I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Criminal Cases Review Commission’s process for review of convictions relating to the Post Office and Horizon accounting system.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe, and a privilege to have secured this debate. Following the completion of the litigation process, I am sure it will be the first of many on different aspects of this miscarriage of justice.
I pay tribute to those who have fought the corner of postmasters affected by the Horizon IT system over many years, particularly Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom and my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen). I also pay tribute to the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) for his sterling work, my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr Lord), who has worked so hard on the terrible case of Seema Misra, and many other Members across the House who have long campaigned on this issue.
I pay a particularly special tribute to those Post Office workers and campaigners who have had to overcome the myriad obstacles and hurdles that have been put in their way over the years. I am humbled by their fortitude and dignity, as they have continually—indeed, stoically—endured much in many ways, as their quest for justice goes on.
I have not come to Westminster Hall today to level criticism at the Post Office, nor to set out the background to the successful group litigation against the Post Office. I have no need to do so because the honourable Mr Justice Fraser, who I am sure will eventually go down in history as the next Lord Denning, has already comprehensively done so in his very fine judgments, particularly that handed down on 16 December 2019. I will, however, draw attention to the way in which the Post Office embarked on what appears to any outside observer to have been a war of attrition against its former employees throughout the litigation process, repeatedly appealing every decision, seeking to recuse the judge, and appealing the judgments that were handed down. That war of attrition ground down the claimants and forced them into a settlement, most of which will go towards meeting their legal fees.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point about the settlement. The case was supposed to be settled through a process of mediation. The settlement came to more than £57 million. Does she not think that it is outrageous that most of that sum is going to lawyers, which brings into disrepute the whole process of mediation—and I say that as a mediator myself? It is outrageous that mediation can charge so much for what was a fairly straightforward operation.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that vital point. Many of the postmasters thought that the £57 million would go to them, as was announced in the press. However, after the legal costs have been paid, it is unlikely that sufficient moneys will be left over to compensate even those from whom the Post Office extracted money when their tills did not balance. Even that money may not be refunded, never mind the costs for the actual losses suffered by postmasters. There will be nothing at all left for actual compensation.
I am sure the hon. Lady will agree that this whole episode has had far-reaching consequences for those affected by it. She will also be aware that the Select Committee on Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee is going to hold an inquiry. Does she share my view that there needs to be more than that? We need a full and comprehensive public inquiry, to ensure that this kind of shambles, which has cost so many people so much, never happens again.
The hon. Lady makes a very important point, which I will return to a little later in my speech. It is very welcome indeed that the BEIS Committee will look at this issue.
I am sure the hon. Lady will agree that this business—the Post Office—was effectively wholly owned by the Government. None of us should argue about whether lawyers should be paid for bringing litigation on behalf of these victims, but should not the Government themselves step in to ensure that all of that money—all of those lawyers’ fees—is paid by the Government?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, and it is absolutely right that those sub-postmasters who paid money they did not owe to the Post Office—simply on the basis of their tills not balancing, which was due to a flaw in the Horizon IT system—should be fully compensated for those losses, not to mention those they then suffered as consequence.
Actually, Fujitsu has a role to play in this process as well, because the judge made clear in his judgment that he doubted the veracity of some of the information he was given, and he subsequently made a referral to the Director of Public Prosecutions to query that information. There is a separate debate to be had on that issue, which we could have at a later stage.
May I praise my hon. Friend for her campaign against this miscarriage of justice? I and many other MPs are here in Westminster Hall today on behalf of our constituents. I am here on behalf of just three of the victims of this scandal: Gillian and Graham Howard, and Maria Lockwood. There are other victims across the country. Will my hon. Friend continue to work with me and other MPs so that we get justice and full redress for the victims of this miscarriage of justice?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and he is absolutely right that it is now down to us as parliamentarians to put right this miscarriage of justice. I am grateful for the support of many MPs from all parties, but I am also grateful, as I said earlier, for the incredible campaigning work that was done long before I came to this place.
I will make just one more point before I move on to the main issues I want to raise. I will put on the record that the judge handed down findings that confirmed that bugs, errors and defects did indeed exist in the Horizon IT accounting system, and that these defects had caused financial discrepancies, for which postmasters were held accountable. That is a very important finding and I am pleased to place it on the record.
The purpose of this debate, now that the litigation is complete, is to highlight the need to find a mechanism that will allow those Post Office workers affected by this scandal to put the nightmare behind them and move forward with their lives. Of course, until convictions are quashed and criminal records expunged, it is very hard to see how they can possibly do that.
So many of these decent people were pillars of their communities, working in a respected role in what was once a respected institution. They speak of the way that the wrongful allegations of theft and fraud, and their wrongful imprisonment, affected their reputations in their community, causing a deep sense of stigma, social isolation and shame for themselves and their families. For some of them, that was too much to bear.
I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this matter to Westminster Hall for us all to comment on, and so we can support her, too, as always. Does she agree that, since our courts have found that the Horizon system was unreliable, it follows that the convictions that relied on the Horizon data may also be unreliable? The argument that the interests of justice cannot be met unless we review convictions based on this flawed system is, therefore, understandable. The judgment, however, did not deal with the question of convictions, so there is still work to do to address that.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I thank him for his intervention, because we are just at the beginning. We now have the opportunity, as parliamentarians, to start work. This matter is no longer sub judice—we can talk about it—and it is fantastic that there is a groundswell of support from right across both Houses.
My hon. Friend and neighbour is making a very powerful case on behalf of all the victims, including my constituent, Rubbina Shaheen, who is one of three or four postmistresses who got into severe difficulties as a result of this error on the part of Fujitsu. She was convicted in 2010 and spent 12 months in jail. Her life was destroyed and she and her husband lost their home. What does my hon. Friend think we can do to try to hold to account those who are responsible and provide some justice for our constituents?
My right hon. Friend and neighbour is absolutely right, and I am glad he has had the opportunity to raise that distressing case. There is a great deal we can do to correct this miscarriage of justice. This debate is just the beginning. I have had very constructive conversations with members of the Ministry of Justice team. Overturning the convictions is one element, but we must have a mechanism to hold to account those who were responsible, who at some point in this saga were fully aware that the Horizon system was flawed. I am delighted that the BEIS Committee will, I hope, invite many of those responsible to give evidence.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate and on the work she has done. My constituent Karl Reid describes himself as one of the lucky ones because he was not jailed or convicted, but he did lose £50,000 and two businesses. He felt that he had to move out of the area where he used to have those businesses because of the associated shame and concern. Does she agree that, although it is a priority to get the convictions overturned, the consequences of the scandal go so much broader, to people such as Karl Reid? He describes himself as lucky, but I would not describe him as lucky, and I am sure the hon. Lady would not, either.
