House of Commons
Wednesday 10 June 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Covid-19 Vaccine: Developing Countries
I start by wishing you, Mr Speaker, a very happy birthday.
The UK is leading global efforts to ensure that equitable access to covid-19 vaccines is possible. We worked night and day to make the global vaccine summit last week a success. Not only did we significantly beat our fundraising target to buy vaccines for the world’s poorest people, but we pledged £1.65 billion of UK aid to be the world’s largest donor to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. We have also pledged £250 million to vaccine research through the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and are a key part of the brand new scheme to ensure global vaccine production. But it is not just about money; the summit showed what true collaboration can do. The UK will leave no stone unturned to make everyone safe.
Businesses in M-SParc, a scientific park in my constituency, are developing innovation to fight the coronavirus pandemic, while at the further education college, Coleg Menai, and across the bridge at Bangor University, everyone is working hard in the fight against coronavirus by developing innovative technologies. For example, the science park businesses are developing proteins for vaccines and have made more than 8,000 visors. Can the Secretary of State tell me how we are supporting innovative British businesses to play a role in fighting coronavirus and developing a vaccine for the rest of the world?
It is lovely to welcome a scientist to our Green Benches. As my hon. Friend suggests, organisations right across the UK are playing a vital role in innovating to develop a coronavirus vaccine. It is a great pleasure to thank all the communities across the island of Ynys Môn helping to fight coronavirus with their technological solutions. My officials are also working closely with the Action for Global Health network to draw on the expertise of a range of UK charities and organisations as part of our approach to shaping global vaccine efforts. If UK-backed candidates for vaccines are successful, the Department for International Development funding for international efforts will help to ensure that those are scaled up and support equitable access for all who need them globally.
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.
I start by welcoming the Secretary of State’s apology concerning the sharing of an unacceptable, offensive and xenophobic image, but it was extremely disappointing that it took so long to apologise.
The Secretary of State has said she wants to ensure equitable access for many new vaccines once developed. AstraZeneca has guaranteed the US and the UK the first 400 million of any new vaccine in September, while those in the world’s poorest countries will not begin to get any until the end of the year, at the very earliest. Does she think this is equitable access?
The vaccine challenge, and the race for scientists to crack that code and for industry to come in behind them to support, to produce and to deliver, is critical. AstraZeneca is leading the way with us and has now signed a licence for 300 million doses, should the Oxford vaccine be successful, which it has committed will go to low and middle-income countries, which is fantastic news. This is a huge piece of work, which is led by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and which DFID is involved in, to draw together that scientific effort. The key point about any vaccine that is found—obviously we hope one will be found—is delivery, which is why Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance is so critical, because it can reach out. It has effective networks for delivering vaccines in those poorest countries, where we want to make sure that everyone who needs it gets that vaccine.
The “Oxford Dictionary” defines “equitable” as “fair or just”; what the Secretary of State has just outlined is neither. She rightly praises Gavi and the number of people it has vaccinated, but as she knows the alliance would not be needed if access to vaccines was actually equitable. There is a disconnect between the Government’s rhetoric on this issue and their actions. Rather than outsourcing responsibility, will she step up and commit to attaching clear, transparent conditions on British taxpayers’ money to accelerate development and guarantee truly equitable access to vaccines based on need, not how deep your pockets are?
The UK taxpayer, through UK aid, has made a huge commitment. We gave £250 million to CEPI very early on in the crisis. Those who use that CEPI money as part of their vaccine development work have that commitment. That is fantastic. Gavi is a fundamental part of ensuring the whole world works together to make vaccines available. By being the organisation that vaccinates nearly 50% of the world’s children, it brings down prices. It can bring huge negotiating benefits so the value is spread across the world.
The Department’s work in funding the development of a vaccine for covid-19 is just one of many projects that help to protect some of the most vulnerable people in the developing world, but we cannot take our eye off the ball on the need to continuously tackle global poverty. Can the Secretary of State confirm reports that there is a rapid ministerial review happening of the aid budget and that the vast majority of new projects have been paused, and can she explain why these life-saving projects are being quietly put on hold without informing Parliament or engaging with the International Development Committee?
