All 3 contributions to the Post Office (Horizon System) Compensation Act 2024 (Ministerial Extracts Only)

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Tue 19th Dec 2023
Tue 16th Jan 2024
Post Office (Horizon System) Compensation Bill
Lords Chamber

2nd reading & Committee negatived & 3rd reading

Post Office (Horizon System) Compensation Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

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This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Post Office (Horizon System) Compensation Act 2024 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business and Trade (Kevin Hollinrake)
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Post Office Horizon scandal, which began over 20 years ago, and the impacts of which are still felt today, is rightly described as one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in our history. The House will be aware that during the late 1990s the Post Office began installing Horizon accounting software, but faults in the software led to shortfalls in branches’ accounts. The Post Office demanded that postmasters cover the shortfalls and, in many cases, wrongfully prosecuted them for false accounting or theft. Attempts to protest their innocence fell on deaf ears, and decent, honest and hard-working postmasters who served at the heart of our communities were subject to a range of abject harms.

Take the case of Alan Bates, who is one of a number of heroes in this tale. As many Members will know, Mr Bates is due to be immortalised on our screens on 1 January in the ITV series “Mr Bates vs The Post Office”, which will make compelling viewing for many of us. He is an innocent man who, alongside his partner Suzanne, invested £100,000 of life savings to start a new life and run the post office branch in Craig-y-Don, on the north Wales coast. When shortfalls began to emerge, Mr Bates was accused by the Post Office of mismanagement and ordered to repay the difference immediately. He protested his innocence and identified some of the supposed shortfall as the result of an overnight software update. The Post Office continued to pursue payment, meanwhile refusing Mr Bates the IT access necessary to interrogate his own branch accounts. His postmaster’s contract was subsequently terminated, with Mr Bates losing his likelihood, savings and reputation in his community in the process.

Suspecting that other postmasters may have suffered because of Horizon issues, Mr Bates launched his campaign website. Ultimately—15 years later—he gathered enough evidence to successfully take the Post Office to court and expose the scandal.

Alan Mak Portrait Alan Mak (Havant) (Con)
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Like Mr Bates, my constituents Mr and Mrs Simpson ran a village shop and post office that suffered from the faulty software. They have campaigned for compensation through the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance, and Mr Simpson himself gave evidence at the public inquiry. Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to my constituents and their colleagues? Without their determination and courage, we would not be where we are today, delivering this Bill to support those victims.

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Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I particularly thank Mr and Mrs Simpson for their work—of course, a number of people campaigned so strongly on this tragedy. I pay tribute to his constituents and to many others like them who made sure we are here today, delivering justice and, indeed, compensation for those postmasters.

Alan Bates’s case is one individual tragedy, but he is only one among many: over 3,000 people have suffered in some way as a result of this scandal. For some, that meant paying the Post Office money they did not owe. For others, it meant the loss of their livelihood, their home, their mental or physical health, or their family relationships. Too many have died before getting justice; saddest of all, some of those deaths were suicides. Each Horizon victim is a personal tragedy, and it is imperative that each and every one gets the justice and compensation for which they have waited too long.

This Government are committed to delivering justice for all Horizon victims. Part of that justice will come from making sure that everyone knows the truth about what happened, which is why the Government set up the statutory inquiry into the scandal chaired by Sir Wyn Williams. The work of that inquiry to date is commendable—it is doing important work in exposing the truth. From that truth will follow corporate and individual accountability, for which there is a strong appetite in this House and beyond. I sympathise with hon. Members’ desire to see accountability right now, but we must let justice take its course.

David Davis Portrait Mr David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con)
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On the Minister’s point about corporate responsibility, I had the chief executive of the Post Office come and apologise to one of the people I have represented in this exercise. The point I made to him, which I hope the Minister will also take on board, is that the corporate behaviour of the Post Office has not been above criticism: it has employed very expensive lawyers to make this process much more difficult for the victims than it needs to be. I hope the Government will continue to encourage the Post Office not to do that.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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Absolutely—we want to make it as easy as possible. I thank my right hon. Friend for his campaigning on this matter, too: he is one of a number of parliamentarians who has done fantastic work to make sure we are here today. I have referred to both corporate and individual responsibility. Corporate accountability is not enough: where we find that individuals are to blame, they should be held to account too.

Any compensation must be fair and just, and we have created a Horizon compensation advisory board to help us make sure that happens. I am very grateful to the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), both for his campaigning on this matter and his work on the advisory board. He sits on the board alongside Lord Arbuthnot, who is another great campaigner on this matter, and two academics. Its reports, which are published on gov.uk, have been invaluable in helping us ensure that the schemes are working properly and delivering fairness. As part of the Post Office’s process for compensation for overturned convictions, it is —by agreement with claimants’ lawyers—appointing an independent assessor for the process, whose role will be to ensure that fair compensation is paid.

Duncan Baker Portrait Duncan Baker (North Norfolk) (Con)
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The Minister is right when he says that this is a miscarriage of justice. As I have often said in this place, I was formerly a postmaster, and I can remember when the tills did not balance. Unlike the Post Office, I believed my staff that it was not their fault—that there was an error. Luckily, those errors were not significant, and we just wrote them off. I thank the Minister for all he has done, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), who has equally done an enormous amount.

The Post Office did not believe those innocent postmasters who were simply doing their job, but equally, Fujitsu supplied the software that did not work properly, yet I never hear about whether that company is culpable. Can the Minister tell me what Fujitsu has ever had to suffer from what has happened to everybody else?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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I thank my hon. Friend for his work on this issue, as well as his direct experience—he is one of the few people in this House who has that experience. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) for all the work he did as my predecessor; his comments about Fujitsu, and about making sure that it is not the taxpayer alone who picks up the tab, are clearly on the record. Again, where responsibility can be assigned, there should be accountability, perhaps in the form of compensation paid by those companies. It is right, though, that the Sir Wyn Williams inquiry is allowed to take the time it needs to report and to identify blame where it exists. Those matters can then be dealt with at that time.