The hon. Lady is right and I fully endorse what she says. One direct benefit of the settlement and the conclusion of the litigation is that, as the representatives of postmasters who have been so grotesquely wronged, we now have the opportunity to correct that. I am thankful that the day has come.
I say to all those postmasters affected by this injustice that this debate is just the beginning. The Prime Minister has promised to get to the bottom of what happened, and I understand from what I heard at Prime Minister’s questions last week that he has agreed to an independent inquiry. Regrettably, in my experience, those responsible will have long since retired before any such inquiry even gets under way, but it is in any event a welcome first step.
What is hugely to be welcomed—I think all sub-postmasters affected will welcome this—is that next week the BEIS Committee will begin holding its inquiry and taking evidence. My constituent, Tracy Felstead, will be giving evidence next Tuesday. She is perhaps one of the most tragic cases, having only been a young 18-year-old girl in her first job straight out of school, delighted to be going to work for the Post Office. She ended up in Holloway Prison for six months and is still struggling to come to terms with the reality of what happened to her. The BEIS Committee inquiry is a fantastic opportunity for all the issues of the Horizon accounting system to be explored, in-depth and in public, and that is very important. The hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) is a very thorough Chair, and she will hold those responsible to account through her Committee. I know that all of us here today will welcome that.
I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this debate. I certainly welcome the BEIS Committee inquiry into the issue. Although justice and compensation are entirely appropriate, does she agree that no amount of compensation will restore the dignity that was lost by so many or repair the damage done to people’s physical and mental health by this long-standing scandal?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: no amount of money will ever compensate those affected. We need to help them get their lives back on track, and there are various ways we can do that. Having a sense that justice has been done is incredibly important, even if it is not possible to fully compensate for the losses suffered.
My constituent Pamela Lock had 80 hours of community service and, like many others, was sacked from the Post Office, but she continues to have a successful shop and bakery. We all understand that the financial pay-out will not be enough for the people affected and does not cover the losses, but the hon. Member said this debate is just the beginning. If this is the beginning, what hope can we give to victims of this travesty in terms of the timescale they have to work in?
The hon. Lady is right to raise that point, because many of these people have been suffering for many years. My constituent was one of the very first victims of this miscarriage of justice, with the event happening to her in 2000, so Members can imagine how she has suffered throughout that period. Indeed, her family have suffered, too.
I will move on to the question of how we get to the review of these convictions. A group litigation order was approved by the president of the Queen’s bench division, so it follows that a group remedy is possible when there are clearly common themes. One such common theme must surely be that convictions were achieved on the basis of the Horizon IT evidence, which Justice Fraser has ruled, as I said earlier, to be not “remotely robust” and prone to errors.
Dialogue with the Criminal Cases Review Commission has been helpful, and I am confident that it realises that the case is exceptional and should be treated as such, and that it will carefully consider all the common themes that would enable a referral to the Court of Appeal to be grouped. I very much hope that the CCRC continues with that mindset. I understand from my discussions with representatives of the Post Office that it would prefer each case to be treated separately. They have said that the Post Office will insist that those who pleaded guilty to false accounting should be excluded from the process. However, it seems to me that that should not be a matter for the Post Office to involve itself in. Should the cases be referred by the CCRC to the Court of Appeal, the Post Office will be a respondent. It would be wholly wrong for the Post Office to be involved in any decisions around the mechanisms for the quashing of the convictions, given that the convictions are of people whom it sought to prosecute.
One of the representatives of the Post Office said to me that he doubts many cases will be referred to the Court of Appeal and that those that do are unlikely to succeed. It seems to me that rather than learning the lessons and moving forward, as the Post Office suggests it has, it is in fact still intent on protecting the interests of the institution at all costs. That is hugely damaging to the Post Office. We love the Post Office. We support the Post Office and we want it to thrive, but to continue with that mindset, which Justice Fraser referred to as “institutional obstinacy”, is not only damaging to the Post Office brand and reputation, but adds insult to injury for those who have suffered as a direct consequence of its failure to see the world as round.
I have huge admiration for the Minister, who I know is a man of enormous integrity with an inquiring mind. He will, I have no doubt, read around the subject in depth, and I wish him well in his new role as Minister for the Post Office. With a new Minister in post, a new Government in office and a fine judgment from Justice Fraser, we have an opportunity to get justice done. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about how Government can help postmasters overturn wrongful convictions in a timely manner. I urge him to work with the excellent Minister for miscarriages of justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), to see how Government can help to support the CCRC in these unique circumstances and ensure that the Post Office and its management stay well out of these decisions.
As well as encouraging the Minister to see whether there is a way to overturn these wrongful convictions, does the hon. Lady agree that he should see if there is a way that people such as my constituent, who suffered losses of more than £100,000 and was forced to sell his business, are rightfully compensated? When I heard the size of the award, I was so pleased for all my constituents, but the majority of it seems to have gone on legal fees. My constituent tells me that he will receive hardly any of the £100,000 he lost, not to mention compensation. Does the hon. Lady think that the Government should seek to ensure that the majority of the award goes to the victims?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. It is unbelievable that the announcement was made by the Post Office on 11 December, when we all know what we were doing on 12 December. It was supposed to be part of a confidentiality agreement, and the Post Office announced that £57 million was to be paid to sub-postmasters when that was of course not the case. That is further evidence of the way in which the Post Office has conducted itself throughout the process. It is not acceptable to mislead in that way. The judge said almost the same thing regarding some of the evidence that was put before him. I therefore fully agree that that was a shameful part of this saga, although the whole saga is deeply shameful.
I invite the Minister to consider the many very real conflicts of interest. I will not outline them all, but I will put on record that his Department owns the equity in the Post Office, provides up to £1 billion in debt funding, approves the board, monitors performance, and provides annual grants. Last year’s grant was £50 million. I will say no more on that, but I will give him a list of the conflicts of interest, which also include personnel, at a later date. In a modern business environment, we need to be alert to the fact that such conflicts do not prevent justice from being done.
I am encouraged by discussions with Ministers and across parties. There is a clear will in Parliament to move forward and see justice done. Whatever obstacles the Post Office continues to put in the way, I hope it senses the appetite in Parliament and hears the voice of the judge in this case. The Post Office needs to stop putting obstacles in the way of justice; it is doing the organisation no favours whatever.
I am sure the Minister will agree that the Post Office has had the opportunity to be part of the solution over and over again, and that that time has passed. Given all its actions throughout, including the mediation process back in 2015 that it simply cancelled—it did not like what the forensic accountants were saying, and it fired them—the Post Office has had its opportunity to be part of the solution. Its behaviour in the litigation suggests that it has no interest whatever in finding a solution for postmasters; its interests lie in preserving the institution no matter what.
