Good Lord! Why WERE peers like me forced to take an anti-groping course? After receiving a stinging rebuke for failure to attend, LORD HESELTINE argues that ‘behavioural training’ is a waste of time… and taxpayers’ money

Lord Adams is a character in an online video. But I am no less angry about his antics because he’s a fictional caricature, LORD HESELTINE writes

Lord Adams is a lecherous old fool who harasses his staff. He should be evicted from the House of Lords with immediate effect, as a disgrace to Parliament.

Except he isn’t real, of course. Lord Adams is a character in an online video. But I am no less angry about his antics because he’s a fictional caricature.

This imaginary peer features in a series of filmed scenarios which all members of the Lords have been obliged to watch as part of compulsory ‘behavioural training’.

And the reaction of my colleagues in the House has been universal exasperation.

The course, run by the firm Challenge Consultancy, is a patent waste of time. And, at a reported cost of £880,000 for the Commons as well as the Lords, an utterly shocking waste of taxpayers’ money.

My own anger runs even deeper because I was first threatened with censure and investigation for failing to attend a course — about which I knew nothing at the time.

I was one of 60 peers — a list that included Baroness Betty Boothroyd who, at 91, was recovering from heart surgery — who received a letter bristling with threats and heavy-handed language, which left me shocked and truly aggrieved.

I was in hospital when the letter arrived on April 7. Recovering from an operation to furnish me with a new knee, I was frankly in no mood to endure harassment.

The letter stated that I had failed to comply with a resolution of the House that all peers must attend a course on inappropriate behaviour and prejudice.

I racked my brains. This was the first I was hearing of what the letter referred to as ‘Valuing Everyone training’.

I am prepared to accept that the Commissioner’s office did write the three emails it claims to have sent to me and can only imagine they were buried in my secretary’s inbox among the forest of messages I receive every day.

According to the letter, I had missed the deadline of April 1 to complete this training, and so was in breach of the House’s code of conduct. Unless there were ‘extenuating circumstances’, the investigating commissioner would consider restricting my privileges and access to the House.

I was expected to undergo immediate training as ‘remedial action’. I was also invited to respond with a ‘full explanation’.

‘An attempt to obstruct an investigation would be a contempt of the House,’ the letter concluded, signed by the House of Lords Commissioner for Standards, Lucy Scott-Moncrieff.

This was, by any measure, an extraordinarily hectoring letter.

My first thought, given the April 1 deadline, was to wonder if it was some kind of joke — but a phone call to the House of Lords library confirmed that both the resolution and the threats were real.

The decision to oblige every peer to attend the course was taken last November. As the motion was not opposed, it was ratified without a vote. This was during the second lockdown, a time when all normal communications and dialogue between members were suspended. I suspect that almost none of us was ever aware of what was happening.

Pictured: Members of the House of Lords sit in the chamber during the State Opening of Parliament by the Queen, in the House of Lords at the Palace of Westminster on December 19, 2019 in London [file photo]. Lord Adams is an imaginary peer who features in a series of filmed scenarios which all members of the Lords have been obliged to watch as part of compulsory ‘behavioural training’

I called several colleagues, who all said the same thing: ‘Michael, it’s an utter waste of time but it’s really not worth making a fuss. Just do it and get it over with.’

But they had not received the condescending and insulting letter I did. Those threats really did concern me. I was being bullied into taking an anti-bullying course.

This raised serious questions. I am deeply proud to be a member of the Lords, an institution full of distinguished people. There is a rigorous vetting process, as is only right and proper, but once that is done, it is unacceptable in my view to suggest peers should undergo training on their use of language, behaviour and even thought processes.

I don’t dispute there has been the occasional shocking incident involving the odd bad apple, but it would be absurd to suggest such individuals would change their ways as a result of viewing these puerile videos.

It also sets a precedent: what will be the next subject on which our thoughts and actions are trained?

I agreed to do the two-hour course, because there was no choice. Along with others from the House, I logged on to a Zoom session one afternoon. I made it clear I was attending under duress and with one important condition: a journalist friend would be listening in.

This news was met with a shocked silence. I did feel a little sorry for the invigilator — she had no idea how to respond. In the end, she said nothing. She could hardly object. This training was being done in my home, not the Parliament building. I’m free to do as I wish in my own house.

As I’d been forewarned by fellow peers, the training material was pitifully weak. We were shown a series of videos featuring Lord Adams, played by an actor named Antony Gabriel who looked to be in his 50s, and his young female researcher, ‘Jess’.

Lord Adams was the type of man we’d all — male or female — avoid like the plague. Certainly, any young woman would run a mile on sight.

He began by asking Jess to book him theatre tickets. She didn’t know what she should do.

We trainees were asked to give our views on the situation and I said I thought it was perfectly obvious — Jess should tell him straight away that running errands was not her job.

Then she ought to flag up the request to her line manager, so it was on record. This was basic training for new recruits — and certainly not a matter for some of the country’s most experienced legislators.

Pictured: Former deputy Conservative Party Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine, speaks at a Liberal Democrat Party press conference on November 27, 2019 in London [file photo, 2019]

The scenarios became increasingly ridiculous and unpleasant. By the end, Lord Adams had Jess cornered late at night — in a lift, as I recall — making sweaty comments about her dress and her hair.

I felt uncomfortable and insulted that anyone could imagine my fellow peers and I needed guidance about such repulsive behaviour.

We were asked for our reactions. I said that the likes of Lord Adams — and I’ve never encountered such a person in the Lords, by the way — would not change their ways just because they were obliged to sit through a video.

My colleague Lord Cormack stated in the Lords last month that the training course was clearly designed by someone who had no understanding of how we work.

Lord Hamilton agreed, pointing out that the fictional predator was harassing poor Jess in public places, such as the library, where he would be seen and immediately dealt with by other peers.

Lord Howard of Lympne, the former Conservative leader, has expressed his dismay at both the content and cost of the session he had attended.

All this leaves me seriously concerned about the policy and the cost. How is it possible this course was commissioned, and why should it be mandatory? There is an equivalent course for the Commons, but no one is obliged to attend.

How on earth can the package cost £880,000? Who agreed to that fee, and how can it be justified?

Was the commission put out to tender? And if Challenge Consultancy submitted the winning pitch, what on earth were the other bids like?

Finally, what does the Commissioner for Standards, Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, think she is playing at, to send aggressive and threatening letters to peers?

Anyone guilty of the obnoxious behaviour under consideration should be deprived of access to the House. Training courses are no substitute for effective action.

To believe that people who actually indulge in prejudice or bullying or harassment are going to have their behaviour changed by reading a set of platitudes is naive and, to a degree, irresponsible.

This travesty of a training course is a waste of public money. It should be halted immediately.

Lord Heseltine was Deputy Prime Minister, 1995–97

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