Post Office Management Culture

(Limited Text - Ministerial Extracts only)

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Thursday 8th February 2024

(3 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Marion Fellows Portrait Marion Fellows
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I could not agree more with the right hon. Gentleman. I frequently agree with him on Post Office matters. This is important, because the all-party parliamentary group on post offices, of which he is a member and I am the chair, is a true cross-party group. There is no party that does not have a member of the APPG.

Sean Hudson of the Communication Workers Union described the management culture perfectly:

“Every serious management failure results in a culture of offering that failure up for external investigation at significant expense to POL and the taxpayer, without learning from those mistakes.”

It has since transpired that the legal fees for resolving disclosure issues in the past year alone cost £24 million. That money could have gone into the network to help struggling sub-postmasters, many of whom are working for below the minimum wage. For context, POL announced remuneration improvements this year of just £26 million, which in no way take into account the rise of costs and overheads. Some of the issues were only brought to light through the perseverance of campaigners through freedom of information requests that revealed that not all relevant evidence had been disclosed to the inquiry. Some of the issues outlined came to light before the transmission of ITV’s “Mr Bates vs The Post Office”, which has had a monumental impact on the public consciousness in Britain. It is important that that was beamed into front rooms across the nation. It has caused deep distrust of Post Office management among the general public.

With the words “openness and transparency” in mind, I want to bring to the attention of the House the case of my constituent Salman Aslam. Salman, or Sal, is a young man who ran a post office in my constituency for five years, before he walked away last year. Sal took over the post office from his father, when he was in remission from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Sal began noticing shortfalls, which he continually plugged himself and which ranged from £4,000 to £16,000 at a time. He estimates that he has paid in about £100,000 of his own money. When audited last year, a shortfall doubled in front of his eyes to £80,000, He decided he could no longer go on, for the sake of his finances, and of his mental and physical health, which doctors were saying was under threat due to his levels of stress.

Throughout the five-year ordeal, Sal contacted the Post Office for help continually, but none was forthcoming, and after handing in his keys, the Post Office was not in touch for more than a year, leaving him in a perennial state of stress and fear. Sal went public with his story a few weeks ago—I had a hand in that—and once the story went out, Post Office Ltd immediately sprang into action and the communications department got in touch with him. That is not indicative of a change of culture. It echoes tales of the past that are all too familiar: desperate postmasters reaching out to POL for help, but receiving little in return; and communication from POL arriving only after some negative press.

Throughout the Horizon scandal, POL prioritised institutional reputation over the welfare of sub-postmasters, whom Mr Read himself recently told the Business and Trade Committee were the trusted asset that made the network what it is. Sal is one of many postmasters who have been in touch in the past weeks to tell me that they are experiencing shortfalls—not historical shortfalls, but ones that have occurred in the past year. Issues with Horizon appear to be continuing to this day, which is seriously concerning. Is the Minister aware of ongoing issues with Horizon? What has he done, or is he going to do, to address these? Sal, like all the victims who preceded him, is in this position through no fault of his own. Today, I call for an undertaking from the Government, the Post Office’s sole shareholder, that he will not be pursued for the ghost debt of £80,000, and I ask the Government to examine what kind of redress he can expect, having sunk so much of his own money into his post office to cover repeated shortfalls generated by Horizon. I have other constituents who are also in that position.

The culture of change that Nick Read has called for has not been apparent. In 2023, POL was rocked by scandals once again, with one appropriately named “bonusgate”. The former Chair of the Business and Trade Committee, the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), outlined the statutory definition of “false accounting” at a meeting and said:

“it seems to me that in the annual accounts that Post Office reported to Parliament there was false or misleading information presented that did lead to…financial gain”.

I said in July:

“That is the management culture of POL: bonuses for doing ‘a reasonable job’.”—[Official Report, 13 July 2023; Vol. 736, c. 161WH.]

