The Tories who tried to pressurise judges to keep secret their character references for a sexual offender ex MP

Lord Freud :” failed to act on his personal honour”. Pic credit: gov.uk

This week a peer and former Tory government minister Lord Freud was ordered to apologise to the House of Lords for breaching the code of conduct by “failing to act on his personal honour.”

The peer was among the signatories to two letters sent to two senior judges, Lady Justice Thirlwall and Dame Victoria Sharp and to Lady Justice Whipple, seeking to persuade her not to publish his name giving a good character reference to the ex MP who is now a convicted sex offender.

Charlie Elphicke Ex MP Now in jail

The MP was Charlie Elphicke, Tory and later Independent MP for Dover until 2019. He was convicted of three counts of sexual assault on two women in July last year and sentenced in September to two years in prison. He is currently appealing the case.

In November last year three newspapers, The Guardian, the Times and the Daily Mail, sought permission from Lady Justice Whipple to publish the character references from prominent people who were supporting him.

Dame Victoria Sharp pic cap : Judiciary.uk web site

This led four other Tory MPs and the peer to write to two senior judges to persuade them to intervene in the case. The Lords Commissioner for Standards,Lucy Scott-Moncrieff , ruled this week in Lord Freud’s case was “was intended to persuade Lady Justice Thirlwall and Dame Victoria Sharp to intervene.”

She added: “Similarly, the letter to Mrs Justice Whipple was written in terms intended to influence her thinking.”

Former Cabinet minister Theresa Villiers

MPs say intervention ” a point of principle”

The MPs action became public when Col Stewart asked for a ruling from Jacob Rees Mogg, leader of the House, – but he kept away from committing himself to intervene. The MPs claimed their action was on a point of principle to stop all character references being released but were shot down by the Lord Chief Justice’s office saying it was “improper” to seek to influence the decision of a judge who would ultimately rule on the basis of evidence and argument in court.

Now the Lords Commissioner for Standards has described the letters as ” emotive” and ruled: “I believe doing so in private correspondence to senior judges in terms designed to influence the trial judge must also be considered outside the standards of conduct expected of individual members.”

Existence of inquiry into MPs a secret

This leaves the question of the conduct of the MPs. They come under the Commons Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Stone. Under the rules of the House of Commons since 2018 it has been decided that no information on whether a complaint has been laid against an MP will be published until a final report is made. So officially it remains a secret whether there is any investigation. However the Guardian has reported that Helen Jones, the Labour MP for Warrington, North until the last election when the Tories won the seat, has put in a complaint.

It would be egregious if Lord Freud , who appears from the Lords report to have been encouraged by the MPs to write and complain, took the entire blame for this. It also, in my view, would encourage MPs to try and influence the judiciary without facing any penalty. And it smacks of the new chumocracy – one rule to protect the powerful and influential and another for Joe Bloggs.

The MPs of course say they are acting for the public who will be frightened to give character witnesses for convicted criminals if they are to be published.

Mrs Justice Whipple’s deft ruling

But this was shot down by Mrs Justice Whipple in a very deftly worded judgement. She distinguished between the ordinary Joe and public figures in releasing the names and references. Only those who had a public role in society were revealed – keeping to the right to know principle of public interest. As a result we also now know that Jonathan Aitken, a prominent former MP once jailed for perjury and now a vicar provided one . As did prominent local Roman Catholic priest, Father Jeff Cridland; Neil Wiggins, a community non executive director of the Port of Dover; and David Foley, chief executive of the Thanet and East Kent Chamber of Commerce. But we don’t know about 21 private individuals who are not prominent in public life.

Let’s see if anything comes from the sphinx like Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards on this one.

Lords behaving badly: “Value Everyone” compulsory training proposed for all peers next week

Changes proposed after two peers in their 70s and 80s were found to have bullied and sexually harassed women

A new report from the House of Lords says all 798 peers must undergo training courses in ” Valuing People” or face sanctions including the withdrawal of services.

And former MPs who become peers will face fresh investigations by the authorities if they face complaints about bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct while they were a Member of Parliament. At present a loophole means if peers are accused of anything while they were an MP they can escape investigation.