Alongside introducing this Bill, my Department published a revised version of the documents for the group litigation order scheme, which make clearer than ever that the scheme exists to pay full, fair and timely compensation. If compensation cannot be agreed with my Department, a decision will be made by a panel of independent experts. Any GLO postmaster who believes that the panel’s award fails that fairness test can ask the scheme’s independent reviewer, Sir Ross Cranston, to look at their case. Between them, those arrangements provide powerful and independent assurance that compensation is fair.

Turning to compensation amounts, to date, around £138 million has been paid out to over 2,700 claimants across the three compensation schemes established by the Post Office and the Government. Those figures are regularly updated on the dedicated gov.uk page. So far, 93 convictions have been overturned. We have seen positive progress since my previous statement to the House on 18 September, which announced that postmasters who have had convictions on the basis of Horizon evidence overturned are entitled to up-front offers of £600,000 as a fixed sum in full and final settlement of their claim. I can confirm that following that announcement, the first 22 claimants have now settled their claims with the Post Office, taking the total to 27 full and final settlements—I hope this will encourage other postmasters to submit claims. I should add that a significant proportion of those claimants followed the fixed sum award route.

The GLO scheme, administered by my Department for the 500 trailblazing postmasters who took the Post Office to court and exposed the Horizon scandal, has already paid out roughly £27 million across 475 claimants. Postmasters who were neither convicted nor members of the GLO can apply to the Post Office-run Horizon shortfall scheme. I am pleased to say that every last one of the 2,417 people who applied before the scheme’s original deadline have now received initial offers of compensation, and some £87 million has been paid out. The Post Office is now dealing with late applications and with those cases where the initial offer was not accepted.

I turn now to the provisions of the Bill before us. The Post Office (Horizon System) Compensation Bill, a small Bill of just two clauses, provides a continuing legal basis for the payments of compensation to victims of this appalling scandal. Principally, it will enable the Government to continue to pay compensation under the GLO scheme that my Department is currently administering. Compensation payments made under the scheme are currently paid under the sole authority of the successive Appropriation Acts, and Parliament requires all such payments to be made within a two-year period. The first payment of interim compensation was made on 8 August 2022, meaning that, with the law as it stands, no GLO payments can be made beyond 7 August 2024. This Bill removes that deadline.

This certainly does not mean we are taking our foot off the gas. We will still want to be able to pay compensation as quickly as possible. My Department is now committed to making an initial offer of compensation in 90% of cases within 40 working days of receiving a fully completed GLO claim, and many claims will be dealt with much more quickly. However, as Sir Wyn Williams has noted, the resolution of compensation claims requires actions by postmasters, their advisers and third parties, as well as by the Government.

In his interim report, which he provided to Parliament in July, Sir Wyn expressed concern that the August deadline could leave some postmasters timed out of compensation or rushed into making decisions. The Government agree that this must not happen, and the Bill ensures that it will not happen. All GLO postmasters will get full and fair compensation, and they will get it promptly without being unduly rushed.

In conclusion, until everyone has fair compensation, the truth is known and the guilty are held accountable, Members of this House and others will rightly continue to raise issues about this scandal. In the meantime, the House should know that this Government are on the side of the postmasters, and we will continue to give these issues our full attention and do our best to resolve them. This Bill is a further example of that, and I commend it to the House.

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Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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With the leave of the House, it is a pleasure to conclude this debate. We have heard insightful contributions from right hon. and hon. Members across the House, many of whom have championed this cause and campaigned for justice on behalf of postmasters for many years. I pay particular tribute to the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan), the hon. Members for Jarrow (Kate Osborne), for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) and for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) and others, who have demonstrated the best of cross-party campaigning in the interests of those affected by this scandal.

I have addressed the House many times on the subject of the Post Office Horizon scandal, both as a Back Bencher and now as the responsible Minister, and I want to respond to the specific points raised in the debate. The shadow Minister who opened the debate, the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali), rightly talked about further delays. I want to stress that this is not about further delays, but about preventing an arbitrary date being set, so that people whose claim has not been submitted or is not at the stage where it has been completed or settled can still get compensation.

I say to the other shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), as I said in my earlier remarks, that the commitment is that we will get 90% of offers out in 40 working days. We are doing a number of things to expedite settlements and accepted claims, not least the fixed-sum award for overturned convictions. She asked about the number of people who have taken that route. For confidentiality reasons, we do not think it is right to state the actual number, but it is a significant proportion, so certainly it is a route that many people think is the right one for them to take. Obviously that is a matter for the individual, and claimants can pursue the standard full assessment process if they feel that is their best option.

Not everything is within our gift, and that is one of the frustrations that we have, because these claims can be complex and require legal input from the claimant’s side. It can take time for the claims to be compiled before they are submitted. That is one of the reasons why we think it is right to delay the long-stop date of 7 August next year.

The hon. Member for Croydon Central asked about the resources and about how we will expedite the settlements. She may be aware that we have recently committed to additional resources for the Post Office. Part of that is to increase the resources committed towards the inquiry, but another part is committed to compensation. We think all the resources are there to get this money paid out within the timeframes we have set out.

I pay tribute again to my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) for all of the work he did on this scheme. It is perhaps a little bit ironic that I used to push him from the Back Benches and now he is pushing me from the Back Benches on a similar issue. He is a very sad loss to the Front Benches in this House; he did a fantastic job and he speaks with great authority on this subject. As he says, the best work he did in the Department he attributes to this particular area, so I thank him for all he has done.

My hon. Friend asks whether we need to extend this the long-stop date and why. It is very much a long-stop position. We want to get the payments out before 7 August but, as Sir Wyn Williams advised, this is the right thing to do. My hon. Friend also asked whether, if we were to start again, which I do not think is the right thing to do, we would do things in this way, with three different compensation schemes. I think Sir Wyn Williams said something very similar: we would not do it like that, but all together in one single scheme. However, we are not there and it is right to push ahead now with the work we are doing in this form.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is not in his place, said that we need to go faster, not slower. We are not going slower; we are going faster, and that is what we are keen to do. The same issue was raised by the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), who rightly pushed us to make sure we are delivering this at pace. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam also talked about doing things at pace; “pace” is a word I use a lot in my Department—my officials will probably support that remark—so I totally agree with him. If I may say so, I think the pace in a Department should be dictated by Ministers, so it is my responsibility to make sure that the schemes are delivered at pace.