We should compare that with the compensation schemes, which have been fraught with difficulty every step of the way. The fundamental principles of public life, including openness, honesty, and integrity, have not been upheld by the management of POL for decades.

Regrettably, even the compensation schemes established to address the injustices of the lamentable Horizon chapter are not immune from POL’s unjust approach. Dan Neidle, a renowned tax expert, soon realised that the schemes are designed to ensure that the lowest amount of compensation is paid out. The application forms are so legally intricate that even a legal expert such as Mr Neidle expressed the need for legal advice in order to complete them, but POL provides only token amounts for legal advice. The original absence of an option to claim punitive damages, something a lawyer would notice, puts applicants, many of whom are elderly and financially vulnerable, at risk of missing out on a significant portion of their compensation. I have seen a heavily redacted offer, and that is what happened to a sub-postmistress who was spat at by members of her local community after rumours of her stealing abounded in the neighbourhood. This is appalling, shameful and a stain on us all.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business and Trade (Kevin Hollinrake)
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The hon. Lady remarked earlier about the number of people coming forward following the ITV series, and I am keen for people to do that. It is important to say to all postmasters that they will be treated fairly. I know that she has some concerns about that, and she is right to raise concerns where she has them. I, too, have concerns about some elements of the original Horizon shortfall scheme. We are looking at that, in conjunction with the advisory board, to see what might be done to make sure that those payments were fair.

Let me draw the hon. Lady’s attention to some of the stats on the new group litigation order scheme. We may be talking about the simpler cases coming forward here, but with 58 claims received, 52 offers have been made and 41 have been accepted without even a reference to the independent panel for people who are unhappy with the offers made. I do believe that the offers made are fair, but I am also happy to be challenged, in order to make sure that they are.

Marion Fellows Portrait Marion Fellows
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I thank the Minister for his intervention. I know that he has worked hard since he took over his post to make things better, but it would not be right if I did not continually and continuously push him.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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indicated assent.

Marion Fellows Portrait Marion Fellows
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He is acknowledging that.

At this point, it is worth reading out a letter from Professor Chris Hodges, the chair of the Horizon Compensation Advisory Board, who has been similarly scathing. He writes:

“Dear Nick Read,

My colleagues on the Advisory Board and I remain deeply unconvinced by the substance of what you say on legal issues. We continue to hear stories your former Sub-Postmasters and Mistresses are confused, intimidated and hurt by the behaviour of the Post Office and its lawyers in negotiating settlements generally and in continued use of legalistic terminology. This is especially true for the significant number who remain deeply traumatised, and who do not understand the practice of terminology of what they see as an aggressive approach to settling claims. This is irrespective of whether the language or behaviour may or may not be technically permissible, and irrespective of the fact that they may have legal representation. Your reliance of legal argument and legal terminology similarly does not impress us. We do not perceive demonstration of behaviour that is anything like a sympathetic understanding towards the people your organisation has harmed. We suggest that this should give you cause for deep concern.”

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Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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I am sorry to intervene on the hon. Lady yet again, but people might listen to her speech more than mine at the end, so I am keen to get a point on the record about the non-disclosure agreements. In evidence to the Select Committee, the Post Office has been quite clear—it is certainly our position—that nobody will be held to their non-disclosure agreement, so everybody should feel completely at liberty to discuss the terms of their settlement with Members of Parliament and others, as they feel appropriate. It is important to get that on the record.

Marion Fellows Portrait Marion Fellows
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I really thank the Minister for his intervention because hearing direct from the Minister that he will not be pursued will provide my constituent with some element of comfort. However, people are still traumatised years later because of the treatment they have had and it is hard for them to believe that people will not pursue them. I will show my constituent a clip of what the Minister just said.

I have met recently with Christopher Head, who is in the Gallery today. He is a Horizon victim and campaigner who, out of his own good will, helps others in applying for compensation. I do not want anyone else to add to Christopher’s burden because he is doing such a good job. He has told me of the difficulties people face and that he himself received an offer that was only a minuscule fraction of his estimated Horizon losses. Alan Bates recently talked about his offer as well.