Our aid spending is linked to the growth of our economy. The challenge this year, in which gross national income will go down, means that the economy is likely to shrink. We are working closely with the Treasury to understand the likely forecasts and to ensure that we can meet our 0.7% commitment. We are working across Departments to ensure that we continue to drive UK aid spending and commit our official development assistance to the most vulnerable and poorest.
Developing Countries’ Debt: Private Creditors
The UK, the G20 and the Paris Club will suspend debt repayments from the poorest countries due this year. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and his G20 counterparts have called on private sector creditors to do likewise. At the World Bank spring forum, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development amplified that call, along with other World Bank governors.
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker. Following comments from the UN Secretary-General in recent weeks on the increase in allocations of its special drawing rights currency to give countries more access to funding, what is the Secretary of State doing to get an SDR issuance agreed multilaterally? Will she support the UK and other rich countries transferring some of their allocation to poorer countries?
Last time, the allocation was split, and I am sure we would want it to be used by developing countries if special drawing rights were exercised. That could be part of the solution, but as the hon. Gentleman knows, 85% of the banks need to agree, and the US effectively has a blocking right, which means that this is perhaps not a short-term solution but one to work on over time with international partners.
I welcome the Government’s role in the G20’s suspension of bilateral debt payments due in 2020 from the world’s poorest countries, as well as their donation of £150 million to an IMF debt relief scheme used for covid-19. However, the World Bank is yet to take action on debt relief, despite that being one of the most important things we can do to support developing countries in this global pandemic. Can the Minister tell me what actions the Government will take to ensure that the World Bank moves to cancel debt payments, to support the world’s poorest?
I thank the hon. Lady for recognising the work that has already been done on suspension and relief. That will perhaps be looked at again, in terms of private sector relief and expanding either the data or the amounts of both those schemes, before looking at cancellation issues, which will have a longer-term impact. We need to focus on solutions that will help immediately and leave longer-term solutions for the longer term, but that is still very much on the table. I would not want to leave the House with the impression the World Bank is doing nothing. The international development banks overall are putting $200 billion into developing countries over the next 15 months as a result of the covid crisis.
Have a wonderful birthday, Mr Speaker. The coronavirus is having a significant impact on developing countries. The economic impact of the crisis is very severe. Poor countries face a debt crisis unlike anything we have seen. Their finances have been decimated by the global crisis, with private creditors exploiting the debt. The commitments made by the G20 at the spring meetings were a great start in reducing countries’ debt burdens. However, does the Minister agree that suspension is not enough and that it will lead to a further debt crisis in two years’ time? Does he agree that what countries urgently need now from the G20 is the cancellation of debt payments?
The hon. Lady is right that suspension on its own is not an adequate response, but it was the right response to make immediately. She mentions the private sector. The Institute of International Finance is already working with the 450 main private sector lenders and put in place the terms of reference 10 days ago. The private sector, far from being abusive, can join that debt suspension. There will be a case potentially for extending that period and extending relief more generally, and we will continue our discussions with Her Majesty’s Treasury on that. Ultimately, for some countries, cancellation may be an option, but we have to remember that 50% of countries were struggling even before covid.
Covid-19: African Union
I was delighted that the chair of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki, was able to join and speak at the Gavi summit. This week, I would have spoken to all eight AU commissioners. Under our strategic partnership with the AU, we are revising our joint plan to work on covid-19 implications and intend to hold a virtual high-level dialogue later this month. I also speak to member states of the AU more directly.
The pandemic has shown us the vulnerability of not only the health systems in African countries, but their economies. The African Union has warned that nearly 20 million jobs may be lost. Has the Minister seen the excellent work of the African Development Bank as it focuses on the recovery and, in particular, focuses on the private sector as the key to employment and prosperity?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He clearly shares my concern that this is an economic crisis as well as a humanitarian and health crisis. The private sector and the African Development Bank play a critical role alongside supply chains, but particularly the ADB in relation to protecting livelihoods. I look forward to working as an alternate governor to the Secretary of State for that great organisation in Abidjan.