My hon. Friend wished the House a merry Christmas; I am pleased, and I think we should all be pleased, that 27 families have had convictions overturned and may be able to enjoy their Christmas a little bit more than previous Christmases. Their ability not only to receive compensation, but to move on and move away from some of the trials and tribulations that they have faced in getting compensation and getting justice, is welcomed by everyone in the House.

As always, I thank the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw for the work she does on the all-party parliamentary group on post offices. She pointed out the very significant value that post offices have in communities. I could not agree with her more that the disclosure areas were unacceptable. That should not have happened and we made that very clear to Post Office management. I agree with her entirely on Fujitsu. Anybody who is shown to be responsible for the scandal should be held accountable, and that may also include compensation. We have stated that on the Floor of the House on a number of occasions. She refers to senior executives in terms of the inquiry sub-metric, having repaid bonuses voluntarily. Those are not something we would want to see in future. I also agree with her and others, including the right hon. Member for North Durham, about some of the people who have been instrumental in this matter outside this House. She referred to Dan Neidle. Nick Wallis, Karl Flinders and Tom Witherow have also been important contributors in ensuring that sub-postmasters get the justice they deserve.

I thank the right hon. Member for North Durham again for all his work and for his work on the advisory board. He talks about a sword of Damocles and is right to say that we are removing it. He speaks very movingly about Tom Brown and what happened to him: the indignity of having his home searched, hardship, bankruptcy, the impact on his family, and his reputation in the community. All were intolerable situations. He sadly passed away prior to receiving compensation. In my constituency, Sam Harrison, a sub-postmaster in Nawton, near Helmsley, went through a similar set of circumstances, certainly in relation to financial difficulty. She sadly passed away earlier this year without receiving compensation. There is a huge human cost, as well as a financial cost. I talked to the advisory board about potential counselling that might be made available to sub-postmasters. We also talked about restorative justice. Sir Wyn Williams has referred to that and it is something we are keen to look at.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned a predecessor to the Horizon scheme in the north-east. If we are on the same page, I understand that was a pilot scheme for Horizon, so we are confident that our current compensation schemes can deliver outcomes and compensation for the individuals he refers to, but if he does not agree with that I am very happy to have a conversation with him.

Kevan Jones Portrait Mr Kevan Jones
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That is welcome, but I think the Minister knows my views on the advisory board. We need to try to find out exactly how many people were prosecuted and in what circumstances. It shocked me, and I think the Minister too, that even with all the publicity about Horizon, no one actually said, “By the way, we had this scheme.” If it had not come out in the inquiry, or I had not intervened to see that individual in the north-east, would it just have been forgotten about?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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Those people will not be forgotten about. I am very happy to work with the right hon. Gentleman and the advisory board on any matter he raises with me. I think we are very like-minded on all the issues he has brought to us so far and we are keen to deliver solutions where we think they are required. I agree with him about Sir Ross Cranston. I worked with Sir Ross from the Back Benches. He came in with the review of the Lloyds-HBOS scheme and did a fantastic job. I also agree with him on holding individuals to account. Whether it be Lloyds, HBOS or Post Office Ltd, I do not think we will ever stop these things happening until we hold individuals to account. He talked about Paula Vennells’ CBE. I think Sir Tom Scholar, the head of the relevant body on the forfeiture of honours, has said that we need to wait until the end of the inquiry to consider that, but it should certainly be looked at. I completely associate myself with the comments of the right hon. Gentleman’s former constituent Tom Brown in relation to holding people to account.

In response to the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones), yes we are allowing ourselves extra timescales but we do not want to use them. On the Christmas deadline, I think we are on the same page on this. It was Christmas this year for the Horizon shortfall scheme. We have now delivered offers to 100% of those people who have applied through that scheme, which meets our objective. Nevertheless, many of those cases are complex and not everything is in our gift to ensure that claims are put in promptly so that they can be dealt with quickly.

I thank the right hon. Member for East Antrim for his kind words. I commit absolutely to giving regular updates to the House. I am very happy to come to speak to hon. Members about this, both on the Floor of the House and by other means. There are regular updates about compensation payments on the gov.uk website. I agree entirely with him about accountability and the need to ensure that the guilty are held responsible. He is right to say we will be rigorous with anybody who is shown to be guilty, including at Fujitsu. He is also right to say that there are some things associated with a tremendous scandal that we can never compensate people for. That is why we are here, keen to deliver a final resolution to these problems.

My Department and I continue to work hard to ensure that those affected by the Horizon scandal receive the full and fair compensation that they are owed. The Bill is just part of the action that the Government are taking to defend the interests of postmasters. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Committee of the whole House (Order, this day).

Further proceedings on the Bill stood postponed (Order, this day).

Post Office (Horizon System) Compensation Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

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Committee of the whole House
Tuesday 19th December 2023

(4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Post Office (Horizon System) Compensation Act 2024 Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Committee of the whole House Amendments as at 19 December 2023 - (19 Dec 2023)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Post Office (Horizon System) Compensation Act 2024 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business and Trade (Kevin Hollinrake)
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you, Chair Nige—el.

We had a useful Second Reading debate. I am grateful for the constructive contributions from Members across the House. I welcome the chance for a more detailed examination of the Bill in this Committee of the whole House.

Clause 1 provides the continuing legal basis to pay compensation to members of the group litigation order scheme beyond the current deadline of 7 August 2024. As we have discussed, that is the deadline by which the Government aim to have concluded compensation payments to GLO members, but that power removes any doubt as to our ability to fund compensation beyond that date should it prove necessary.

Clause 1 does that by empowering the Secretary of State to make payments

“under, or in connection with, schemes or other arrangements—

(a) to compensate persons affected by the Horizon system;

(b) to compensate persons in respect of other matters identified in High Court judgments given in proceedings relating to the Horizon system.”

