Jasvinder Sanghera, pictured, claims Lord Lester promised to ‘make her a baroness within a year’ if she submitted to his unwarranted advances
When author and women’s rights campaigner Jasvinder Sanghera met former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg three years ago, he shook her hand and made small talk about ‘a dear friend’ they had in common: the distinguished lawyer, and an architect of the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, Lord Lester of Herne Hill.
‘I remember thinking, “if only you knew”,’ says Jasvinder. ‘Over the years I’ve heard so many powerful people praise him while inside I’d be thinking, “you have no idea what he’s like”.’
Today, the Liberal Democrat peer stands publicly disgraced as the ‘gear stick groper’ (more of which later) who chased Jasvinder around the kitchen of his £3million South London home, made revolting sexual comments and offered to ‘make her a baroness within a year’ if she submitted to his creepy advances.
When his lecherous attempts failed she says he turned nasty, threatening ‘to see to it that I never had a seat in the House of Lords’, before using his influence to ensure she was dropped from the guest list for important parliamentary meetings.
This week Lord Lester, who continues to deny the allegations that Jasvinder says took place 12 years ago, became the first British peer in the House of Lords’ 400-year history to have a complaint of sexual harassment upheld.
He continues to maintain that his contact with Jasvinder was purely professional and appropriate, and can offer no explanation as to why she would make allegations against him.
The 82-year-old resigned ahead of the release of the report from the House of Lords’ Committee for Privileges and Conduct.
In a statement, he said the claims against him were ‘completely untrue’ but said the investigation into his alleged misconduct has ‘taken a serious toll’ on his health and that he did not have the ‘strength or health’ to continue.
The second report was prompted after his fellow Lords voted down the recommendations of a first inquiry — punishing him with a record suspension until June 2022.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill, pictured, denies the allegations made by Ms Sanghera
Three days ago, following complaints from 74 members of staff, the Lords announced plans to conduct a bullying and sexual harassment inquiry into the whole culture of the upper chamber.
Yet Jasvinder is in no mood celebrate. ‘After the debate on Monday (when the motion to suspend Lord Lester was passed) I was exhausted.
‘I had a sore throat and just didn’t want to get out of bed. I had this overwhelming sense of having gone through so much but that there were no winners and no losers. I’ve been called names. I’ve been called a liar. People have said on Twitter why didn’t I just leave his house? Or, why didn’t I report it earlier?
‘The big thing for me is I always believed it would be his word against mine and he’d be believed because he is Lord Lester.’
Well, she’s believed now, with the Lords’ Commissioner for Standards upholding her complaint on the basis of Jasvinder’s ‘strong and cogent’ evidence.
This is Jasvinder’s first in-depth interview since she finally made an official complaint last year, encouraged, she says, by the #MeToo movement the case encapsulates.
When we meet, it’s hard to imagine this gutsy, articulate woman being cowed by anybody.
Former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, pictured, spoke to Ms Sanghera about their mutual friend Lord Lester – although Mr Clegg was unaware about the allegations against the peer
Growing up in a Sikh family in Derby — before running away as a teenager to escape a forced marriage — she has spent most of her adult life campaigning on the issue. In 1993, she set up the charity Karma Nirvana to champion the rights of women in minority communities after her sister Robina committed suicide by setting herself on fire to escape an abusive spouse.
She has lobbied against everything from so-called honour killings to female genital mutilation and has been credited by David Cameron for ‘turning my head on the issue of forced marriage’ during his time as Prime Minister. In 2013, Jasvinder, 53, was awarded a CBE for her tireless work.
‘That’s why Lester had power over me,’ says Jasvinder, who cannot bring herself to call him by his honorary title. ‘He knew how much I wanted to have a voice somewhere like the House of Lords to make changes in the world. I’d been campaigning for many years to criminalise forced marriage. He approached me saying he wanted to look at the civil route, but within weeks of knowing him he began to abuse his power and influence.’
Jasvinder admits while her recollection of specific times and dates is unclear, she is in no doubt what took place. She said this to the commission and they accepted it.
She recalls attending a meeting in the House of Lords to discuss the passage of the civil bill some time around January 2007.
‘We were walking into the House of Lords that day when he stopped and said, “Do you see that building there? Do you know what it represents?” I said, “it’s the seat of power where all the decisions are made”. That’s when he said, “if you sleep with me I will make you a baroness within a year”.