FCO Objectives: Prioritising Development Opportunities
Development policy and foreign policy are remarkably intertwined, which is why the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office already work together in 32 bilateral posts, nine multilateral missions and eight FCO-DFID joint units. To deal with coronavirus as effectively as possible and to co-ordinate our international efforts, we established a superb joint conflict, security and governance covid-19 hub, so the UK has a stronger presence in the world when speaking as one Government, rather than as only individual Departments.
Beyond the immediate covid response, the past 30 years have shown us that trade, not aid, lifts developing nations out of poverty. With this in mind, does the Secretary of State agree that the considerable soft power that her Department wields should be used to encourage and expand trading opportunities with developing nations?
The UK Government are firmly committed to ensuring that developing countries can reduce poverty through trading opportunities. Indeed, that is one of the critical outcomes, and we will have to work very hard to help those countries get back on their feet. DFID has a joint team with the Department for International Trade, which is working to enhance market access for developing countries, ensuring that they can take advantage of this access through trade-related assistance and using our influence in organisations such as the World Trade Organisation.
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.
Yesterday, the International Development Committee released its review into UK aid, which concluded that DFID was by far the best Department to deliver it. The integrated review is formally paused, but it seems that the Secretary of State is carrying out her own stealth review. The official development assistance meeting was chaired by the Foreign Secretary. All but 200 future DFID programmes are paused, and DFID looks as if it is taking most of the forecast ODA cuts. Can the Secretary of State tell us what is the scope of the review, what is the timetable, and why the Committee found out through whistleblowers rather than through official channels?
I thank the hon. Lady for her Committee’s report, which I was able to read overnight before it was published. I also thank her for her compliments about DFID. Indeed, the effectiveness with which DFID is able to deliver aid is because the Department has decades of honed experience in understanding the most effective and targeted ways of spending taxpayers’ money and getting the most developmental impact. It was a really encouraging report. As I said earlier, because of the likely drop in gross national income, we are having to assess, across the board, how we will manage the 0.7% target in the coming year. We are working across Government to ensure that we do that as effectively as possible, because as far as we are all concerned—the Prime Minister has been very clear on this—UK aid must be spent to help the world tackle covid-19.
Palestinian Authority Funding
The UK remains determined to work for peace in the region, and that means supporting a stable Palestinian Authority that can deliver essential public services to Palestinians and act as an effective partner for peace with Israel. In 2018-19, UK support helped the Palestinian Authority provide education for 26,000 children, half of whom were girls, and deliver 3,000 more immunisations and 111,000 medical consultations. I recently announced £20 million in new funding to help Palestinian health workers battle the coronavirus on the frontline.
Happy 50th birthday, Mr Speaker. [Interruption.] I’ll definitely get called again.
There has been some excellent working between the Palestinian Authority and Israel in response to covid. However, an investigation has shown that groups funded by the OHCA—the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs—and the World Health Organisation have links to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which is a proscribed terrorist organisation. Can the Minister assure me that no UK aid money has been channelled in that way?
The UK has provided £840,000 to the WHO and UNICEF in response to covid-19. We maintain robust measures to ensure that aid is not diverted. We are determined to continue to play our responsible part in cross-Government approaches to support the Palestinian people and to work towards peace in the region.
Covid-19: Support for Charities’ Response
Charities and non-governmental organisations are crucial partners for DFID and play a critical role in ensuring UK aid reaches the most vulnerable. We have used schemes such as our rapid response facility to send £45 million of special funding to them. We want them to deliver some of the rest of the UK’s £764 million coronavirus response. Where our charity partners are struggling, we have introduced a special procedure to make sure they remain our partners for the long term.
Many happy returns from the residents of Bishop Auckland, Mr Speaker.