That definition provides additional flexibility beyond the specific GLO scheme to facilitate compensation payments related to Horizon should it ever be required in future.

Clause 2 sets out the short title of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

New Clause 1

Eligibility of Potential Claimants

“The Secretary of State must amend the schemes to which this Act applies to ensure that—

(a) all persons affected by the Horizon system who have had their convictions quashed are compensated on the same basis, regardless of the rationale of the decision to quash the conviction; and

(b) all persons affected by the Horizon system with extant convictions relating to the Horizon system are compensated on the same basis as those claimants with quashed convictions, with the exception of those claimants whose convictions were based on clear, compelling and corroborated evidence.”—(Mr Kevan Jones.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Kevan Jones Portrait Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab)
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I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I rise to speak to new clause 1, which stands in my name and those of the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), the right hon. Members for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) and for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), and my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne). The clause would do two things: first, it would provide that all those with overturned convictions would receive compensation on the same basis, including the so-called public interest cases. Secondly, it would provide for all those with convictions that have not been overturned to receive compensation on the same basis as those with overturned convictions. I will deal with both issues in turn.

Reference has already been made to the number of overturned convictions that have gone through the Court of Appeal. Lord Arbuthnot and I approached the criminal cases review body about 10 years ago to highlight the injustice of these cases. In 2020, the Criminal Cases Review Commission started referring cases to the courts to overturn the convictions—the number of Post Office Horizon cases sent back to the courts has already made this the most widespread miscarriage of justice seen by the CCRC. Many of those cases have been described in quite a lot of detail today, with individuals such as pregnant women and others being sent to prison, including individuals who have since had their convictions overturned.

In April 2021, 39 former sub-postmasters had their convictions quashed by the Court of Appeal. The court concluded that the Post Office should not have prosecuted them in the first place, and found the Post Office’s conduct to be

“an affront to the conscience of the court”.

What has subsequently come out in the inquiry makes me wonder how on earth some of these people slept at night, knowing what they knew at the time while pursuing those individuals in court. Earlier, I made reference to Paula Vennells, who I understand is also an ordained Church of England priest—she clearly did not extend her godliness and forgiveness to those who were clearly innocent, but who she was quite content to see prosecuted. As far back as 2011, if not earlier, she knew that the Post Office system was not infallible, as other things possibly are in biblical spheres.

As the right hon. Member for East Antrim said, the idea that we suddenly had a huge influx of kleptomaniacs working for the Post Office—that all these individuals were somehow guilty—was absurd. It should have rung alarm bells, but it did not. The Post Office went on regardless. Not only did it pursue people and take them through the courts, but it took individuals such as Tom Brown to court and then, at the last minute, supplied no evidence, having already ruined those people’s reputations and lives.

As has been said, 93 individuals have had their convictions overturned so far, but there are many more people whose convictions remain unchallenged. We have had some debate on the advisory board about the numbers—I think the figure for the Post Office is about 700, but another 200-odd cases relating to Horizon issues were prosecuted by other bodies, including the Department for Work and Pensions. It worries me that only 93 of the 700 Post Office cases have been overturned.

Some people might ask, “Why haven’t these individuals come forward?” Having met many of them—those who have had their convictions overturned, or other victims of the sub-postmasters injustice—I think that they just want to close this chapter of their lives. They are not going to go anywhere near a court, and in some cases they have passed away. However, I urge anyone who was prosecuted to please try to come forward, although I know how difficult that is for some individuals. It is to the credit of the Minister and the Department that they have tried to reach out to some of these people but, as I say, having met them, I know that is not very easy.

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Rushanara Ali Portrait Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab)
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I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) for speaking powerfully to new clause 1. As the Minister heard, he raised the important point that 93 convictions have already been overturned, and there are hundreds of other people who just do not have the bandwidth to face the trauma of having to go through the legal process. It is imperative that the Government ensure that we get ahead of this issue and do not have to come back to the House to consider how we support that group of people who do not have the appropriate compensation programme in place. I encourage the Minister to consider the new clause seriously, and to work with us to ensure that we address the issues that that group of sub-postmasters face.

As my right hon. Friend pointed out, many of those sub-postmasters’ convictions were not built on sound evidence, and they were based on guilty pleas that they were advised to offer to reduce the sentences put before them for false reasons. As he also pointed out, we saw the spectre of the Post Office spending £100 million of public money—taxpayers’ money—to go after those sub-postmasters and cause the injustice that we are now trying to correct. It is therefore crucial that those who do not want to go through a legal process, because of the trauma they have faced, have the support of the Government in dealing with this issue separately through the Department’s work. My right hon. Friend is involved in that, working with the Minister, his officials and my party.

The new clause would ensure that the victims of all Horizon-related convictions that have not been quashed were entitled to compensation on the same basis, as has been pointed out. My right hon. Friend is not pressing the new clause to a vote, but I hope the Minister takes it seriously. I know that when he was on the Back Benches, he was a powerful campaigner on not only this issue but many others. As he is in a position of power, we look to him to make sure that the hundreds of others in this position are properly supported and protected, and that they do not face the double jeopardy of being victims without the compensation that the vast majority of them rightly deserve.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) for his new clause on the eligibility of convicted claimants to access compensation. Eligibility for compensation currently depends on a conviction being overturned. Appeals against convictions in a magistrates court go to the Crown court, where a retrial of the original offence is held. When deciding whether to oppose an appeal in the Crown court, the prosecution must apply the relevant test in the code for Crown prosecutors. That test has two parts. First, the evidence must be such that there is a realistic prospect of conviction. In some cases, that test is met because a prosecution concludes that Horizon evidence was not essential to the case. In those cases, the prosecution must consider the second test, which is whether it is in the public interest to hold a retrial. Retrying someone for an offence allegedly committed years ago, for which they have already been punished, would be harsh. In such cases, the convictions are quashed on public interest, rather than on evidential grounds. Those cases differ from those where Horizon evidence was essential to the prosecution and an appeal is conceded by the Post Office.