I hope we can all ensure that the Post Office does not stand in the way of the work of the CCRC or the Court of Appeal. I put on record my thanks to the campaign group, which has done amazing work against the odds, and to the Chairman of Ways and Means, who allowed this debate. I know that many others wanted to be granted a debate on this subject, and I am grateful that I was given the opportunity. It is we, in this place, who must now find a solution to this grotesque injustice—a miscarriage of justice of immense proportions—and we must do so whatever the obstacles, come what may.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I congratulate the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) on securing this incredibly important debate, and thank her for the work that she has been doing to expose the Post Office’s utterly despicable behaviour in the entire proceedings, from the very outset when people were prosecuted.
Prior to my election to the House, I practised criminal law from my local chambers in Hull, prosecuting and defending. Prior to that, I worked for a firm of solicitors in Hull, the Max Gold Partnership. I think it was in 2006 that I met a sub-postmaster who was implicated in these proceedings. Janet Skinner was prosecuted by the Post Office for theft. During the short proceedings, the prosecution offered her the opportunity to plead guilty to false accounting, which she did. She was sentenced accordingly by Hull Crown court, and received a custodial sentence of nine months in prison.
Janet Skinner had a son, Matthew, who was 14 and clearly busy with his studies in preparation for various exams that were coming down the track. Her daughter, Toni, who was 17, was in the middle of examinations at the time. It was an incredible shock to Janet Skinner. I remember her instructions to me quite well. I have had the opportunity to speak with her subsequently; indeed, I spoke to her yesterday evening. When I think back, with the benefit of hindsight, I find it chilling and it makes my blood run cold. The prosecuting authority offered the opportunity to plead to a lesser offence, yet according to Janet’s instructions to me, she was effectively led to commit the offence of false accounting.
It is a bit like being locked in a burning building, speaking to the emergency services, being advised to smash a window to get out and then, weeks or months later, being prosecuted for the offence of criminal damage. It is utterly deplorable. Lawyers watching the debate will say that that is not a perfect analogy because there is an inbuilt defence to criminal damage, which is reasonable excuse. That does not exist for section 17 of the Theft Act 1968, which provides for the offence of false accounting. It really is utterly deplorable. Janet Skinner and others contacted the Post Office to say, “We have problems with the system. The books are not balancing. What’s going on?”. The Post Office should have investigated the IT system, rather than rushing to interview and investigate, and threatening to interview people whether they liked it or not.
The contract between the sub-postmaster and the Post Office was unbelievable. I did not know this then, but the contract said that sub-postmasters were not allowed legal representation in those initial proceedings. Therefore, their only possible representation was through the National Federation of SubPostmasters, which happens to be completely owned and financed by Post Office Ltd. That is almost like a solicitor representing a client in a police station regarding criminal proceedings for serious offences—there are more serious offences, but this is dishonesty; this is where reputational damage can be caused, and people cannot live with the consequences of the charges—while working for the Crown Prosecution Service. It is utterly deplorable, and I honestly do not think that I have heard of anything as bad for a very long time.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the real difficulty in tackling such wrongful convictions will involve those who pleaded guilty? Our legal system does not provide a simple way of overturning convictions when there has been a guilty plea, and for good reasons. In this case, however, there may be reasons for that to be looked at. That will be the thorniest problem for the Minister.
My hon. Friend is spot on. There are major problems in that regard, though I am very hopeful. However, I do not want to interfere with the Criminal Cases Review Commission and the hearing that is bound to come for those individuals whose convictions will be considered by the Court of Appeal.
I suppose my point is that Janet Skinner should never have been prosecuted in the first place. She should never have been led, off the record, to falsely account. When her system was not balancing at the end of the day, she rang the Post Office to say, “What do I do?”. Off the record, the Post Office said, “Well, just make something up.” There is never a paper trail of that advice being given.
Although I will hopefully make my speech in a little while, I will first make a point that the Chamber might appreciate, based on sub-postmasters’ evidence to me about how they got into the position of being forced to admit guilt due to false accounting. The system did not balance when they came to close down at the end of the day. They knew they had not done anything wrong, so they looked for the fault and checked the stock for a compensating error, by which time the helpline to the Post Office was closed. Under the contract that those sub-postmasters had signed—a very onerous contract that was slanted in favour of the Post Office—they could not open their post office the following morning unless they closed off the books that night. That left them thinking, “It will be all right in the morning; I will find the fault tomorrow.” In that moment of closing off, they were guilty of false accounting—something that was held over them all the way through the process with the Post Office.
From a legal perspective, false accounting is not a strict liability offence, so there is an opportunity to defend against that allegation. However, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that those sub-postmasters were put into a position where they could do nothing but make those false accounts. That is why I think this is the most disgusting example of predatory capitalism that I have ever come across. I say that because Post Office Ltd, along with Fujitsu, invested £1 billion in that IT system. I suspect that senior people within Post Office Ltd were desperate to maintain the reputation of the Post Office, but also, sadly, to maintain their own reputation as senior people within that business. I think people misled from the very outset.
I have read many judgments, both while practising in criminal cases and since that time, and I have never read a judgment as damning as that of Mr Justice Fraser. For that, I pay huge tribute to him. I do not know Mr Justice Fraser, but I know that his practice was technical—in the areas of engineering and technology—and it is clear from his understanding and grasp of that case that he knew exactly what was happening. I think that evidence given in that hearing was tantamount to perverting the course of justice, which I suspect is why Mr Justice Fraser has referred the matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions, Max Hill QC, for him to consider. Honestly, this is utterly deplorable.
Of course, people will say, “Those victims can rely on civil litigation to bring an action for malicious prosecution,” but what sub-postmaster has £50,000, £60,000 or £70,000 spare when their careers have been ruined and every penny they had amassed in savings has gone to pay off the Post Office—money that they did not actually owe?
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful point based on his experience of the law, but I ask him to comment on the corporate governance aspect. He has touched on corporate responsibility; does he not, as I do, find this utterly astonishing given the volume of similar allegations being made right across the country? It is not as though this were isolated to a geographic area or particular type of sub-postmaster; it was happening right across the country. Any corporate directorship or management scheme worth its salt would have identified that there was a fundamental problem and sought to find the root cause of it, rather than immediately reach for their solicitors’ letters.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: alarm bells must have been ringing. I am not saying that my legal advice at the time was bad advice; I think it was perfectly good, considering the weight of the evidence and the instructions I was receiving. However, somewhere in the Post Office, someone must have been saying, “Hang on a minute. We get maybe two or three allegations of wrongdoing per month or year”—I do not know what the figures might be—“but all of a sudden, we have 550 thieving, dishonest sub-postmasters who have never had so much as a parking ticket in their lives,” as Janet Skinner said to me. It is utterly deplorable.