‘He spelt my name out: “Baroness Jasvinder Sanghera”. I told him if I became a baroness it would be through merit not because I’d slept with him. He told me to think seriously about it because, if not, there would be “repercussions”.
Ms Sanghera said Lord Lester told her: ‘If you sleep with me I will make you a baroness within a year’. She said: ‘‘He knew I was a survivor of a forced marriage and here he was hitting on me. How could he stand there championing a law to help vulnerable victims of forced marriage and do that? I’ve had to reclaim the word honour in my life because I was made to feel I’d dishonoured my family. For years I’d been shunned’
‘I walked inside wanting him to leave me alone but he wouldn’t. He started talking about the different colours of carpet only peers and those with privilege can walk on
‘Then he began pointing out various lords and baronesses, saying, “she’s here because she slept with somebody, he’s here because of who he knows”. The fact he used that and offered me sexual inducement is…’ She shakes her head.
‘He knew I was a survivor of a forced marriage and here he was hitting on me. How could he stand there championing a law to help vulnerable victims of forced marriage and do that? I’ve had to reclaim the word honour in my life because I was made to feel I’d dishonoured my family. For years I’d been shunned.
‘I thought, “You’re a liberal democrat, a crusader for human rights and a fighter for equality or that’s the face you show the world. You’re meant to be this honourable human being but look at your hypocrisy”.’
Jasvinder is torn between fury and tears as she speaks. There is no doubt the last 14 months have weighed heavily upon her. Her hands shake at times and her voice hardens in revulsion every time she mentions Lord Lester.
She has received numerous emails complaining of similar instances of harassment in the House of Lords since she waived her right to anonymity two months ago. The complaints include a second allegation against Lord Lester, which has been referred to the Lords Commissioner for Standards Lucy Scott-Moncrieff.
She says: ‘This inquiry into bullying and sexual harassment in the Lords has made me feel it has all been worth it. Finally, they’ll have to hold up the mirror to the way they behave.
‘It’s not acceptable in this country in the 21st century. Nobody should behave the way Lester did just because they have privilege. I’ve carried this ever since it happened. I’ve felt a phoney campaigning for women’s rights but not speaking out. I’ve shared this with those closest to me in tears sometimes. I’ve really struggled.’
According to Jasvinder, Lord Lester first made advances following a dinner for 12 in the House of Lords in January 2007 to discuss his civil bill. When she realised she’d missed her train home to Derby he offered her a room at his South London home.
‘He insisted, saying he’d rung his wife who was absolutely fine with it and was going to make us some tea. I felt safe because this was a respectable person, a trusted person — a peer. We got into his car and, within five minutes, his hand slipped off the gear stick and onto my knee.
‘I ignored it the first time then it happened again and he started rubbing his hand on my leg. I moved it. He did it again. I said, “please don’t do that”. He was very jokey about it — laughing.
‘I don’t know why I didn’t ask him to stop the car but I didn’t. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but it was dark. He was driving. I was just thinking, “his wife is expecting us. Once we’re there it will be OK”.Also I was shocked and when something like that happens you’re almost in paralysis because you’re trying to compute it.’
When they arrived Lord Lester’s wife opened the door and served tea in bone china cups.
Ms Sanghera claims Lord Lester, pictured, tried to proposition her one morning when she had stayed at his house with his wife
‘She was very jovial — lovely. While she was putting the tea on a tray, Lester showed me where I’d be sleeping. It was a small room on the far side of the house with a single bed, then he showed me where he sleeps. He said, “I’m not very far away”. I thought, “oh please, what does he mean?’’’
Jasvinder says she didn’t sleep a wink that night. Instead, she lay in bed fully clothed with a chair propped against the door handle.
‘There was no way I was getting undressed,’ she says. ‘In the morning I went downstairs and his wife was nowhere to be seen. Breakfast was laid out for him. I said I wasn’t hungry but I did have tea.
‘When I went to the sink to rinse my cup he came up behind me and put his arms around my waist.
‘I pushed him off. Then he came up behind me again and his hands went further up my body. He had this giggling thing going on saying, “come on Jasvinder”. I pushed him and said, “no, I don’t want this. I just want to go”.
‘He got quite angry. His tone of voice changed and he said, “you won’t be leaving without me. I’ll take you to the station but before you leave I want to show you something”. I felt I had to go along with him to get out of there.’
Lord Lester took her to the garden to a ‘very nice-looking shed’ where he said he paints.