In response to the right hon. Gentleman’s point about guilty pleas, there are cases where convictions have been made upon Horizon grounds where there were guilty pleas, but those have now been overturned. A guilty plea is not a barrier in itself. Notwithstanding that, it is open to claimants to submit a claim to the Post Office compensation scheme.

I recognise the concerns expressed by many about how the Post Office appears to have discharged its prosecutorial powers. Accordingly, we should remain open to considering any new evidence on liability in relation to these specific public interest cases. The right hon. Gentleman’s new clause refers to the payment of compensation to people with convictions. He is right to say that to date the courts have only overturned 93 cases, which is a small fraction of the more than 900 convictions prosecuted by Post Office and non-Post Office prosecutors during the time that Horizon was active that therefore could be unsafe.

I note that in addition to the work of the Criminal Cases Review Commission, the Post Office has adopted a more proactive approach to encouraging appeals by conducting a review of cases that have not yet been appealed. Independent counsel instructed by the Post Office will review cases to determine whether it already holds sufficient material to reach a view as to whether an individual’s case could be conceded, were an appeal to be brought. Where the Post Office identifies such cases, it will write to the postmaster to notify them that it would not oppose any future appeal based on the information it currently holds and to set out what to do next to initiate an appeal. I strongly share the advisory board’s desire to see more innocent postmasters receive compensation.

The right hon. Gentleman set out the letter that the advisory board recently sent to the Justice Secretary, and I completely understand the reluctance of postmasters to come forward to appeal their convictions. It must be very hard to trust authority when it is authority that has let them down for decades.

Some of the evidence given to the Williams inquiry about the way prosecutions were handled by Post Office is horrifying. There are obvious implications for the safety of prosecutions, and the way disclosures seem to have been handled meant that defence lawyers were inevitably fighting a losing battle. When a postmaster does get to the Court of Appeal, the onus is on them to show that their conviction is unsafe. I recognise all the difficulties that that burden of proof causes, especially with the passage of time leading to evidence being lost or destroyed. It does not seem right that these people face an uphill battle to clear their names.

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Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

It is a great pleasure to be speaking on Third Reading. As we have heard this afternoon, this small but important Bill will ensure that victims of the Horizon scandal, who have suffered over a period of more than 20 years, are not timed out on their rightful compensation because of an arbitrary deadline.

This Government have responded to the concerns of campaigners and of the statutory inquiry under Sir Wyn Williams, which recommended this legislative action in its interim report in July. The Government will continue to ensure that GLO scheme members are compensated as quickly as possible, and our intention remains that this should be done by next August. However, this Bill will ensure that those entitled to compensation, who have waited too long for justice, are not rushed or bounced into making a decision on final settlements, which should be full and fair.

May I thank Opposition Members and the usual channels for enabling swift consideration of the Bill? I thank the House authorities, parliamentary staff, the Clerks, the doorkeepers, and Members of different parties who have participated in today’s debates. I also thank my officials in the Department, who have worked hard to prepare and deliver this Bill at pace while continuing to run the GLO scheme.

The Bill is a further demonstration of the action that the Government are taking to address the wrongs of the past and to demonstrate that we are firmly on the side of postmasters. I commend it to the House.

Post Office (Horizon System) Compensation Bill

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

Read Full debate
2nd reading & Committee negatived & 3rd reading
Tuesday 16th January 2024

(3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Post Office (Horizon System) Compensation Act 2024 Read Hansard Text Amendment Paper: Committee of the whole House Amendments as at 19 December 2023 - (19 Dec 2023)

This text is a record of ministerial contributions to a debate held as part of the Post Office (Horizon System) Compensation Act 2024 passage through Parliament.

In 1993, the House of Lords Pepper vs. Hart decision provided that statements made by Government Ministers may be taken as illustrative of legislative intent as to the interpretation of law.

This extract highlights statements made by Government Ministers along with contextual remarks by other members. The full debate can be read here

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Moved by
Lord Offord of Garvel Portrait Lord Offord of Garvel
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That the Bill be now read a second time.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business and Trade and Scotland Office (Lord Offord of Garvel) (Con): My Lords, we had positive debates last week in relation to the Post Office Horizon scandal, in what proved to be a watershed moment in this appalling scandal’s story. I was pleased to be able to update the House in reply to the Oral Question from the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and through my Urgent Question repeat.

As noble Lords are aware, last Wednesday, the Prime Minister announced that the Government will bring forward legislation to overturn the convictions of all those convicted on the basis of Post Office evidence during the Horizon scandal. We discussed this in your Lordships’ House last week and I have since written to noble Lords setting this out in more detail. The Government will continue to keep noble Lords informed as progress is made on the new legislation over the coming weeks.

The Post Office (Horizon System) Compensation Bill is a small Bill of just two clauses, which will provide a continuing legal basis for the payments of compensation to victims of this appalling scandal, specifically in this case the trail-blazing members of the group litigation order, or GLO, who took on the Post Office all the way to the High Court and exposed the Horizon scandal.

Compensation payments made under the GLO scheme are currently paid under the sole authority of successive Appropriation Acts. Parliament requires all such payments to be made within a two-year period. The first payment of interim compensation was made on 8 August 2022, meaning that with the law as it stands, no GLO payments can be made beyond 7 August 2024. This Bill removes that deadline.

Let me be clear on this point. This does not mean we are taking our foot off the gas. We still want to pay compensation as quickly as possible. My department is now committed to making an initial offer of compensation in 90% of cases within 40 working days of receiving a fully completed GLO claim, and many claims can be dealt with much more quickly.

However, as Sir Wyn Williams, chair of the independent statutory inquiry, noted, the resolution of compensation claims requires action by postmasters, their advisers and third parties, as well as the Government. In his interim report provided to Parliament in July, Sir Wyn expressed concern that the August 2024 deadline could leave some postmasters timed out of compensation or rushed into making decisions. The Government have agreed that that must not happen, and the Bill ensures that it will not happen. All GLO postmasters will get full and fair compensation; they will get it promptly, but without being unduly rushed.