Many sub-postmasters I have spoken to recently told me that they plugged shortfalls out of their own pocket for years. The Minister has advised those people to apply for the Horizon shortfall scheme, and I sincerely hope that many more people will take advantage of that. Will the Minister ask Post Office management to make their records of those payments available to individuals? Have Post Office management let the Minister know when they will give an estimate of the excess claimed in Horizon shortfalls, from the introduction of the system to the end of financial year 2019-20? That is important because all that excess money, which was not owed, was put into Post Office Ltd and management bonuses were paid on profits.

The Post Office network is in disarray. Sub-postmasters have no faith in the current management of Post Office Ltd to turn things around. What they see is an organisation that is top-heavy, with multiple layers of management and directors, who have self-interest at heart.

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Ian Lavery Portrait Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab)
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Today’s debate is extremely timely and important. It is harrowing to listen to cases from across the UK, and it takes time for it to sink in how the cover-up of this scandal has cost the lives of ordinary, hard-working people who only wanted to provide for their families by working for their communities in post offices. We have to think about how many of those people have been tret, not just by the Post Office but by the Government and Fujitsu. Many of them have had extreme difficulties in employment. They were not just betrayed but sent to prison for crimes that they did not commit. They knew they were innocent; more importantly, the people who sent them there knew that they were innocent as well. We need a lot of answers. More and more is coming to the fore every day with regard to this scandal.

Mention has been made of who knew about this. The Government knew about it, Fujitsu knew about it, and the Post Office knew about it; yet they still sent investigators into sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses’ post offices. They investigated people, charged people, and devastated people’s lives. They acted like the Gestapo. They turned up on the day and closed post offices down. That is the Post Office management culture, and it needs to be addressed.

I am not sure how we can compensate anybody. How can we compensate the family of a woman or man who committed suicide as a result of the pressure that they were put under by the Government, the Post Office and investigators? How do we compensate people for the death of a loved one who was the breadwinner in the family, and decided that their only option was to take their own life? It is unimaginable. We cannot put ourselves in their shoes.

What about the men and women who went to prison because they had supposedly falsified accounts and committed theft? They were imprisoned with child-killers and rapists for things they had not done. Not only did they know they had not done them; the Government and the Post Office knew it too. Fujitsu knew what was happening behind the scenes. This does not seem like the country I am very proud of—what happened with the Government behind the scenes. It is very murky and sinister. At the same time, the Government and the Post Office were prosecuting people with evidence from Fujitsu, and people were being imprisoned and taking their own lives. Frankly, it is enough to make us cry.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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The hon. Gentleman is rightly making a typically impassioned speech. I have been very careful throughout the whole time I have been involved in this matter, which is over four years, as a Back-Bencher and a Front-Bencher, not to play any kind of party politics with it. I put it on the record that the issues occurred under a series of Governments: the Labour Government, the coalition Government and the current Government. It is important that we look at the matter on a cross-party basis and seek to resolve it as such. I am keen to work with him on that basis.

Ian Lavery Portrait Ian Lavery
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I thank the Minister for that intervention, and I agree. I have a lot of time for him. We have had conversations about this matter and many others. As he will notice if he looks in Hansard, I have not been party political. I have said “the Government”. He is correct to point out that there have been Governments of different colours throughout the period.

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Ian Lavery Portrait Ian Lavery
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Not only that, but Jo Hamilton had to pay £36,000 back, even though she knew she was in the right. I asked Nick Read, the chief executive of the Post Office, whether it was a possibility that the money paid back by a number of the victims would have been in a place where it could have provided bonuses for senior executives. How perverse is that? The answer from the chief executive, when I pressed him and pressed him, was that yes, it was a possibility, but he did not know where the money actually went. That in itself is so bad that it beggars belief.