For me, the alarm bell rang in 2015 when “Panorama” did its documentary, which was chilling. My blood ran cold, because I had to remind myself what advice I had given and check with myself whether everything had been absolutely right in that regard. Since I have been involved with this matter, I have been contacted by a sub-postmaster who got the opportunity to not be prosecuted by paying the Post Office back; he had to sell his house to do so. He has made the important point that the only people he could turn to were those in the National Federation of SubPostmasters.
That sub-postmaster agreed to do an interview in a spare bedroom of his own home. He says in his email that he was shocked to witness the investigating officer, when speaking with the NFSP representative, telling him to “fucking shut up”. At the time, he thought for that reason that the NFSP representative was on his side, but he now thinks that it was all a scam—that the representative was pretending to be interested, to be befriending him, and to be representing him in that interview.
Mr Turner, can I ask you to start winding up?
Thank you, Mr McCabe; I will finish now. That sub-postmaster is now wondering whether what he experienced was all part of the scam. Given what has now been found in these proceedings, I wonder that as well.
People have to be compensated properly. Lawyers must be paid. This was an incredibly costly litigation—a David and Goliath situation in which people needed to make representations in proceedings before courts. The Government must step in immediately, pay the legal costs on behalf of those victims, and get them the money they so desperately deserve.
I am going to have to impose a six-minute limit on speeches if we are to get everybody else in.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) on securing the debate. I will keep my offering reasonably brief, because I hope to speak in greater detail during the Backbench Business debate on Thursday 19 March.
It is worth reminding Members present of the points I made in this very Chamber during a debate in December 2014. They are credible evidence that the Post Office knew about the flaws in the Horizon system throughout the whole time it was prosecuting sub-postmasters, and that it tried to suppress evidence and the investigation that we, as a group of MPs with the help of Second Sight, were running into the activities and efficacy of the Horizon system. They illustrate why these convictions are unsafe and should be quashed.
This whole issue first came to my attention because of the plight of one of my constituents, a Mr Michael Rudkin, who for 15 years was a sub-postmaster. He had served as the most senior member on the national executive of the NFSP and as chairman of the federation’s negotiating committee, where he was responsible for negotiating with Post Office Ltd and Royal Mail Group. He is an experienced sub-postmaster who was very much on the side of the sub-postmasters. I will share his experience, because he was well aware of problems in the Horizon system.
Mr Rudkin’s story really starts on Tuesday 19 August 2008. In his official capacity as a negotiator on behalf of the sub-postmasters, he was invited to a meeting at the Fujitsu and Post Office Ltd offices in Bracknell to discuss problems with the Horizon system. When Mr Rudkin gave me this evidence, I had no doubt that he was telling the truth—he was an honest man—and a Fujitsu whistleblower has since come forward to confirm everything he said.
On his arrival that Tuesday morning, my constituent signed the visitors’ book in reception and waited for his chaperone, a Mr Martin Rolfe. Mr Rolfe took him to the second or third floor, and they entered a suite where Mr Rudkin recognised Horizon equipment on display on the benches. There was only one other person in the room, a male of approximately 30 to 35 years old, who was reluctant to engage in conversation when he realised that Mr Rudkin was a representative of the sub-postmasters. Mr Rolfe asked Mr Rudkin to follow him through a number of pass-protected security doors and down some stairs. They went down to the ground floor and entered the boiler room. Mr Rudkin states that a number of men dressed in casual office wear were standing around the doorway. They became very uncomfortable about Mr Rudkin’s presence and left.
Having entered the boiler room, Mr Rudkin instantly recognised two Horizon terminals. There were data on both screens, and an operative was sitting in front of one of them, on which the pure feed for the Horizon system came into the building. Mr Rudkin asked if what he could see were real-time data available on the system. Mr Rolfe said, “Yes. I can actually alter a bureau de change figure to demonstrate that this is live.” He was going to alter a figure on a sub-postmaster’s computer remotely. Mr Rolfe then laughed and said, “I’ll have to put it back. Otherwise, the sub-postmaster’s account will be short tonight.”
The Post Office, throughout its prosecutions, relied on what it stated in court and in evidence to the panel of MPs six or seven years ago, that there was no remote access from its headquarters to individual sub-postmasters’ computers. The moment that we established that, years ago, every single one of those convictions was unsafe and the Post Office knew it.
Mr Rudkin obviously raised his concern in 2008. He had been told the same as everyone else, that no one could access the computers remotely and any shortfall was therefore bound to be down to the sub-postmaster. When they realised who he was, he was escorted from the building very quickly. He was taken to reception and told to leave.
Mysteriously, and ominously, the next day, Wednesday 20 August 2008, a Post Office Ltd auditor, a gentleman Mr Rudkin knew, Paul Fields, arrived at Mr Rudkin’s sub-post office in Ibstock in my constituency. He proceeded to tell Mr Rudkin that his branch had a loss of £44,000—a loss that he knew existed before he had even looked at the system on Mr Rudkin’s computer.
Mr Rudkin was absolved of all knowledge of the loss by Post Office Ltd, but he was ordered to pay the money back. He paid it at a rate of £1,000 a month from his salary. As we have heard, the sub-postmaster is completely liable under the contract for all losses. As he points out, why would someone steal money from themselves when they know that they will have to pay it back?
After Mr Rudkin had paid £13,000 back to Post Office Ltd, the Post Office started proceedings against his wife for false accounting. We have heard it all before. It also applied for a confiscation order on his property and had his bank account frozen under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. Mr Rudkin has since cleared all his debts to Post Office Ltd, but in the process, he has lost his business, his reputation, his position as a magistrate, some property and his good name, and he has been unable to work since. His wife was prosecuted and had to complete community service having been warned that she could face a prison sentence unless she pleaded guilty.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) on her effective and efficient introduction to the debate. All parts of the United Kingdom have been affected by this utterly disgraceful scandal. Postmasters up and down the country and across in Northern Ireland have been affected. Whether our constituencies are rural or have large towns, all hon. Members know how important central post office services are to our constituents. Post offices take on an even more significant role when banks withdraw from our constituencies, so the reputation of the people in the post office is so important.
My uncle was a postmaster in Dundonald. Although, thankfully, he was not caught up in this situation, he often talked about how the system caused many people in the post office to work under an atmosphere of fear in case it did not tally and was not right. They saw what was happening to colleagues of sound reputation and how their lives were being destroyed by what was going on. The injustice done to more than 500 postmasters is all the more duplicitous given how central post offices and the standing of the workers in them are to our community.
After the judgment was made in December, my constituent Mr Graham came to me to outline the problems that he has gone through. I will not recite the details, as the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) has eloquently put on record one specific example, and we have heard other examples of individuals.
