Post Office Governance and Horizon Compensation Schemes Debate

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Department: Department for Business and Trade

Post Office Governance and Horizon Compensation Schemes

Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Excerpts
Wednesday 21st February 2024

(5 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Portrait Lord McNicol of West Kilbride (Lab)
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My Lords, the Horizon scandal is widely accepted as one of the worst miscarriages of justice in British history. Given the magnitude and duration of the scandal, it is quite astonishing that it seems that every day we get more and more revelations. We get further from the truth and further from true justice for all those who have been victims of it.

Sunday’s allegations could not have been more serious, and the same applies for everything that has emerged since then, not least the memo that was unearthed last night showing Henry Staunton’s recording of a meeting with the then Permanent Secretary at BEIS, Sarah Munby, on 5 January 2023. In that, he was allegedly told to “hobble” into the election; not to

“rip off the band aid”

in terms of the Post Office’s finances; that

“politicians do not necessarily like to confront reality”;

and, finally, that

“now was not the time for dealing with long-term issues”.

This new evidence appears to endorse Mr Staunton’s claim made at the weekend. It is of the utmost importance that both the public and Parliament know the truth. Do the Government continue to deny that any of those conversations took place, as was stated categorically on numerous occasions throughout this week? Given the new evidence, will the Department for Business and Trade now commit to a Cabinet Office investigation into the serious and continued allegations that Mr Staunton has made?

Earlier this week, it was welcome that the Government agreed to publish copies of the letter from Sarah Munby to Henry Staunton on his appointment as chair of the Post Office in December 2022, but that does not go far enough. Given the Secretary of State’s own willingness now to place part of the record in the House Library, I ask once again what I asked on Monday, when we debated this—unfortunately, before the Statement had been made. Given the new evidence that has come to light, will the Government publish all correspondence and minutes of meetings between the relevant departments, UKGI and the Post Office, and put them all in the parliamentary Library?

Earlier this week, it was also suggested by the BBC that the Government knew that there was a cover-up in the Post Office eight years ago—in 2016—with Ministers having been told that an investigation was happening into how often and why cash accounts on the Horizon system had been tampered with remotely. Will the Minister comment any further on those claims about when that was known by the Government? How will the Government investigate those claims? Following that, will this matter also be handed over to Wyn Williams for full investigation? I am sure that we all agree that the secrecy must end, and that the full sunlight of public scrutiny should be brought to bear.

On the compensation itself, has the £1 billion figure referred to in the Statement already been allocated, and is it therefore ready to be paid to those who will receive it? Subsequently, if that is not the case, will the payments be specifically itemised and timelined within the next Budget?

Although Monday’s Statement and today’s repeat are rightly about the Post Office, people’s faith in government has already been damaged by scandals such as Hillsborough, infected blood, Bloody Sunday and Windrush. Victims of other scandals—especially the contaminated blood scandal—feel that they need to ask whether they have been the victims of deliberate inaction as well. Will the Government provide assurances that no such obstacles have been put in the way of any payments of this kind; and if so, how exactly do they explain the delays in so many cases?

The Post Office miscarriages of justice alone have shown the devastation that can occur when institutions are allowed to operate without oversight or are shrouded in secrecy, and I know the Minister shares everyone’s view on this. Throughout all this, we must not lose sight of the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses themselves, so I make no apology for returning to the issue of convictions and the overturning of them. Can the Minister update your Lordships’ House on the progress in this area? Have His Majesty’s Government set a timescale for delivering the legislation needed to quash the convictions?

Finally, the Minister often talks about compensation packages and money being paid in thousands, tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of pounds to wrongly convicted—I would describe them as not just wrongly but malignly convicted—sub-postmasters and postmistresses. However, is he aware that the vast majority of Post Office payments for the specific issue of “damage to reputation and stress” are still generally only around the £5,000 mark?

Finally, again—I feel a bit like Columbo—there is a discrepancy between the Secretary of State’s speech in Hansard and the Statement. Would the Minister like to comment on it, and if not, will he write to me and place a letter in the Library? There is no mention in the Department of Business and Trade Statement of bullying by Mr Staunton, yet the Secretary of State says:

“I should also inform the House that while Mr Staunton was in post, a formal investigation was launched into allegations made regarding his conduct”—


we know that, but she goes further—

“including serious matters such as bullying”.—[Official Report, Commons, 19/2/24; col. 474.]

I am just a bit confused as to why it was in the Statement delivered in Parliament but not in the departmental Written Statement.

Lord Fox Portrait Lord Fox (LD)
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My Lords, as we have heard, with every day that passes, more questions seem to come up.