Fujitsu, meanwhile, denied any knowledge of bugs or any wrongdoing, but actually knew quite the opposite, and it supplied evidence to the Post Office to prosecute individuals. How bad is that situation? This is not a spy movie—it is worse than a spy movie. They had a dark room in Fujitsu where its employees were communicating with the Horizon computer system in post offices up and down the country. Fujitsu denied it all along, saying that it was impossible it could ever happen, yet people there were changing the amounts of money openly. The Government knew. Fujitsu knew, because it had the operation in its own offices, with employees changing facts and figures in the accounts of ordinary hard-working individuals—again, spy movie stuff. It is unbelievable that that could be the case.

Is it not unreal to think that none of this would have come about if not for the ITV dramatisation, “Mr Bates vs The Post Office”? We would not be discussing it in this Chamber, because it would have been kicked into the long grass. The people would all have suffered the same—those who are in prison, the families who have been destroyed, and the kids who have been brought up with the criticism and abuse that their parents were thieves —but it would not have been unearthed.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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There is no doubt that the ITV series has rightly heightened awareness both in this House and further afield, and I welcome that, but much work was going on in this space before it aired, including on how we can overturn more convictions on a blanket basis. I was working on that with the advisory board before the series aired, so it is not right to say that we would not have got to this position without it. We probably would not have got here as quickly, but the hon. Gentleman must concede that this work has been going on for years—although I welcome the fact that it is happening more rapidly now.

Ian Lavery Portrait Ian Lavery
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I thank the Minister for that clarification. Forgive me, Mr Deputy Speaker, if I suggested that nothing at all had happened, because I know that the Minister, the all-party parliamentary group, the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) and others have been working on the matter assiduously. However, as the Minister said, we might not otherwise have been at this stage. We might not have got Fujitsu to say for the first time, “Yes, we are sorry,” and the Post Office might not have started to admit that it had pursued wrongful or unsafe prosecutions. But we are where we are. I would not want to mislead anyone in the debate.

I have three brief examples. These people, Minister, were heavily involved with Horizon and the Post Office, and suffered greatly. It causes me real heartbreak, to be honest. The first example is that of Janine, a lady from my constituency who has sadly passed on; no one came to see me about her case until they saw the ITV documentary. Her husband simply cried for the entire hour that I sat with him. He wanted justice for Janine, who sadly died of covid. He is hoping for some sort of justice now.

Janine was employed in a post office in a newsagents, which is a regular thing up and down the country. Her contract with the newsagents said that any shortfall in the post office finances must be made up by her. She and another person were employed by the newsagents, and then there was the sub-postmaster or mistress— I am not sure which it was on this occasion. Janine was accused of stealing £25,000, even though she had not seen that amount of money before. The Post Office investigators came to the newsagents and basically tret her like a common thief. The pressure was put on: “We are going to charge you with theft and you are going to prison.”

Janine was absolutely devastated. She pleaded guilty. Then, she sat back and realised, “Why should I be pleading guilty when I am not guilty?”. It cost her and her family a small fortune to take the case back to court and have the guilty verdict rescinded. The Post Office then said, “Okay, you can accept the lesser charge of false accounting and pay the money back.” She refused. All this cost her £15,000 in legal fees—these are just ordinary working people in the community. She was then informed that if she paid the £25,000 back, the Post Office would drop the charges. That is what happened: she paid the money back. Unfortunately, by the day she sadly passed on, she and her family had lost everything they had.

That needs scrutiny. We need to look at the management culture. What on earth was going on at the Post Office during this thing? Who directed the investigators to go to those post offices and treat people the way they were tret in the investigations? They knew at the time that the allegations were false. That is the thing that I have reiterated and will continue to reiterate: they knew that the allegations were in many ways false, unfounded, unfair. Maybe the investigators did not, but the people at the top of the Post Office certainly knew; people in government knew. That cannot be right. Janine’s husband has written and submitted a really heart-rending letter, but under the current schemes, he is unlikely to be able to claim any money. How can that be just? I will follow that up with the Minister.