Good progress has been made in paying compensation to GLO members and those in the other two compensation schemes. As of 11 January 2024, approximately £153 million had been paid to over 2,700 claimants across the three schemes. Noble Lords and the public can rightly continue to hold the Government to account on this important issue of compensation. Figures relating to the number of claims received and processed, and the compensation issued, are updated each month on the dedicated GOV.UK page.

The Government are hopeful that the announcement of an upfront offer of £75,000 that we made last week will save those affected having to go through a full assessment. This will not only allow the department to focus its resources on the larger cases but will allow the claimants’ lawyers to do the same. The pace at which we can get claims into the scheme is the key constraint on how quickly we can settle them. The upfront offer is smaller for the GLO scheme than for the overturned convictions because the claims tend to be smaller. We estimate that perhaps a third of GLO claimants may want to consider this route.

I turn now to the other pressing matter of truth and accountability. The cases of Alan Bates, Jo Hamilton, Lee Castleton, Lisa Castleton, Saman Kaur, Noel Thomas, Michael Rudkin and Pam Stubbs—to name just a few of the more than 3,000 people who have suffered in some way as a result of his appalling scandal—have been powerfully played out in the gripping ITV drama “Mr Bates vs The Post Office”. Naturally, it has drawn much greater public attention to the issue than before. I am pleased to see a much wider awareness of the scandal among the public. The Government previously set up the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry in 2020 and have provided compensation funding since 2021, but there is no question that the TV drama has brought the issue to the forefront of the nation’s attention.

For those portrayed in the drama and many others, it meant paying the Post Office money that they did not owe. For others, it meant the loss of their livelihood, home, mental or physical health, or family relationships. Too many have died before getting justice. Saddest of all, some of those deaths were suicides prompted by the scandal. Each Horizon victim is a personal tragedy. It is imperative that each and every person gets the justice and compensation that they have waited far too long for.

This Government are committed to delivering justice for all Horizon victims. Part of that justice will come from making sure that everyone knows the truth about what happened. That is why the Government set up the statutory inquiry into the scandal, chaired by Sir Wyn Williams. The work of the inquiry to date is commendable; it is doing great work in exposing that truth.

From that truth will follow corporate and individual accountability; I know that there is a strong appetite for that in this House and beyond. I sympathise with noble Lords’ desire to see accountability right now, but finding people guilty without looking at all the evidence is how we got into this mess. It is how postmasters were prosecuted without proper disclosure. We must not commit the same mistake when it comes to holding people accountable for the scandal, however tempting that might be.

In conclusion, until everyone has fair compensation, the truth is known and the guilty are held accountable, noble Lords in this House and others will rightly continue to raise issues about this scandal. I assure your Lordships’ House that this Government are on the side of the postmasters, and we will continue to give these issues our full attention and do our best to resolve them. The Bill is a further example of that, and I commend it to the House.

--- Later in debate ---
Lord Offord of Garvel Portrait Lord Offord of Garvel (Con)
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My Lords, it is with great responsibility that I stand to conclude what has been a respectful debate. We have heard many insightful and personal contributions from noble Lords across this House. I particularly echo the numerous and heartfelt tributes paid to my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot, who has been a long-time champion of those affected by the Horizon scandal. A key part of this is that the noble Lord, plus Kevan Jones MP in the other place, are members of the Liaison Committee, where my colleague Minister Hollinrake is dealing directly with them on a daily basis. That is an important part of the architecture of this, and something that the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses have expressed confidence in. Again, that is a great tribute to my noble friend.

I will start by picking up on the remarks of my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot. Yes, this will be a simple piece of legislation, but it will encompass the question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, who asked whether this will be a blanket exoneration. The answer is yes: this is a blanket exoneration to be given to the sub-postmasters—those who have had convictions —and speedy compensation will be given to all on the basis that, as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, these folks are presumed innocent rather than guilty. So I can start by saying that this Bill exactly achieves what my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot was going to be pitching for; that has been delivered with the support of the Prime Minister and Minister Hollinrake.

In terms of speed of compensation, I reassure the House that our plan is to keep going, not to go more slowly. The delay here is not a delay of time: it is just allowing the due process to move through. Alongside the Bill, we have made a commitment to make offers on 90% of cases within 40 working days of receiving the GLO application, and we will publish monthly updates about the number of cases submitted and settled. In fact, to answer the question raised by my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot, it is actually the Government’s aim not to require a technical extension. The aim of the Government is to actually have this compensation made by 7 August, within the original timetable. Technically, that is not entirely within the Government’s gift because, clearly, claimants are underrepresented and need to give some evidence on their claims. They want each of their claims to be assessed on an individual basis, which is the right thing to do, and that is often not a simple process. They are telling us that it takes time, and they are saying that they want sufficient time to bring in their claim.

There are a number of folks who are affected but do not want to do that, which is why we are giving them the opportunity to go straight to up-front compensation within the GLO scheme. If you are just done with lawyers and completely scunnered by the process, and you feel that you want to take the £75,000, those who choose that route can take that straight up front and therefore get away from the lengthy claims process. We want to ensure that no one is timed out of compensation or rushed into making decisions. That is what the statutory inquiry, chaired by Sir Wyn Williams, has recommended, and we have taken action to address that.

I will turn now to a number of the points raised in the House this evening by noble Lords. The key objective of this Bill is that we have redress—that is a very good word that we should be using; compensation is compensation, but is it not the idea that we have to provide restitution for people have been wronged, to put them back in the position that they were in before?

The noble Lords, Lord Browne and Lord Sikka, and a number of other noble Lords, mentioned some of the paltry sums that have been quoted in terms of individual claims. In fact, when one looks at the overall Horizon shortfall scheme—the main HSS scheme, which is for those 2,500 claims for people who were not convicted—the average on that is £42,000 per sub-postmaster. That gives you an indication that there is quite a wide range of claims. It is quite right that there is not one single number for everybody, because each claim needs to be assessed on its merits. That gives some context to the £75,000 being offered to the GLO claimants who consider that they have a further claim to process.