In Parliament, the Secretary of State’s Statement was strident—I would say unusually strident—but no matter how loudly and aggressively she asserts her side of the issue, it will not go away without answers and evidence. I support fully the questions that the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, just asked—I will try to interrogate some other areas—but we need answers in order to support or otherwise the Secretary of State’s position. These are answers that the Government can give, not ones they can push into the Wyn Williams inquiry.

Minutes from a call on 27 January show that Kemi Badenoch said to Henry Staunton that she had received

“a briefing on the governance issues at the Post Office and that the complaints against”

Staunton

“are so serious that the government need to intervene”.

The Secretary of State said in Parliament that this included issues raised by other directors on the board. From whom did she receive the briefing on the governance in POL, and where are the notes on its contents? When were the directors’ issues first raised with the Secretary of State, and what form did these complaints take? Were they, for example, letters, emails, calls or meetings? Were any directors’ complaints submitted formally, and how many directors were involved in those submissions?

The Secretary of State’s public statements and comments conflate two issues. One is the possible disquiet as to Staunton’s progress on tackling governance within POL, and the other is an entirely separate accusation of bullying. Does the Minister agree that these two need to be properly separated? The conflation is adding to the confusion. As far as I can see, as yet, there is no documentation to support the bullying part of the Secretary of State’s response. The Secretary of State said that a “formal investigation” was under way into the complaint against Staunton. Who is leading this investigation and when was it started? Staunton says that he was not informed of this bullying complaint, so can the Minister confirm if, when and how Staunton was informed of this bullying complaint and whether he has yet to be contacted by an investigator?

Government, departmental and Post Office capacity is only so large. This very public and bitter argument is a major distraction. Given the huge quantity of energy that is being expelled on this dispute, all other activities suffer. Today, the Prime Minister declined to repeat the Secretary of State’s accusations, and if the Secretary of State misled Parliament, she clearly breached the Ministerial Code. Therefore, does the Minister agree that if we do not get a Cabinet Office inquiry, the Government’s ethics adviser should be asked to investigate this issue now?

Without publishing all the personal correspondence with the various intermediaries that link the Post Office with the Government, it cannot be established beyond any doubt who is telling the truth in this very public dispute. The problem for the Secretary of State and for the Government is that Mr Staunton’s central accusation has credibility. What we see is glacial progress in settling the Horizon victims’ cases. That was his central point. In one answer on Monday, the Minister outlined the bureaucratic appeal process open to those offered unacceptable settlements, and of course, these appeals slow things down considerably. Can the Minister at least acknowledge that this time-consuming and energy-sapping appeal process could largely be avoided if the original offers were at an acceptable level in the first place?

I have one final question. All pretence of an arm’s-length organisation has gone; the Government have the power to intervene and control. Will the Government step in and speed things up by making the process simpler, probably by collapsing the three schemes into one? Overall, will they ensure that the offers of compensation are realistic in the first place, so that all the sub-postmasters who have offers can accept them and move on?

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Lord Offord of Garvel Portrait Lord Offord of Garvel (Con)
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As I said, we are in a situation now where dialogue quite rightly is happening—and minuted, as always—between officials and representatives of Post Office Ltd. The appointment of the senior independent director was one of the issues that the board were at odds over. The chairman wished to promote an internal candidate and the Department for Business and Trade wanted to bring in an external candidate—which was also the advice of the UK Government, the shareholder executive.

In this situation, when an investigation of why this was happening was brought to bear, that too was blocked by the chair. So there was a situation where the board was not working properly and we had to change the chair. It was as simple as that. The chair had to be changed to make sure the board worked properly. There was no concept of him being there to take the rap for the Horizon scandal.

He has made a second claim, and I advise noble Lords to read the notes carefully to understand this. The conflation going on here concerns the discussion with Sarah Munby in January. The chairman was appointed in December 2022. There was a discussion with the Permanent Secretary in January 2023. That was the first discussion after she wrote the letter saying “Here’s your three priorities”. It was the first meeting between the Permanent Secretary and the newly appointed chair, to say, “Right, you’ve been in post for a month, you’ve looked under the bonnet, what have you found?”

Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Portrait Lord McNicol of West Kilbride (Lab)
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This is a brief point regarding the Minister’s description of the situation between the Secretary of State and the chair of the board, and the appointment of the SID. I seek clarification and want to check that I heard the Minister correctly. The Statement refers only to the chair, Staunton, looking to bring in his own person. It does not deal with the appointment. The Minister said the Secretary of State was looking to appoint the SID, a different person, and Henry Staunton did not want that person coming in as a SID, so that was the tension that was there, not the fact that he had carried out some nefarious process in trying to bring someone in.