The second example is that of a man who wrote to us saying: “I’ve got a massive problem. I’m like lots of other sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses. We work at the very heart of the community. It’s where people used to come to talk. We were trusted, well respected, listened to.” He was seeing mistake after mistake crop up on his computer week after week, but rather than inform the Post Office, he was putting money in week by week to balance the accounts, which had been altered by somebody at the Fujitsu head office.

This individual says that he simply could not stand the idea that anybody would think him in the slightest—in the remotest sense—a thief. He has paid tens of thousands of pounds, if we aggregate the money that he paid week by week. There is no way that he or hundreds of other employees have the opportunity or ability to claim compensation at this moment. That begs the question of whether the Post Office, together with the Government, will write to every single person who was a sub-postmaster between 1998 and now to ask them if they are aware of anyone who might have put their own money—out of their own backside pocket, out of their family’s savings—into balancing the accounts. There should be consideration of compensation for such individuals. The Post Office will have all the details of people in those roles who claimed to have used finances from their own back pocket.

I will briefly mention the last example. I have not actually seen these individuals—they are coming to see us next week—but I have been told by one of their relations that they were involved in the Horizon scandal and paid £25,000. That sum crops up time and again. They paid that just to save their name. Nothing went to court—nothing happened—but they paid the money, despite the fact that they were innocent. They thought that because they paid the money, the matter would go away, and there is very little opportunity for people like them to reclaim their money. It is unfair. Never mind them stealing money off the Post Office; the Post Office has stolen money off hard-working people. That should be recognised.

It would be helpful if the Post Office and the Government could listen to what other people have to say. This is not just about those who were convicted or prosecuted; there are more people who were not convicted or prosecuted, but who are out of pocket and have had their life destroyed as a consequence of the Post Office Horizon scandal. We need to look at how that can be addressed. Those people deserve compensation. As the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw said, this scandal is appalling. It is disgraceful, shameful, and a stain on all of us. I agree with the Minister that this is a cross-party issue. We have the opportunity to put things right, so let us do it. Let us look after the people whose only crime was going to work and looking after their family.

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Kevin Hollinrake Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business and Trade (Kevin Hollinrake)
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May I first pay tribute to the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) for securing this debate and her fine work as always on the all-party parliamentary group on post offices, and to the Backbench Business Committee for bringing forward this debate? I also pay tribute to all Members of this House and the other place for their work on this issue. I promise the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali), that I do not need anybody to hold my feet to the fire, but it is good that we have this momentum. I very much appreciate the work that has been done by many.

There have been many kind words from contributors about my work, but it is a bit part compared with that of many others who have campaigned long and hard on this issue, as have people outside this place, including members of the legal profession and the media, many of whom we are familiar with for their great work on bringing this scandal to light.

On the governance issues, I am fond of a quote by Emerson, who said:

“An institution is the lengthened shadow of a single man.”

I am keen to ensure that the Post Office’s management culture is in the right place. A positive management culture is paramount to the health of any organisation, so I very much welcome the opportunity the debate brings to consider that point. The Post Office scandal is one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in living history, and the victims must get the justice they deserve. I do believe that today’s Post Office is different from the past, but restoring trust will take time. That does not mean that we are satisfied with the current situation. This will never be about quick fixes; it will be about fundamental changes in every part of the organisation, and that change will not occur overnight.

When the current chief executive of the Post Office, Nick Read, started in September 2019, he made it clear that as well as delivering the essential services that we value across our constituencies, the Post Office needed to apologise for the events of the past and fully address them. On the point made by the shadow Minister about the current board, no one serving on a day-to-day basis on the current board was there at the time of the scandal. As I said, Nick Read joined in 2019, and only one member of the board was there at the time, but they are on extended leave on health grounds and do not work on the board on a day-to-day basis. No members of the senior management team were there at the time.