Then, in the hierarchy of compensation, for those 983 people who have been wrongly convicted, of whom 95 have had their wrongful convictions overturned, there is an immediate ability to claim £600,000—again, without access to lawyers and without having to go through any process. That is your right as a claimant to take that. Again, however, if you feel that you deserve and should be compensated for more than that figure, there is no limit. There is no upper limit—to answer the noble Lord, Lord Sikka—to what can be claimed.

We are dealing with a cohort of individuals who, as my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot mentioned, are quite traumatised by this process. They watched the first GLO court action being successful and three-quarters of the money going to the lawyers, the claim administrators or the investors in the litigation, so there is deep scepticism within this cohort and community about the process being run.

Again, to answer the question from the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, the GLO scheme is being run by DBT, not the Post Office. The Post Office is running the Horizon scheme. Therefore, that is crucially where the advisory committee comes into play to make sure that there is a clear, independent voice for those who are feeling uncomfortable with that. In terms of the overturned convictions, the retired High Court judge Sir Gary Hickinbottom has been placed in to make sure that claimants feel they have an independent person to refer to.

I think in terms of process and redress the Government are making steps now to go fast, but it is up to each claimant to work out the process they want to go through. It is not right for me to comment on individual cases, but obviously the most egregious example given in the drama was that of Lee Castleton. I think his claim was about £26,000 but he ended up with a £320,000 bill. Again, I am not commenting on that case, but it does inform the £600,000 that can be claimed immediately against a case such as that. Indeed, if he felt he wanted to take that further, he could do that. That is a private matter for him.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Portrait Lord Forsyth of Drumlean (Con)
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I know my noble friend the Minister does not want to comment on the particular case of Lee Castleton, but the point I was making about him was there were £325,000 of court costs. First, normally when you win you do not pay costs. The effect of saying that he is not guilty surely means that those costs should be returned. That has nothing to do with the compensation that is paid to him. So will costs be remitted? That is the key point. Secondly, in respect of that case, what do the Government mean when they say that things should be restored to where they would have been had this not happened? What does that mean because £600,000 is an arbitrary number? Some people lost their business, their house and their position. How will that principle, which I think is greatly to the Government’s credit, be delivered?

Lord Offord of Garvel Portrait Lord Offord of Garvel (Con)
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I commend my colleague the Postal Minister Mr Hollinrake for pushing through hard on the £600,000 because it is not for us to judge what any individual has lost; it is up to that individual claimant to make the decision about whether they want to go through the due legal process. The word “compensation” has perhaps been misapplied here. What we are actually talking about is a monetary sum to be given back which gives redress to individuals. In any particular case—for example, the case of Lee Castleton—it may well be that one can actually identify separate buckets, one of which might in fact be court costs be repaid, but within the overall settlement there will be an amount which should take account of all losses. If you have paid for someone else’s legal fees, that is a loss which needs to be repaid, so this will be tied up within each individual claim, the point being that if you do not as a postmaster want to go through the heartache and process of doing that, there is a route for you to receive a substantial sum and you can close the matter and get on with the rest of your life.

Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom Portrait Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom (Con)
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I would not want anyone to be confused in an already confusing situation. The £600,000 is not actually relevant to Lee Castleton because it is a sum that applies only to those who have overturned convictions. Lee Castleton was sued rather than prosecuted. I am sure he will get a lot more than that, which will include the legal costs that he had to pay and also all the issues about the bankruptcy that he went through and the horrors his family went through, and he will deserve a lot more than that.

Lord Offord of Garvel Portrait Lord Offord of Garvel (Con)
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I thank my noble friend for that clarification.

Moving onto another theme, there has obviously been a lot of comment on Fujitsu and we have all been horrified by the extent of what would appear to be its collusion in the matter. Again, we have to be very careful here to allow this inquiry to run its course. Sir Wyn Williams is very focused on this, and he will get it done through the course of this year. We will get answers to these questions.

Sir Wyn has been very clear, as indeed has Minister Hollinrake in the other place, that the cost of this must not fall solely on the taxpayer. We have now had the statement today from the European chief executive, effectively putting his hand up to say that he knows there is going to be a large bill to pay, and that it goes beyond moral to legal and financial. Again, that will be determined when we get through the inquiry.

The reality is that Fujitsu is embedded in all aspects of government, in many departments. We all feel nervous about that at this moment and I am sure that all departments will be reviewing that; but, again, we have to discover the extent of culpability. The company knows that it will have a large bill to pay. We have to allow that process to run its course. I am sure that there will be full accountability and from that—there is no question my mind—will cascade many levels of scrutiny of that company in every government department. I think we will be hearing more about that as we go.

The other theme brought through was governance of the Post Office. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, was very clear in asking how this works in respect of being a limited company with a board. The noble Lords, Lord Palmer and Lord Sikka, mentioned the whole accounting scenario. With respect to the current governance of the Post Office, it remains an arm’s-length statutory body; we are all now asking different questions about how that works.

None Portrait A noble Lord
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With shorter arms.

Lord Offord of Garvel Portrait Lord Offord of Garvel (Con)
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Shorter arms, yes. There has been quite a big overhaul in terms of organisation, some of which is pretty obvious when you look at it. There is now a huge amount more central support and training given to postmasters. There are 100 new area managers, creating a buffer zone between the manager and the board. Two postmasters have now been appointed to the board as non-executive directors. There is an appointment of a current postmaster in a director role concerned with the day-to-day relationship with the postmasters. All of it should have been done a long time ago.

As we look at public bodies, those of us who have been in the private sector understand how boards work. We understand the role of non-executive directors, which is to challenge management. It is not to nod and pass, or to wave through. It is to be intellectually curious and, if you find something that does not stack up, to probe it and question it. That has not happened here. We have had an organisation that looks and feels like a plc. It has renumeration committees, audit committees, auditors, a board of directors, non-executive directors and a non-exec chair. All of these, when they are put into businesses, are put in for checks and balances, as the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, said. What we have had here is a mirror image of this architecture without any checks and balances. I think this requires us to look quite hard across quite a wide range of arm’s-length bodies.