I salute the fortitude of the campaigners. One can imagine people putting their heads down and saying, “Let’s just hope this goes away,” but they have stood up and fought, because they have suffered a personal injustice that means that they want the matter to be put right. Their reputations have been ruined and their family’s lives have been completely disrupted, yet they have faced the injustice.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Post Office was given prosecution powers, which meant that the prosecutions it brought did not have to go through the Crown Prosecution Service for review, as normal prosecutions would? It abused those powers, as far as I am concerned.
The hon. Member for Telford made it absolutely clear that the Post Office and the authorities should hang their heads in shame about how they acted.
Before I became a Member of Parliament, I worked on a campaign with the Criminal Cases Review Commission. It was a murder conviction of four individuals called Latimer, Allen, Bell and Hegan. I had to try to find fresh factors or new evidence that would overcome a very high standard to persuade the commission to send that case to the High Court for a retrial. I found that the statements had been wrongly written, which sufficed to get the case back to court. Ultimately, three of those murder convictions were overturned on that basis.
In this case, the Post Office admitted in court that it had got it wrong. A letter from the former Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Corporate Responsibility, the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst), states that the Post Office had not only “got things wrong” but “apologised” for its actions to all the postmasters. A statement from the most senior lord justice says that what the Post Office has done
“amounts to the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the earth is flat”,
and that the Post Office has completely ignored reality.
According to my reading of the Criminal Cases Review Commission process, those statements alone show that there are fresh factors on the table and new evidence that was not available before. Those cases should be expedited and brought to the courts without delay. There should be a fast-track process for those people so that they can get justice at last, have their day in court, have their reputations restored to them, have some semblance of normality and have the right to say, “We were not wrong. We have faced an injustice and it must now be put right.” The earlier that happens, the better, because the fresh factors and new evidence are there and should be raised.
As the Minister knows, there is a double injustice in this case. On the one hand, the postmasters thought that they had won through the mediation process and were handed a secret solution or compensation package. But on the other hand, when it was within a hand’s grasp, like Lady Macbeth, it disappeared in front of them when they went to take it. It was no longer there. It is an atrocious set of circumstances where the lawyers have been allowed to win and the postmasters have faced a double injustice and will not get their compensation.
Some people have said that it is up to the Government to pay, but I leave that to the Government. It is up to the Post Office to pay. The Post Office put that injustice on my constituent—on our constituents. Someone is responsible here. The Government could step in and hold the line until the matter is resolved, but ultimately the Post Office should be made to pay.
The Government should force the Post Office to pay. When we have a situation where lie after lie after lie has been told by Post Office Ltd, it needs to be forced by the Government to cough up and sort this out.
The hon. Member and I are on the same page. This has got to be sorted out and a payment has got to be made. Ultimately, the right person and the right corporation have to be held responsible and accountable for their actions. If individuals have done even some of the things that the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire recounted to the House on behalf of his constituent—my goodness! Four or five people in the basement of that room should be taken to court and held accountable for their actions. We need to face this issue honestly and openly.
I call on the Government to have some transparency. Let the public be the judge and jury. Let us set out with transparency the amount of money that was supposed to be paid, and who is getting what of that money. If it means shaming certain people for walking away with their pockets stuffed full because they represented a case—they are entitled to their payments, but postmasters get absolutely zilch in some circumstances—that should be exposed. I hope it is exposed. I call on the Minister to ensure that we have that transparency, because of what has now happened.
I call Duncan Baker. Mr Baker, thank you for notifying me of your interests. Will you repeat the information for the record?
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) for bringing this debate forward. I declare that I was a sub-postmaster for two post offices before I became an MP. I have resigned as a director of the company that runs those post offices. I have no interests anymore and none of the staff I employed were affected by this issue. My only interest is that of my constituents who are affected.
I wonder if anyone else in this room has been a sub-postmaster. It is important because, having done the job, although admittedly not every day, I have used the Horizon system. I have heard about and seen at first hand the experience of making up the losses, and I thoroughly empathise with the utterly awful situation that hundreds of innocent victims have found themselves in.
Many of the individuals who worked tirelessly running post offices were as honest and trustworthy as the day is long. They have had their careers and livelihoods wrecked. Indeed, as we have heard, people have been made bankrupt because of a flawed system that accused them of theft. As we all here agree, that is a true miscarriage of justice. People have lost their life savings; even worse than that, young women have been jailed and have struggled to rebuild their lives because of a criminal record.
I have constituents in North Norfolk who have gone through such a trauma. Their story will be similar to more than 500 other cases, each as harrowing and as appalling. I do not want to reveal the names of my constituents because they still struggle to talk about these issues.
Accused of stealing thousands, suspended from their role and then charged, one of my constituents found themselves in the Crown court and was offered a deal to plead guilty to false accounting to enable the theft charges to be dropped. Why would they accept that? This lady was a grandmother and she told me that she was not prepared to look her grandchildren in the eye and say that granny was going to jail. That is not right—we all know that. In my constituent’s case, the amount was reduced to £12,000. Interest and legal costs of a further £9,000 meant a debt of £21,000. That is lower than some of the costs we have heard about, but we should just imagine being levelled with £21,000 to pay, when it is not our fault.
I appreciate the experience that my hon. Friend brings to this debate. Through our investigations years ago, we discovered that the Horizon system had a suspense account in it. It was a flawless system, yet it had a suspense account, where unallocated funds ended up throughout the whole system. The surplus—and it was a surplus—ran to hundreds of thousands of pounds a year, and after three years it was returned to the profit and loss account.
Order. Come on, Mr Bridgen. I call Duncan Baker.
To date, my constituent has had no money back, like many others. They have had no indication of when the money is coming back and we are sceptical about how much they will get back.
Financial compensation is just one issue. The mental strain and loss of earnings should also be taken extremely seriously. There is the humiliation of walking down the street and being accused of stealing, having done nothing wrong. We are a fair society and it is our responsibility to ensure that those people are paid back in full.
I totally agree that the £58 million that was put to one side will no doubt be hoovered up by lawyers. What will be left for the real victims? That is not right. The Government must intervene and force the Post Office to make good the losses that those postmasters have suffered, in full. The board of the Post Office is accountable for this fiasco. Action must be taken against it. The issue is most definitely worthy of a public inquiry to uncover the extent of the wrongdoing that has occurred. We need transparency and a fair analysis.
As far as I am concerned, the Post Office knew that Horizon had bugs, errors and defects. It was told about that and chose to ignore it. Multiple accounts of losses should ring alarm bells in any organisation, but the Post Office was more concerned with its reputation and so individuals were accused of stealing, false accounting and fraud. Their names have to be cleared. The criminal records of those jailed must be overturned.