These tough new rules from the House of Lords conduct committee come into force next week if the peers vote for the changes. The full report is here. Members have until next April to complete the training. Those who refuse after that date will be referred to the Commissioner of Standards for breaching the code of conduct.

It is against a background of growing number of complaints about the treatment of staff by both MPs and peers. One former Tory MP and minister is under investigation by the Met Police for alleged rape of a staff member at the moment.

In the last year two Labour peers have been investigated by the Lords Commissioner for Standards, Lucy Scott-Moncrieff  TWICE for breaching standards.

18 complaints

Lord Lea of Crondall, 82, as David Lea, a former TUC assistant general secretary, had two reports whose findings were upheld. Altogether it was revealed that since 2011 no fewer than 18 complaints were made against him.

The report said: “They included one instance involving a racially offensive remark, 15 complaints involving shouting at staff, being aggressive and
making unreasonable demands, and one occasion where a woman had been made to feel uncomfortable by Lord Lea’s alleged behaviour.”

champagne and silver gilt framed photo

The complaint from the woman followed a time she accompanied him on a Parliamentary delegation. According to the report :

” Lord Lea made her very uncomfortable by his behaviour
towards her, which included inviting her to his room to share a bottle of
champagne that he had been given. “

He followed it up later when she had left Parliament for a new job . Then “she received a package from Lord Lea at her place
of work that contained a silver-framed photograph of her taken on the official visit. It also contained a letter from Lord Lea explaining, amongst other things, that he keeps a copy of the photo on his piano at his home. He also invited me to visit him at home and referred to finishing “that bottle of champagne.’’

Lord Lea told the Commissioner: “I think she is egging the pudding in some
way. I can’t think of any reason why she should, if she didn’t have some
feelings for me or some other reason to be disturbed.”

The commissioner decided his behaviour did not amount to sexual misconduct or bullying but harassment.

He agreed to take up voluntary a bespoke behaviour management course but immediately ran into trouble when he forgot to inform the security staff that his coach was coming to Parliament so they could let the person in. He took it out on his staff leading to a fresh complaint of bullying which was upheld.

Lord Lea was asked to apologise to the member of staff :

He wrote: “I am not known for being a bully: I acknowledge having been very argumentative— highly audibly so—on that fateful day, concerning the predicament I found myself in regarding the apparent disappearance of my newly appointed trainer and you said you had felt ‘belittled’ as a consequence.”

Sexist and transphobic remarks

Lord Stone of Blackheath,78, a former managing director of Marks and Spencer, has also TWICE been found by the Commissioner to have breached the code of conduct. Complaints by four women were upheld only to be followed by a complaint from a fifth woman about being harassed.

In the first case it included allegations of sexist and transphobic remarks as well as unwanted touching.

Among several alleged incidents recorded by the Commissioner, he told a colleague that she was beautiful “to boost her self-esteem” and grabbed her arm.

He also allegedly stroked another staff member’s arm and said to her that he hoped a document on the bill to outlaw upskirting came with photos.

The second case involved two more complaints from women. He met one young woman at a dinner party and offered her a private tour of Parliament. She came with her cousin. He told her she was ” young and beautiful”.

“Lord Stone greeted her in an overfamiliar manner, kissing her on both cheeks near her mouth, and repeatedly touched her arms and her waist during the tour and while having tea in one of the House’s restaurants.”

Lord Stone told the commissioner that: “He was “upset by the inference
that [his] behaviour toward… was anything other than to try and assist”.
He accepted that “her account is factually accurate” but insisted that “the
connotations of inappropriate behaviour that she makes are wholly inaccurate and seem to me be the product of her imagination.”

He was found to have broken the code by harassment and has taken a bespoke course in behaviour management.

Labour Party suspension

Both peers have been suspended from the Labour Party. Half the members of the House of Lords have voluntarily attended the course already. The full list is here.

It is an extraordinary situation that in the times we live that such courses are needed, let alone deemed compulsory. One would have thought that people when they join the House of Lords would know that bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct are out of order. But perhaps not.