Lord Sikka Portrait Lord Sikka (Lab)
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I am glad that the Minister has clarified that relationship, but my concern is that, for as long as I can remember, the Government have been preaching shareholder activism. What happened to that when it came to the shareholder—the Government —in the Post Office being active? Did nobody notice the pile of newspaper clippings about the cases? I do not remember any Minister standing up and saying “Right, we’re going to look at this” until after the High Court judgment. Why did the Government fail on their own so-called shareholder activism?

Lord Offord of Garvel Portrait Lord Offord of Garvel (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord for that searching question. Of course, this covers about three or four different Governments and more than half a dozen Ministers; that is just a fact. The reality is that the shareholder of the Post Office is the taxpayer. The share is owned by the Secretary of State for the Department for Business and Trade. Under the current structure, that is effectively subcontracted to an independent board. If that independent board had acted on an independent basis, this would not have happened. In fact, if Ministers had slightly more inquiring minds, this would not have happened.

I look at myself in my role as a Minister. I look at the advice that I am given and at the decisions I have to make. There is a lot coming through on a daily basis. I ask myself this question: if I had been in this role and prior to Horizon there had been an average of, say, 10 convictions per year in a bad year—maybe five on average—and that went up to 80, even though I was very busy, doing a lot of things, and even though I said I had an independent board looking at this for me, would not that raise some inquiry? This fundamentally is the shocking scale—we are all embarrassed about this—of the abuse here. The accountability piece of this will absolutely come through the Wyn Williams inquiry. That will then move us to the next stage of the lessons that we learn from it.

Next is the theme of legal process, brought up by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, as well as the noble Lords, Lord Forsyth and Lord Weir, and also in relation to the Scottish angle. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, says that the lawyers have some disquiet about the idea of Parliament overruling courts, but we have had the counterbalancing argument from William Blackstone. I think the House agrees that that overrides that particular issue.

In Scotland and Northern Ireland we have different jurisdictions. There were 77 prosecutions in Scotland and 24 in Northern Ireland. To speak from a Scottish point of view, those prosecutions were brought not by the Post Office but by the Crown Office. That is a separate legal jurisdiction in Scotland. Yes, we are one United Kingdom, but in the UK we respect the legal jurisdictions of the devolved nations. The Lord Advocate has reported today to Holyrood, the devolved Parliament in Edinburgh, saying that she is not currently in favour of a blanket rescinding of convictions because, she says, not every case involving Horizon will be a miscarriage of justice. She wishes to go through the appeal court—the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission. From a legal point of view, she is saying that these convictions were made by a court and therefore should be undone by a court.

We are at an early stage of that dialogue. There are letters and communication going between the MoJ in London and the Lord Advocate and the Crown Office in Scotland, and there is communication between the First Minister and the Prime Minister on this. That just highlights that there are some legal complexities here. The reserved matter remains reserved. Compensation will be the same for all jurisdictions, but there are some issues to be resolved regarding the actual legal process—certainly north of the border.

Lord Browne of Ladyton Portrait Lord Browne of Ladyton (Lab)
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How on earth does a court challenge the evidence that the information coming from this computer is to be treated correctly because of the presumption? How on earth does the court overcome that? Only we can overcome that. We need to change the law. Unless we do so, we will always have this problem. The fact of the matter is that everywhere on this island the courts are not fit to deal with these cases. There were miscarriages of justice everywhere. The courts were not fit to test the evidence.

Lord Offord of Garvel Portrait Lord Offord of Garvel (Con)
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That is exactly the position that has been taken here by the Lord Chancellor for England and Wales, and that is now the conversation that has to be had in Scotland and Northern Ireland. We are dealing with a legal complexity that was confronted earlier this week by the Lord Chancellor, who now needs to run through the process with the Lord Advocate.

We come to the accountability issue. There have been comments from the noble Lords, Lord Sikka and Lord Palmer, about the role of the auditors. Again, you will get technical answers back that this is a separate statutory body that does not account to the National Audit Office because it has its own auditors, but then we find that that the auditor, EY, has signed off on the accounts. This is what we need to get to the bottom of. There needs to be a full inquiry to bring this to light. We will get the answers to these questions. Out of this, as I said, there will be a cascade of inquiry taking us into the fundamental territory of how the Government operate alongside quangos, arm’s-length bodies and so on. We have not heard the last of this. Its repercussions will come down through Whitehall.

Lessons will be learned, but right now our responsibility is to get the blanket exoneration that the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabati, was asking for, and which my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot is now satisfied will be given, and getting the compensation—whatever that means; let us say financial restitution—to the claimants as quickly as possible.

This is a sorry saga and, as my noble friend Lord Forsyth said, we are all deeply embarrassed by it. It has taken so long; it has been going on for 20 years. How people did not ask more basic questions is something that we all need to reflect on. All of us Ministers are looking at that. From my own personal point of view, I am certainly looking at things quite differently through the lens of, “Where’s my sniff test on what I’m hearing, as opposed to just what I’m told by officials?”

I commend the noble Lord, Lord Weir, on his personal reflections on this and his story about his father being a postmaster. Is that not the essence of what we got from the series, and from our personal experience in the towns and villages where we live, that these folks are the salt of the earth? How could they as a group suddenly become criminal? How could we go from half a dozen convictions a year to 80? It just does not make any sense. So I thank the noble Lord for that contribution. That is what is turbocharging our response to this matter.

I say in conclusion to noble Lords that, as far as my department is concerned—and my colleague Mr Hollinrake is working very hard to ensure this—those who are affected by this awful scandal will receive the full and fair compensation that they are owed, and we will do that as quickly as possible. Postmasters have suffered for too long. That said, with their having waited so long for justice, the Bill ensures that the Government will not need to force victims into unduly rushed decisions on the complex and emotive issues of compensation.

I repeat my thanks to all noble Lords for their contributions today. I know the House takes a strong interest in this scandal and wider Post Office matters. I hear what the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, said about where this takes us on previous scandals, and I am sure there is more to be said about that. This Bill is just one part of the extensive action that the Government are taking to defend the interests of postmasters, and I commend it to the House.

Bill read a second time. Committee negatived. Standing Order 44 having been dispensed with, the Bill was read a third time and passed.