My constituents, who cannot bring themselves to talk about this, still feel the shame of being accused and nothing will repair the damage of losing their livelihood. However, I want to say, from my personal experience of being a sub-postmaster, that the post office is an invaluable place on our dwindling high streets. It is a hub for people to go to that offers incredible services. Post office workers do an incredible job. It is hard; there are many transactions to master. They do a superb job. The people accused should be properly recompensed, supported and entirely vindicated.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I thank the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker), whose personal experience is welcome in today’s debate. I thank the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) for securing the debate. She outlined the background and history to this long, complex and shameful episode, presided over by the Post Office and a Government who I believe have so far sidestepped responsibility for the hundreds of lives ruined by this scandal.
From the outset of the Post Office introducing the Horizon computer system, sub-postmasters were reporting problems. Instead of the Post Office listening to them, it took the draconian approach of terminating contracts, hounding sub-postmasters out of their businesses and pursuing prosecutions. As we have heard this afternoon, the results were charges of theft and fraud, reputational damage, loss of homes, bankruptcy, loss of life savings and, for some, the loss of their freedom. It took until December last year, when there was a judgment, for the Post Office to admit that it “made mistakes” and “got things wrong”. This was more than mistakes and getting things wrong; it ruined people’s lives.
It is an utter insult to tell my constituents who have suffered this injustice that it was simply a mistake. The Post Office’s mistakes cost Kevin Carter, who ran one of our local post offices with his wife, absolutely everything. His wife Julie noticed discrepancies in Horizon from the outset. She frequently reported concerns, but they fell on deaf ears. Being decent people, they began to use their own money to balance the books.
After continually raising concerns over several years, and with shortfalls increasing, Julie was invited to an informal disciplinary meeting. The Post Office demanded she pay back the unaccounted moneys and accused her of fraud. After remortgaging their home, Kevin and Julie were forced to pay the Post Office a total of £75,000. Julie suffers from multiple sclerosis, and the situation exacerbated her condition. She and Kevin had worked hard. They had a lovely home and employed 14 staff. Their lives have now completely changed for the worse. Kevin and Julie, like many others, never gave up. They joined the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, and an exhausted Kevin recently told me, “Quite simply, we’ve lost our family home. We’ve lost everything.” It literally cannot get worse than that.
Another constituent, Dionne Andre, bought two post offices in South Shields. After noticing discrepancies, and being a decent, honest person, she too started using her own money to try to put things right. Accused of fraud after the Post Office lost a recording of a disciplinary meeting with her, she was told, “Pay up, or we’re sending you to prison.” Dionne paid £70,000, but she was never told by the Post Office whether it had dropped the fraud case against her, so she continued to live in constant fear of being arrested. She was then told by the Post Office that she had to resign. She was forced to sell her business at a £50,000 loss and the Post Office prevented her from selling her second business, for which she had paid a quarter of a million pounds. She lost absolutely everything. Dionne is now in her 40s, but she had a promising future back in her early 30s. She told me that her working life has now gone, and it has taken years for her to try to build it back up.
Anyone who has ever had to fight for justice over a number of years, in order to clear their name when they are losing everything, will know that it can take its toll, physically and mentally. The reputational damage and utter shame, for something that they know they were not responsible for, will stay with them forever. I think we can all agree that mud always sticks, yet the people responsible are doing just fine. That is why nothing less than an independent, judge-led inquiry into this miscarriage of justice will do.
After legal costs, the damages payouts awarded will amount to only about £10 million for 550 people. In short, they are never going to get back the money they lost. For those wrongly convicted, their criminal record remains. Although some of these cases are being reviewed, they should all be reviewed. It is not good enough for successive Ministers to wash their hands and repeat the mantra that the Post Office operates as a commercial independent business and they have no day-to-day control over it. Given that it is a state-owned private company, the Government have a statutory duty to be involved in the Post Office—a duty that they have abdicated.
In the other place, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Lord Callanan, recently admitted that the Government were passive in their duties on the board of the Post Office. Why did they allow the Post Office to spend phenomenal sums of money on persecuting innocent people in the courts? Why did they not speak up for sub-postmasters? More importantly, who is the Government’s representative? Surely the Government should pay up for the legal costs incurred, or at least put pressure on the Post Office to do so.
The Post Office’s sheer obstinance and obfuscation has been left unchallenged by the Government. It has been left to former sub-postmasters in the depths of despair to organise and fight for justice, but justice is still being denied. Their financial recompense is pitiful, and the lack of accountability and action against those responsible is completely woeful. The Government need to take culpability and stop abdicating their responsibility for those who are being denied justice. Given that this is not a new issue, I sincerely hope that the Minister has come prepared and can furnish us with some hope and positivity—for a change.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) on securing this important debate. I want to make it clear that the CCRC applies only to England and Wales, and the Scottish equivalent, the Scottish CCRC, has not received any applications for review but does not rule out the possibility. I will not mention all the speakers who have taken part in the debate. I will try to get through my speech as quickly as I can, so that we can give the Opposition spokesperson and the Minister more time.
The Scottish National party has called for a full independent inquiry into the Horizon system, because justice must be done. I have lost count of the number of times I have taken part in Westminster Hall debates on various aspects of the Post Office, including how Horizon has affected sub-postmasters and post office staff. The Post Office and the National Federation of SubPostmasters have not acquitted themselves well over the issue of the Horizon accounting system—I do not normally use sarcasm in this place, but that is a sarcastic remark.
I wonder whether the Minister has listened to “File on 4” on BBC Radio 4. The harrowing effect on victims of the now discredited Horizon system, and the evidence of the Second Sight forensic accountants, is truly appalling. Post Office Ltd knew there was remote access to the system but denied that that was the case. Second Sight told Post Office Ltd of its concerns, but they were ignored. It is no wonder that the whole situation spiralled out of control. The honourable Justice Fraser, who presided at the recent trial, clarified that the Government own the Post Office:
“I would also add that Post Office Ltd, the corporate Defendant in these proceedings, is ultimately owned by the Government, admittedly through a corporate chain and a Government Department. It therefore either is, or shares a large number of features with, a public body. That is not to say that its decisions are subject (for example) to judicial review (and that point was not argued at all, so I am not expressing any view) but it cannot be seen as entirely private and wholly commercial.”
At every turn, successive Tory Governments have refused to deal with concerns about Post Office Ltd. In one debate, the then Minister told me—I am paraphrasing—that everything was fine because Post Office Ltd was now making a profit. As the hon. Member for Telford mentioned, the Prime Minister appeared to commit to a full independent inquiry at Prime Minister’s questions last week. On Monday, however, Computer Weekly contacted No. 10 to ask explicitly whether the Prime Minister had committed to a full public inquiry and whether it would be judge-led. No. 10’s response makes it clear that a decision has not been made:
“We take the Post Office’s relationship with its postmasters very seriously and closely monitored the situation during the legal proceedings. The Post Office, under its new CEO, has since accepted it got things wrong, apologised and has said it aims to re-establish a positive relationship with postmasters. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is working actively with the Post Office on this matter and will hold them to account on their progress. We are also looking into what more needs to be done.”
