Lord Macdonald of River Glaven debates involving the Leader of the House during the 2017-2019 Parliament

Privileges and Conduct Committee

Lord Macdonald of River Glaven Excerpts
Monday 17th December 2018

(5 years, 5 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Taylor of Holbeach Portrait Lord Taylor of Holbeach
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My Lords, we should hear from the Cross Benches. I remind noble Lords that it is not customary to address the House for 20 minutes in an ordinary, non-time-limited debate. I believe shorter speeches would be welcomed by the House.

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Lord Falconer of Thoroton Portrait Lord Falconer of Thoroton
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My Lords, I make three short points. First, I adopt in full the speech made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, in the first debate. He pointed out that we all promised to abide by this procedure, that the complainant in this case made a complaint in accordance with that procedure, nobody doubted that the procedure was followed and then, at the very end of the process, this House said, “Sorry, although your complaint has been justified by the terms of this procedure, we are changing the rules now”. It was not an attractive sight to watch. I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern.

Secondly, the wrongness of the view that we have to have the orotund procedure described by the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, is obvious to practically anyone who has experience of disciplinary complaints. I include in the names of people to whom it is obvious the noble and learned Lords, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, Lord Hope of Craighead, Lord Irvine of Lairg and Lord Mackay of Clashfern—the people who are on our Committee for Privileges. The idea that there is some legal bar to having a process whereby we have an inquisitor who asks the questions of both sides, putting both sides of the case, is absolutely ridiculous. Do not judge that as lawyers: judge it as ordinary people.

My third point—and the thing that makes me most angry—is the hypocrisy of some noble Lords in citing Dame Laura Cox in support of their position. What Dame Laura Cox said was that members of staff in the House of Commons would never believe that they would get a fair hearing if Members of Parliament were involved in making the ultimate decision. What happened when this case came along is that someone who was in chambers with the person we were considering, someone who had been a friend of his for years and somebody who went on holiday with him for years all spoke on his behalf. Nobody spoke on the complainant’s behalf at all. The House then voted in favour of remitting it back to the committee. We should not regard the debate on 15 November as anything other than a sign of extreme hypocrisy.

The particular hypocrisy that I focus on is the fact that the reason it was remitted was because we focused on process and all of Lord Lester’s friends then voted to remit it, despite the fact that that was the most obvious breach of process. I urge the House, by what we say today, to give the fullest possible support to the noble Lord, Lord McFall, in what he has asked us to do.

Lord Macdonald of River Glaven Portrait Lord Macdonald of River Glaven
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I wish to address the House for a few minutes only on a subject to which many noble Lords have alluded, which is cross-examination. I cannot claim the 50 years of the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, but I can claim 40 years at the Bar. During that time, I guess that I have spent hundreds of hours in adversarial proceedings cross-examining witnesses myself or watching co-defending counsel or opposing counsel cross-examining. That has been the greater part of my professional life.

Many noble Lords in this debate and in the debate last month have reminded the House of the famous dictum that cross-examination is the greatest legal engine for the discovery of truth ever invented. Of course it can be, and I have seen it so. I have seen liars unmasked, fraudsters exposed and terrorists cross-examined into confinement for decades. But my years of experience have also taught me that, like most aphorisms, this one is not able to paint the whole picture. Cross-examination can, of course, uncover the truth, but it can also obfuscate. It can advance a false prospectus, and it can intimidate. In adversarial proceedings, especially where freedom and forced confinement are in issue, its essential combativeness is indulged, but always and only under the watchful eye of a trained, professional judge.

I am sure that cross-examination can be one way to get at the truth, but I have never believed that it is the only way. In particular, I have never doubted that a diligent and fair inquiry by a competent tribunal, taking the necessary evidence, examining the relevant issues and asking the proper questions, is also capable of uncovering the truth. Tribunals proceed in this way every day, in this country and in other fair-trial jurisdictions around the world. The questions asked by a tribunal are, of course, a form of cross-examination in themselves, but cross-examination conducted in a more neutral, more objective manner, perhaps better suited to the inquisitorial style.

It is clear to me from the papers in Lord Lester’s case, which I have read, that the commissioner asked the complainant about all of the primary matters that might have been put in cross-examination: “Why did you go back to Lord Lester’s house?”, “Why did you dedicate the book to him in the way that you did?”, and so on. And the commissioner got her answers. It is true that these questions were asked in a gentler, more neutral way than might have been expected from a robust cross-examining lawyer, but there is no harm in that. Indeed, there are many situations in which this sort of low-key approach is more likely to get at what really happened, precisely because it occurs in a gentler, less aggressive environment. In my judgment, a disciplinary hearing, particularly where sensitive allegations of sexual misconduct are being aired, is certainly one of those situations.

Your Lordships could have mandated an adversarial disciplinary regime. I would not have recommended it, but you could have done so. This House could have mandated an inquisitorial system in which the participants were lawyered up, including for the purposes of cross-examination. Again, I would not have recommended this, but it could have been recommended. Even though both these things could have been done, they are emphatically not a pre-condition for a fair process. On the contrary, in my judgment, the process that your Lordships alighted upon was, for all the reasons that other noble Lords and the committee have set out, reasonable and fair.

Let me address one final thing on this subject, the standing of the commissioner. Lucy Scott-Moncrieff is a figure of the highest reputation in the legal world, a solicitor with a distinguished practice, a past president of the Law Society and a founding member of the Queen’s Counsel appointments panel. This House could hardly have selected someone more suited to the difficult task in hand, or more deserving of our trust. Your Lordships devolved to her the power to inquire fairly and thoroughly into the circumstances of Lord Lester’s case and to come to her reasonable conclusion on the evidence. That was her warrant. In my judgment, she discharged it faithfully.

Before I sit down, I wish to say one other thing briefly. During my five years as a public servant, as a prosecutor, my colleagues and I struggled endlessly against the sort of insidious stereotyping that bedevilled sex crime prosecutions. “Why didn’t she report it sooner? Why didn’t she distance herself more? Why was she wearing this? Why was she drinking that?”. In the end, we believed that we were making some progress, as judges repeatedly warned juries about the dangers of making stereotypical assumptions about the way that traumatised people react to the source of their trauma, warning them that they should not allow what may be little more than prejudice to cloud their judgment of the fact that an injustice has been done. Let us not find ourselves, in this House, moving backwards.

Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Portrait Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb
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My Lords, I was at the debate last month. I do not know if any of your noble Lordships have seen “Groundhog Day”, but this has similarities. We are going over the same ground again. I should like to make two points. First, I support the Committee for Privileges and Conduct. Its robust response to the November’s debate was superb. I was furious during the debate; I walked out at one point, because I was so angry with a Peer who was speaking. The report is fantastic and obviously I will vote for it if anyone decides to divide the House.

Secondly, I never thought these words would pass my lips, but the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, is wrong. He was wrong to press the amendment last time and he would be wrong to push it today. He talks about fairness all the time. Was it fair to divide the House when there was no expectation of a vote and many Peers had gone home because the debate went on for much longer than expected and they had trains to catch? As I see it, fairness is not playing a full part in this process.

My last point is a question for the Senior Deputy Speaker. Lord Lester has resigned rather than been suspended. Does that mean that he maintains his rights and privileges of access here in this House, such as eating here and so on? I am sure that many of us will feel that natural justice would suggest that he should not.