Post Office is taking steps to right the wrongs of the past. However, it is also important to highlight what it has done with a view to the present and future of the business to improve the culture and ensure that a similar situation can never arise. Crucially, Post Office is taking steps to restore trust between itself and postmasters. That is so important, because, as I have said many times, without postmasters, there is no post office network.

In December 2019, the parties to the group litigation in Bates v. Post Office Ltd took part in a mediation session and issued a joint statement confirming Post Office’s commitment to resetting its relationship with postmasters. Since then, Post Office has improved the board’s structure by ensuring that two non-executive director postmasters nominated and elected by other postmasters have a seat on the board. That is intended to ensure that postmaster voices are being heard at the highest level and that senior management are aware of the impact that decisions will have on those on the frontline delivering services.

Post Office also created a postmaster experience director role, which is filled by a serving postmaster. To pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw, it is held by Mark Eldridge, who is a serving postmaster at Great Massingham. He is seconded to the role, so he may no longer be in that post office on a daily basis, but he is nevertheless a serving postmaster. He leads the day-to-day relationship with postmasters. Alongside those senior appointments, the Post Office has reformed operational matters to improve culture and trust between senior management, staff and postmasters. Improved training packages and the hiring of more than 100 new area managers to provide dedicated local support are all examples of positive changes. At my meeting yesterday with Voice of the Postmaster and Communication Workers Union national postmasters, they spoke highly of the support and engagement provided by those area managers.

Post Office has also strengthened how it listens to postmasters, with two postmaster conferences and a nationwide postmaster consultation conducted each year to provide the foundation of Post Office annual priorities. I experience at first hand how postmasters in the network today can challenge Post Office leadership on various issues when I chair a regular working group between the Post Office and the National Federation of SubPostmasters. I know that, according to various commentators, past experience of that group has been mixed, but my experience from working with them on an ongoing basis has been that the challenge they provide is constructive but robust.

I know that branch profitability is the top priority for postmasters, and I am pleased that the Post Office is committed to increasing the share of income going to postmasters. That has been stressed on every occasion we have met. We have also very much stressed the need to control central costs—indeed, to reduce them—so that we see more of the remuneration heading towards postmasters. The clear strategy for the Post Office to do that and ensure that the highest share of income goes to postmasters is through parcels and banking services, which are key; we have discussed that regularly when we have met. That point was raised by the hon. Members for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon).

I have been clear that the banking framework, which is negotiated between the Post Office and the UK banks, should be as ambitious as possible. Banks have saved about £2.5 billion a year through closure of branches, and in our view a greater percentage of that should go to postmasters directly. I am pleased that the shadow Minister likes our policy on banking hubs, which came principally as a result of our legislation on access to cash. Thirty are open already, and another 70 are in the pipeline, so we will be at 100 and we anticipate that about 500 will be rolled out across the country. Clearly there is more to do to strengthen the relationships with postmasters, but I believe that the Post Office has made and is making some positive steps forward.

Members rightly raised compensation, which speaks to the current management culture at the Post Office. Getting compensation to those impacted by the scandal has not been as swift as we would have hoped. I can assure Members that my Department has been working hard on compensation, alongside colleagues in the Post Office who were recruited specifically for that purpose. As the Secretary of State said recently, we continue to look for ways to speed things up, and we work closely with the Horizon compensation advisory board to ensure that we deliver faster compensation, and that compensation is seen to be fair and is fair.

Recently, we introduced measures such as fixed sum awards of £600,000 for overturned convictions, and £75,000 for the GLO. To be clear, a fixed sum award is an option for people who believe that it will provide sufficient redress. People who believe that their claims are above that level can go down the full assessment route, but the fixed sum award route has the benefit of speedy resolution of claims and reducing the number of people in the queue who want to go down the full assessment route. That should mean faster resolution of claims for all parties involved in the compensation process.