That does not appear to be what the Prime Minister said in the Chamber, and I would like the Minister to address that.
Post Office Ltd has spent millions trying to defend itself in the Horizon cases and caused untold damage to many innocent people, who paid up to prevent prosecution. Some 56 cases are in the hands of the CCRC, which will start to consider them this month. It is likely that the appeals will be successful, which could allow applicants to recover damages.
The hands-off approach taken by Tory Governments to Post Office Ltd could end up costing taxpayers even more millions of pounds. Indeed it should, because the Government should look to support the victims of the scandal, who should not be out of pocket for the financial harm they have suffered.
What is the hon. Lady’s view of the situation for sub-postmasters who were coerced into pleading guilty? What should they get in response?
I see them as being as much victims of the Horizon scandal as any person who was taken to court, and they should be financially compensated. This is a national scandal, and the biggest involving IT in the public domain so far.
At the heart of the issue is the UK Government’s laissez-faire attitude. They refuse time and again to intervene despite being the special shareholder. The UK Government must take action to ensure that it does not happen again and that sub-postmasters and post office staff are supported and financially compensated. The UK Government can no longer sit on their hands. They must launch an independent investigation and ensure that such miscarriages of justice never happen again.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr McCabe. I thank the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) for securing this important debate.
This extremely serious matter has raised worrying questions about the management and governance structures of Post Office Ltd and the way in which the Government oversee it as a public body. I pay tribute to the many sub-postmasters who have endured the harsh realities of this national scandal. Among them is Alan Bates, who has spearheaded the litigation that ultimately saw sub-postmasters get some of the vindication they deserved. Like Mr Bates, I know that the successful litigation was the first step towards achieving justice. I also pay tribute to journalist Nick Wallis, who has followed the case from the beginning and has been a passionate champion for the sub-postmasters’ cause over many years.
This debate relates specifically to the review of criminal cases, so I am disappointed that the Ministry of Justice is not responding to it. Will the Minister explain why it is a BEIS representative who is responding, when the topic of the debate was intended to fall under the brief of the Ministry of Justice?
The wrongful conviction of sub-postmasters has had an impact on the lives of far too many individuals and their families. People have lost their livelihoods, had their businesses stolen from them and, in many cases, been ostracised from their communities. For those affected, that has been a living nightmare.
One young woman began her career as a sub-postmaster at the age of 18, but after prosecution and conviction she has faced unemployment and financial ruin at a time when her adult life and independence should have begun. Another sub-postmaster whose life was turned upside down was bankrupted by legal fees and shunned by the community he had so diligently served. His neighbours would not speak to him, and his daughter was spat at on the bus to school. In one of the most tragic examples, one sub-postmaster took their own life, such was the shame, anxiety and stress that the Post Office’s heavy-handed pursuit of them brought on. Sub-postmasters who were implicated in Horizon’s IT failures have been wrongly labelled as criminals, had their lives turned upside down and, in some cases, faced decades of debt and social disgrace.
On 11 December, while we were all busy with our election campaigns, the sub-postmasters’ fight for justice took a huge step forward. The Post Office agreed to pay a £58 million settlement to the 557 sub-postmasters who brought court action against it. Mr Justice Fraser noted in his ruling that the Post Office felt entitled to treat sub-postmasters
“in capricious or arbitrary ways which would not be unfamiliar to a mid-Victorian factory-owner.”
That falls far below the standards we would expect from one of Britain’s most recognisable and trusted institutions. Mr Justice Fraser also raised concerns about the structure of accountability within the Post Office, stating that it appeared
“to conduct itself as though it is answerable only to itself.”
That was evident in the way in which the Post Office handled its litigation; it was noted that the Post Office pursued the trial with the resources and effort of a blue-chip tech company.
It is worth remembering that litigation was brought to address the errors of a Government-owned company, which was ultimately found at fault for the vicious pursuit and prosecution of hundreds of sub-postmasters. The Post Office is a Government-owned company. A civil servant sits on the board and its only shareholder is the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, so more should have been done to address the scandal before it was allowed to fester to this extent.
In the light of the number of wrongful convictions, a group expungement of the criminal records of those convicted seems the most suitable way forward. Unfortunately, the Post Office has resisted that idea and would prefer each sub-postmaster to bring their own legal action to overturn their conviction. That is completely outrageous. People who have lived for many years through the scandal and lost everything, including their savings and reputations, are now being asked to go back to court to give their own evidence, despite Mr Justice Fraser’s finding that the Horizon computer system by Fujitsu was at fault. The Post Office was alerted to those faults many years ago, so it should not have any illusions about the system’s effectiveness.
It is striking that the Post Office seems to have learned nothing from the unnecessary prosecutions of 557 hard-working sub-postmasters or from the huge amount of anger expressed by judges, parliamentarians and the public. Instead, it forges ahead as though it has done nothing wrong. I urge the Minister to work with colleagues in the Ministry of Justice to move towards overturning, quickly and fairly, the convictions of the sub-postmasters affected by Horizon.
Serious questions need to be answered about the relationship between the company and the Government. The Government have been content to parrot the Post Office’s line throughout the process, claiming that the December settlement was the end of the matter. Nothing could be further from the truth for the people who are still fighting for justice.
My hon. Friend, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on post offices and has long been an advocate on this issue, is making a powerful case. Does she agree that, although the scandal is outrageous and should never have happened, the Government and Select Committee investigations need to follow the money? People lost their livelihoods to pay that money back, so where did it go? Where was the shortfall? Somewhere, there are bulks of money that obviously went to the Post Office, which should use it to pay the legal fees as part of the compensation.
My hon. Friend makes a key point. People have paid money, so where is it? That must be at the heart of any investigation.
Unfortunately, fundamental corporate change within the Post Office seems a long way off, given the close relationship between both current and previous Post Office officials and the Government. The Post Office is being allowed to mark its own homework, meaning that a culture of denial is likely to persist. Could the Minister explain why Paula Vennells, the former chief executive of the Post Office, whom Judge Fraser noted was practising
“the 21st-century equivalent of maintaining the earth is flat”,
serves in the Cabinet Office?
The management and governance of the Post Office were severely criticised by the judges, so I raised the issue with the previous Minister. Will the new Minister call for a full review of the governance and management and of the relationship between the two? Furthermore, will he look closely at the way in which the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, which is fully paid and resourced by the Post Office, has acted throughout the affair?
It is important that the taxpayer is not left to foot the bill for mistakes made by management. In December 2019, BEIS paid the Post Office £50 million as a network subsidy payment to cover the operating costs for the network. Will the Minister assure us that not a penny of that public money will be used to fund the December 2019 settlement or any future litigation?