‘He showed me his paintings and said he sometimes goes to his place in Ireland to paint. He said, “if you’re a good girl you can come there”. That’s when I said, “can I go now? I just want to go”.
‘I look back now and get angry that I didn’t just walk out the door and go. Instead, he took me to the station which is when he said, “I have feelings for you, Jasvinder. My wife understands. I love you”. ‘I said, “I don’t love you.” He said, “but I have strong feelings. I can’t help myself”.
‘He then said, “I can imagine you would be a demanding mistress”.’
Last month, following the first inquiry, Lord Lester gave a newspaper interview in which he refuted Jasvinder’s story, saying many elements did not stack up. He described her stay at his house as ‘completely uneventful’ and he had documentary evidence proving he was on a flight to Strasbourg on the morning Jasvinder says he was declaring love to her at a railway station. He also pointed out that he drove an automatic car — there was no ‘gear stick’ for his hand to slip off and grope her knee.
Yet Jasvinder stands by her story, saying: ‘I wasn’t aware of the car being an automatic or a manual — just of there being a stick as there often is in an automatic as well as a manual.’ She admits that she continued to work with Lord Lester after the incident.
‘I thought he was a dirty old man but I didn’t want what really mattered — the Forced Marriage Act — to be affected. I’d worked so hard and finally people were recognising the importance of it.’
During the inquiry, Lord Lester would cite their continued work together as evidence he hadn’t sexually harassed her. He also made mention of the warm message she had written to him in her best-selling book Shame.
‘That was at my book launch in Derby,’ she says. ‘He was the keynote speaker. All the leaflets had gone out. Then he rang the person who does my diary the day before to say I had to call him urgently.
‘When I called him he said, “because of your poor behaviour I will not be coming to this event”, and put the phone down.
‘He’d always told me there would be repercussions if I didn’t sleep with him. As it was, he did come and stood at the front of the book-signing queue saying, “I want you to sign my book”. He told me to sign it “with love”. I’d have written he was the best thing since sliced bread if he’d asked me, just to get rid of him,’ she says.
‘Then I began to realise I was no longer being invited to meetings in London. When a senior civil servant asked me why I told him the truth. ‘His response was, “the dirty bastard. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure you’re down to attend meetings” — and he did.’
Fast-forward ten years and Jasvinder was again in the House of Lords meeting a research assistant who was a victim of honour abuse. The young woman confided she had been sexually harassed by one of Lord Lester’s fellow peers.
‘The climate had changed because of #MeToo. I thought, “I might get a fair crack of the whip if I complain now. They might listen to me. This is a public interest issue now. It’s bigger than me”.’
She made her complaint to the Lord’s Commissioner and the inquiry began. For the next 14 months Jasvinder barely ate or slept. ‘I just felt sick,’ she says. ‘It consumed me totally.
‘I made the decision to waive my anonymity so the distinguished people involved in the inquiry could see who I was. Lord Lester was dealing with it as if I was just a nobody making wild allegations.
‘I wanted them to know who I am because it was why I was making the complaint. I only decided to waive my anonymity publicly when a baroness came up to me, white as a sheet, and said Lord Lester had just told her he’d been suspended from the Liberal Democrat Party because I was accusing him of sexual harassment. That made me feel so powerless.’
Worse was to come, though, when once the inquiry found against Lord Lester, his fellow lords voted in the House to block his suspension. They complained it was ‘manifestly unfair’ because he was not able to cross-examine Jasvinder himself. They demanded a second inquiry.
‘I watched the debate unfold on television and felt as if I was being bullied and abused all over again,’ says Jasvinder.
‘Fourteen people referred to his reputation and how wonderful he was. I was the ghost in the banquet room. They were criticising me, criticising the Commissioner. It was misogynist and horrendous.
‘I was in shock. My partner Jon was saying, “are you all right darling”. I said, “I can’t believe it”. The tears were rolling down my face.’
She is crying now as she talks about this.
‘Within two hours, 74 members of staff had written to the deputy speaker saying they were absolutely appalled and that sexual harassment and bullying are far too common in the House of Lords.
‘It is a culture that has to change. There’s certainly a will there. After the debate on Monday all these baronesses came up to me and said, “We want you to know we believe you and we know — we know”.’
Now, once the Lords’ inquiry into bullying and sexual harassment is complete, we might all know exactly what goes on in the privileged sanctum of this unelected second chamber.