Dominic Raab Portrait Dominic Raab (Esher and Walton) (Con)
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The Minister has been given credit for the assiduous way that he is righting the wrongs. Members in all parts of the House have been contacted by those affected, such as sub-postmasters who have been prosecuted or have suffered in other ways. Is there a constituency breakdown of the numbers affected? Some people will be more familiar with how to avail themselves of opportunities than others. If we can make ourselves available to those affected —not just those prosecuted—that may provide some assistance, albeit at a late stage, and some solace to them as they try and right the wrongs that he has rightly outlined.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention and his work on this matter. It is interesting that more people are coming forward, through colleagues, to the compensation processes, which is very welcome. Some colleagues have written to all their postmasters in their area, asking them to come forward. That is a positive step. I was not aware that I had a postmaster in my area who had been affected—Sam Harrison of Nawton, near Helmsley, who sadly passed away last May. She was one of the 555 members of the GLO scheme. Sadly, she has passed away. New cases come to light all the time. I am very happy to work with my right hon. Friend to see what information we might provide him, so that he can take forward those actions.

As I said, we are aware of concerns about the Horizon shortfall scheme, which was the first scheme set up. We are looking at ways to ensure that that scheme’s compensation is fair and seen to be fair. More than £160 million has been awarded already to 2,700 victims, and 64% of all claimants who made their claims prior to the ITV series—more will come forward as a result, which we welcome—have had full and final compensation. Much work has been done by me, my predecessors and many officials, who do a tremendous job trying to right the wrongs of the past, but there is more that we can and have to do.

As of 6 February, more than £35 million has been paid out to those with overturned convictions. There have been 42 claims submitted already for the 101 convictions that been overturned; 36 offers have been made and 32 have been accepted. A very significant proportion of those have taken the fixed sum award. £27 million has been paid out to 479 claimants among the original 555 postmasters who took the Post Office to court. A total of 58 completed claim forms have been received, and 52 claimants have received offers. Of those, 41 people have accepted those offers without going to the next stage, the independent panel. That indicates that people feel that the offers they are receiving are fair, because there are two further stages in that process if they feel that they are not getting fair settlement of their claims. Some £98 million has been paid out through the Horizon shortfall scheme.

There were 2,417 claimants who claimed prior to the original deadline, which has now been extended for late applications, so there is no final date for applications in that scheme. Some 2,417 offers have been made and 2,051 have been settled, meaning that 84% of claims have been settled. The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw raised the total compensation amount—I think she mentioned the figure of £2 billion. The maximum budget set thus far is £1 billion. That is the number we are working to at the moment. However, we have always been clear that that is not a cap and it will not stop people getting fair compensation for their claims.

On the matter of more people coming forward, we are absolutely united with the Post Office in calling for anyone impacted by the scandal to bring forward their claims as soon as possible. I welcome the fact that the ITV drama has helped to uncover people who had not previously come forward.

The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw asked about ongoing shortfalls. There may be instances of that, although not all shortfalls occur as a result of software problems. I am happy to look at any cases of that that the hon. Lady has, but I have to say that it has not been raised with me thus far in my conversations with the National Federation of SubPostmasters, the Voice of the Postmaster and the CWU. However, I am happy to look at that as we proceed.

Compensation is one part of providing justice; the other is truth and accountability, which the Post Office has told us it is fully committed to. The Post Office Horizon inquiry has been established to uncover what went wrong, and the chair, Sir Wyn Williams, continues to make good progress.

The Post Office is co-operating fully with the inquiry. While the recent disclosure issues have been disappointing, they were the consequence of a failure of process rather than a reflection of the management culture. We do not regard them as a deliberate obfuscation, as the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw said. Nevertheless, it is a serious and unacceptable matter, and we certainly want to ensure that they do not happen again.

It was reassuring to hear Sir Wyn Williams’s comments on Friday that he was “impressed” that the Post Office’s new lawyers have a

“grasp of the scale of the disclosure exercise”,

and that he currently has no reason to doubt that the Post Office will continue to assist the inquiry by disclosing relevant material. The inquiry will also look at the future of the Post Office itself from September this year.