The consistent failings of the Post Office, spanning more than two decades, have caused immeasurable damage to hundreds of lives. Only now is the full picture beginning to emerge. I welcome the commitment from the Prime Minister for a full public inquiry into the issue. I have already written to ask him to confirm that that is the case, and to give me timescales. Unsurprisingly, I have not received a letter back to that effect.
The convictions we have discussed today, however, must be dealt with as a matter of urgency. The Post Office and the Government must wake up and use every influence to ensure that the seriousness of the situation is realised. I hope this debate is one step in helping to move this process along. We must secure an independent, judge-led inquiry to quash the convictions, to pay up what the convicted have lost and, most of all, to clear the names of those hard-working decent people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) on securing this important debate about the Criminal Cases Review Commission’s review of the convictions. As we heard, there has been a lot of human cost to what has happened over the past few years, and as the new Post Office Minister, I will dedicate my time to ensuring that we can see this through, keeping the Post Office on its toes, so that we come to a proper conclusion that means something to the postmasters who have suffered in the past. We also want to give confidence to the postmasters of the future about their ability to work in the network.
I am responding to the debate, rather than a Justice Minister, because, as I suspected, the debate has widened beyond the CCRC part of the situation. I hope to respond more fully to those wider points.
The hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) asked what hope we can give to the victims about timescales. That will obviously depend on the complexity of each case so, yes, although we want to get this dealt with as soon as possible—it has without doubt been going on a long time—just having a tick-box approach would not be fair on those postmasters or give the answers that we need to move forward.
Does the Minister agree that the convictions should be treated as a group? They should be overturned as a group, with a common theme, rather than individually, case by case, which would make it a much longer process.
I will come back to my hon. Friend’s point in a little more detail, but the way in which our legal system works means that, at the moment, we cannot do that. The CCRC can analyse the cases that come before it as a group, and it still needs to do a lot of forensic accounting, but the Court of Appeal can only deal with each case individually. The legal structures that we have at the moment prevent just one single hearing with a view to taking on board all the people who have gone through this process.
Will the Minister give way?
I will give way briefly—the hon. Lady must be quick, or I will not cover things.
Will the Minister undertake that the Government will take steps to ensure that those who pleaded guilty will have a chance to have their convictions overturned, because that normally would not be the case?
I thank the hon. Lady for making that point. I was going to cover it because, as she said, ordinarily those who had pleaded guilty would not be able to do that in the system. The whole point about the CCRC system is that we can allow those people who were found guilty to have their cases reviewed—among the cases that went through, 46 people did indeed plead guilty. I can assure her about that.
Clearly, a lot of the speech I have in front of me talks about the post office network and how important it is for this country and our communities but, begging the House’s forbearance, we do not need me to cover that. We all know what a great job that post offices do for our communities and, therefore, what a great job postmasters do for our communities, so I will stick to the questions that have been asked and where we will go.
The Post Office has accepted that it got things wrong—it clearly did, and we have heard that in stark measure today. I am pleased that on 11 December we had a comprehensive resolution to the litigation, following several days of challenging and ultimately successful mediation, but there is an ongoing process. Some Members talked about the settlement, and clearly a number of people who had shortfalls in the past were not part of that group litigation, so there will be an ongoing process that the Post Office will announce shortly. I hope that some of the other cases will be able to be raised in that.
We heard about the financial and emotional suffering that impacted postmasters over so many years. Settling the long-running litigation, therefore, is so important. The Government will challenge the Post Office and its new chief executive proactively. I will ensure that happens.
Will the Minister give way?
I will not just at the minute, because I want to make some progress.
I spoke to Nick Read, the new CEO, and what I found refreshing about that conversation was that this guy had been chief executive of Nisa, the association of independent supermarkets, so he already gets the relationship, the fact that he is working with people who own individual independent shops. They were self-employed people, so that relationship is similar in some ways to the Post Office relationship with sub-postmasters. Rather than treating them as de facto employees, he understands the nature of their micro-businesses within the wider network.
Given that the Minister had an opportunity to speak to the new chief executive, I wonder whether the Minister and indeed the new chief executive of Post Office Ltd support an independent, judge-led inquiry. The Government need to support that, as does the Post Office.
We will certainly look at how we can keep the Post Office on its toes in future and at how to look back to learn the lessons—
Will the Minister give way?
I will not for now, because I must give my hon. Friend the Member for Telford a minute at the end.
I do not want to step on the toes of the CCRC’s investigation or of the things that are happening at the moment. Clearly, however, we need to ensure that lessons are learned. Over the coming days, we will look to see what more we can do.
I want to cover the CCRC cases specifically. The litigation that concluded with a judgment on 16 December last year only resolved the civil case—it cannot deal with criminal matters. Claimants with convictions are therefore seeking to have those convictions overturned by going through a process with the CCRC, which has the power to refer cases to the Court of Appeal. The independent CCRC plays a vital and valuable role in maintaining confidence in the criminal justice system. It is important to pay tribute to it for its process. The key role of the commission is to investigate cases in which people have been convicted and have unsuccessfully appealed, but believe that they have been wrongly convicted or incorrectly sentenced.
The CCRC received 57 applications, all of which are being reviewed—the first 20 in 2015 and the most recent 22 following the settlement in the civil case in December 2019. A small number of those applicants pleaded guilty at the magistrates court and, normally, they would have no ordinary route of appeal, but the CCRC provides a way to ensure that we can go through those cases. The CCRC has a team of three case review managers working on the cases, supported by a group leader, a commissioner and other advisory staff. They have obtained and are reviewing thousands of pages of material from the Post Office and other public bodies, and expert forensic accountants have been instructed, with the substantial task of examining transaction data from a sample branch.
I fear that the Minister does not get it. He is still parroting exactly what has been said by previous Ministers to me. If this had happened to him, and he had lost everything and had his reputation done, he would want an independent judge-led inquiry. In this Chamber, we have all made it very clear that that must be the outcome.
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s intervention, but she used up a lot of my time. Specifically, we are talking about the CCRC. I want to ensure that I leave my hon. Friend the Member for Telford some seconds at the end. I will continue to look at that. We will continue to ensure that sub-postmasters can feel that they will have justice, recompense and the confidence to move forward.
I thank everyone who has participated in the debate. I am truly grateful for the level of support and passion that we have heard across the House and across the country. We have to recognise that this was a unique set of circumstances that deserves a unique remedy. There is no point hiding behind the CCRC not having a mechanism; we must give the CCRC a mechanism—we must invent a mechanism to deal with this, because it is so unique. People have suffered, and they will go on suffering if we do not do something about it. I urge the Minister, please reread Justice Fraser’s judgment—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).