Lord Offord of Garvel Portrait Lord Offord of Garvel (Con)
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That is a reasonable clarification. The clue is in the name “senior independent director”. The Department for Business and Trade was of the view that we should not be appointing an internal candidate to the role but that an external candidate should come in. That was the reason for the dispute.

On the matter of trying to delay, save money and not budget for compensation, this is on the record to be refuted. The conversation was between the Permanent Secretary and the chair one month into his appointment. A businessman comes in to review the company that he is now chairing. “Please can I have a meeting with you for you to tell me what you have seen? What are the pressure points, what’s good and what’s bad?” The conversation was entirely about the business operating model, not the postmaster compensation. That is a completely separate matter and the finance for it is ring-fenced. It is not within his budgetary concerns. They were talking about how this business model was fundamentally compromised and would not exist in the private sector.

But it is a public corporation and it needs to exist in the public sector. This is why we have this hybrid model. We have 11,500 post offices, of which 5,000 are in rural areas and 3,000 are the last shop in the village. That is not financially viable and would not survive any daylight in the private sector, but we all agree that it is legitimate that this is a vital public service for these rural communities, which is why the Treasury funds that to the tune of £50 million, specifically allocated to run a network which, frankly, is not profitable. That is an immediate discussion between the two and when you add in the pressures of last year, with the minimum wage increasing and energy prices increasing, you can see that there are budgetary pressures inside the operating model.

There is also a discussion about the Horizon computer. The Government have allocated £103 million to building a system to replace Horizon—which is now working fine but is clunky and clearly has not been the right system. So now a new system has been put in place. Any noble Lord in this Chamber who has done an IT project will understand how these budgets go—so there is a second pressure.

There are a number of business pressures being talked about. In the very first meeting between the chairman and his reporting senior civil servant, it is quite appropriate that they should talk about those pressures, and it may well be that the Permanent Secretary was explaining to a businessman, who had not worked with government before, about how government works and how communication works. Undoubtedly, a conversation was had between them, but the record now shows—and the letter written by Sarah Munby makes it very clear—that those discussions did not ever stray into the territory of “By the way, please can you solve your budget pressures by stopping or delaying compensation to postmasters”—that is simply not the case, and we can put it to bed now. It has been conflated and confused, but it is now on the record to show that it is simply not the case.

I turn to the compensation, and the question of whether the Government have been dragging their feet and why. There is absolutely no evidence that the Government have been dragging their feet and I will provide some evidence for that. There are three schemes in place: a scheme for the 900 wrongful convictions; a second scheme for the GLO 555, which, if you take out the convictions, is 477; and there is the Horizon shortfall scheme—the 2,500. That comes to just under 3,000 postmasters, and, today, 78% of all claims are paid and settled. Interestingly, of the 3,000 postmasters, 2,700 have received some sort of payment. Either they are settled, or they are interim, which means more than 90% of the cohort have received either a full and final settlement or an interim settlement on their way to final settlement. That was pushed through largely during 2023, and if we take the £160 million that has been paid out now to the 2,700, £138 million of that was paid out by December last year—before the series and the Bates documentary and under the tenure of Henry Staunton as chairman. Therefore, it is interesting that, under his chairmanship, there is no evidence—the opposite, in fact—that there has been any dragging of feet when it comes to compensation being made to the postmasters, of whom now 78% are fully settled and more than 90% have received compensation.

The noble Lord, Lord Fox, mentioned that this compensation process is clunky and bureaucratic. My noble friend Lord Arbuthnot, who is in the Chamber, will substantiate that the process has been put together by the subgroup; that is, the advisory group that Mr Bates has been involved with on how to make the process work and be fair. To be clear, the appeal process is more for the benefit of the postmasters and postmistresses to appeal, not for the Government to push back. The Government will not push back on the claims given; we need to give a process that, where an offer is made to a postmaster or postmistress and that individual does not feel it is high enough, they can appeal that process. That process has been designed by the advisory council, so, again, there is no evidence that we are dragging our feet.

In fact, when you look at the cohort of 477, who are part of the brave 555 group who have arguably been through the most trauma, having had to go to court and having been some of the most egregious examples, we want to process those claims as quickly as possible. We can go only as quickly as we receive the claims. What is interesting to me is that, of the 477 who have received the interim payment so far, only 58 full claims have been submitted, of which we have settled 41—we have settled 41 out of 58, we are settling as quickly as we can. Why is it only 58 full claims? It is because those postmasters and postmistresses are now in a position, with legal help, to access all the information to put their claim in, and they are taking their time to do that, and quite rightly so.

I think I can make the point that on convictions and compensation, the money is fully ring-fenced; it is not in the conversation about the operational matter of the Post Office—that is a completely separate issue—and we have committed to go as quickly as we can to make the payments and that is also why we are putting through legislation on the overturning of convictions.