On governance, strong and effective leadership of the Post Office is essential. As is set out in the Post Office articles of association, the Business Secretary appoints the chair and approves the appointment of directors of Post Office Ltd. It is a role that the Government take very seriously. As Members will be aware, following a conversation with the Business Secretary in late January, Henry Staunton agreed to step down as chair of the Post Office. We judged that the current chairmanship was not proving effective and had a difficult decision to make between changing course or waiting and hoping that it improved.

The shadow Minister referred to ministerial scrutiny, and I think all Ministers should learn the lessons of the past in terms of their approach to concerns that are raised. Of course, we as a Department have learned from this ourselves. We will continue to look at governance arrangements and make sure they are fit for purpose. We are not planning any further changes at this time. Members of the House and others have looked at different models of governance of the Post Office, such as mutualisation. As I said, I met with the Voice of the Postmaster and the CWU yesterday, and I am happy to have further conversations with them about that potential route. We are confident that our representative at UK Government Investments, Lorna Gratton, is doing a good job to ensure that the Post Office’s governance is fit for purpose.

The hon. Members for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) and for Motherwell and Wishaw asked about the surpluses and where they ended up—whether they went into a suspense account, into profit and loss, or into bonuses for directors. We are currently conducting an exercise to find out where that money went and how much it was, and we will report accordingly.

The hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) talked about the role of Fujitsu. We welcome the admission from Fujitsu that it holds moral responsibility for the scandal and a responsibility to contribute towards the compensation bill. We will certainly take that up in due course, but it is right for us to ensure that we understand the extent of the bill. The inquiry is looking at other matters surrounding Fujitsu and it is right that we wait for the outcome of that. He mentioned the role of Ofcom. Ofcom does not regulate the Post Office; it regulates Royal Mail. There is a distinction there.

The hon. Member for Wansbeck talked about who knew what. That is something we very much want to know. The inquiry’s purpose is to find exactly that. He made the absolutely correct point that no amount of redress could ever make up for what has happened to some people in this scandal. People have taken their own lives and people have been made bankrupt. The least we can do is try to make that good by providing them with full and fair compensation.

I am very sorry to hear about what happened to Janine. I am very happy to look at that case with the hon. Gentleman, as he asked me about it offline the other day. It is certainly the case that if an employee suffered financial detriment, their employer should be able to claim on their behalf. There may be other cases we need to look at, including that case, so I am very happy to have that conversation with him.

The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sarah Green) talked about non-disclosure agreements and raised the tragic case of Martin Griffiths in that context. As I said to her in an intervention, it is absolutely right —the Post Office has said this and it is also our position—that no NDA should prevent somebody speaking to relevant individuals, including their Member of Parliament. It is the case, in whatever part of our system and wherever an NDA is signed, that no NDA can ever prevent somebody speaking out—going to the police or other authorities—about a crime. That is the case in any circumstance. The Official Secrets Act only covers the confidentiality of mail and it is no longer signed by postmasters. Again, I am very keen that the gentleman she referred to passes on his evidence to the inquiry, because I think it might find it very useful.

I thank the hon. Member for Strangford again for his very kind words. Understandably, many people are still affected by the scandal and in terms of my performance as a Minister—whether I am the right person or whether I am fit for purpose—I guess the jury is out. I quite understand that. People will judge me at the end of the process, but while I am here, I am very keen to make sure that the full and final settlements are made as quickly and as fairly as possible.

To conclude, I have outlined some of the progress the Post Office has made to improve its culture and its relationship with postmasters, and its determination to right the wrongs of the past. Despite the positive progress made since 2019, there are clearly still improvements to be made. Where the Post Office makes mistakes, I will continue to challenge the leadership. Where action is needed, I will not hesitate to act decisively.