Post Office (Horizon System) Compensation Bill Debate

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Department: Department for Business and Trade
Lord Cormack Portrait Lord Cormack (Con)
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I am glad to follow the noble Baroness, not least because I agree so passionately with what she and others have said about my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot. He has been exemplary in the way that he has behaved. He has been persistent, tenacious and, in the end, successful, but it has taken far too long.

Something that puzzles me is that those of us who have represented constituencies in the other place, particularly if they were rural ones—I had a significant number of post offices in my constituency—know that in almost every village the postmaster or postmistress was looked up to as one of the leaders of the community. For the life of me, I do not know how the Post Office or anyone else could have thought that these people who had done so much for their communities—provided local leadership, run the flower shows and all the rest of it—suddenly, all over the country, had turned bad and become criminals. It is just implausible. If it were in a novel by the noble Lord, Lord Archer, no one would believe it. It is incredible that this has happened.

I want to make one or two points. First, this Bill, which has my wholehearted and complete support, is a misnomer: there is no such thing as compensation—others have touched on this—for the destruction of lives and livelihoods, for deaths; there is no way that you could adequately compensate for those things. Of course, they must have decent and proper payments, and they must have them as quickly as possible. I believe the Government should absolutely commit themselves to making these payments by August. August is referred to in the Bill, and I ask that my noble friend the Minister do everything he possibly can—I know he cannot give a total commitment to your Lordships’ House tonight—to ensure that the Secretary of State and the Government sign up to an August deadline because this must not go on and on and on.

I also agree wholeheartedly with the need for doing more, and what was proposed in the other place last week has my broad and enthusiastic support. But we do have to recognise the constitutional implications of Parliament passing an Act that, at a stroke, overturns judgments in dozens, if not hundreds, of court cases. It is very important that we recognise—I am very glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, nodding at that point—the constitutional implications of what we are doing, and in recognising them, we need to commit ourselves to say that this will never be necessary again. As to how we do it, it must be in consultation with the judiciary, and various things spring to mind: a decent budget for the Criminal Cases Review Commission might be one of a number of ways we could contemplate doing it. We must not put ourselves in the position again where Parliament can undo, at a stroke, what the independent courts of this land have determined. I beg noble Lords not to think that I am, in any way, seeking to oppose what is proposed, but I think we need to understand the implications of it very carefully; it is incumbent on all of us to do that.

I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, made a very important point about artificial intelligence. I cannot pretend to be an expert on these subjects—I think everybody in the House knows that—but I am very worried about the manipulation of artificial intelligence. I am very worried, with the general election approaching, about the consequences for the future of our democracy. It is possible to recreate the voice of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, and my own voice, and to put words into our mouths that advocate things we would never in a million years advocate and, what is even worse, to have people taking those things seriously—we do have to recognise this. And that is why the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, was right to talk about the responsibility of Fujitsu. I cannot anticipate the results of various inquiries, but it does seem that it has a lot to answer for. I was horrified by the figure of £411 million that the noble Baroness quoted in a more recent context; it has a lot to answer for, and I believe it should have a lot to pay for as well. I think that is absolutely fundamental.

I agree wholeheartedly with the Blackstone dictum, which I have quoted in your Lordships’ House in other contexts: far better that 10 or a dozen rogues go free than that an innocent man or woman is punished. But we have to recognise that this is not the only scandal. I suppose we really ought to urge ITV to do a series on the contaminated blood scandal and on Windrush. This is one of a number, although I believe it to be the worst, in both numbers and content—but it is not the only one. We in this House, and our colleagues in the other place, have an absolute duty to do all we can to ensure that these scandals are not replicated.

We will have a far better chance of doing that if we remember the words of the late Lord Judge: if we have legislation that is properly thought out, if we abandon the Henry VIII clauses and the Christmas tree bills, and if we recognise above all else that the Executive is answerable to Parliament, not the other way round.