I hope that Members will consider that we want not only a very fair and transparent system but one that is seen to be fair by the public outside, who are scrutinising us more closely than ever. We need to rise to that challenge, so I support the report and I will be very interested in what comes forward in July. I hope we can get to a position where we all have confidence in this House’s procedures.