Earlier this week, Members from across the House marked World Oceans Day, outlining how we can put nature at the heart of a clean and resilient recovery. Does my hon. Friend agree that Durham University’s transforming energy access initiative will help the deployment of renewable energy sources, as part of the UK’s ambitious climate change targets?
Increasing the deployment of clean energy is a key part of helping countries build back greener after the covid-19 crisis. DFID’s transforming energy access programme, in which Durham University has played a valuable role, is supporting technology and business model innovations, accelerating access to affordable clean energy. It has already improved energy access for more than 5 million people in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia. This is the sort of ambition we hope to be able to scale up from April 2021 under the Ayrton fund.
Many happy returns, Mr Speaker.
UK-based international charities are under unprecedented pressure at a time when their services are most needed, with the latest research indicating that more than half have cut back on their overseas programmes and nearly half, particularly small organisations, are at risk of not surviving for another six months. Will the Minister ensure that the review of their work begins by the Government dealing with those with the lowest transparency scores and tackling programmes that do not put poverty reduction at the heart of their work?
I ought to wish you happy birthday as well, Mr Speaker. That was rather remiss of me.
The hon. Lady makes a very important point. Civil society is an important policy and delivery partner for DFID and I absolutely recognise the work it does. Our continued partnership will be critical in ensuring that UK aid reaches those most in need as a result of covid-19. There are a number of funding schemes and programmes that DFID has recently announced and allocated, including a new £30 million UK Aid Direct funding round that is open specifically for small and medium-sized charities based both in the UK and internationally to support the global response to covid-19.
I want to put on the record that black lives matter. We must listen to those communities that face discrimination, and solve the unconscious biases that still create injustice and lost potential. My Department will redouble its efforts to drive out discrimination and support the poorest countries to achieve genuine mutual prosperity free of prejudice. That struggle for equality is exactly why it was so important last week that the UK brought together, via video link, the London 2020 global vaccine summit as part of a 60-country effort. A historic $8.8 billion was raised to vaccinate the world’s poorest people. Gavi will immunise 300 million more children as a result.
Sorry about that, Mr Speaker, and happy birthday again.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that in order to tackle this virus so that we can all be safe from future waves of infection the international community must work together, co-ordinating and increasing support for vulnerable countries, and delivering the appropriate international financial and health system assistance?
Strong, resilient health systems are vital to national and global health security, and to helping to protect the world from infectious diseases, including covid. The UK has so far pledged £764 million of UK aid to help end the covid-19 pandemic, in support of the co-ordinated international response through the international financing institutions, multilaterals and global health initiatives, alongside DFID programmes. Through our multilateral partnerships and our regional and national programmes, we support developing countries to make their domestic healthcare systems stronger and more resilient and to better prepare for, prevent, detect and respond to health crises, including covid.
Penblwydd hapus, Mr Speaker.
The UK’s Commonwealth Development Corporation does important work, but deeply concerning evidence has come to light, thanks to the work of Finance Uncovered, regarding CDC investments in Myanmar, including $30 million in an internet service provider called Frontiir, which, at the orders of the Myanmar Government, has blocked independent news sites reporting on atrocities taking place against the Rohingya. Will the Secretary of State now urge CDC to immediately divest from this company? Is she sure that none of the other microfinance programmes being supported is indirectly helping the Myanmar regime?
The UK Government condemn any action to restrict the freedom of expression of journalists, and have repeatedly raised the issue of internet restrictions and shutdowns at the highest level with the Myanmar Government, but, after going through due diligence, CDC invested in Frontiir to extend internet access to more people in Myanmar and to combat poverty. The company has followed the international Global Network Initiative standards by posting transparency statements so that users know whether the site has limitations upon it.
Queenie is clearly a wise young person, and it is a really important question. The UK is at the forefront of efforts to drive global collaboration and resourcing, including through our engagement through the access to covid tools accelerator and through industry for the development of new vaccines at the speed and scale required to ensure access for all those who will need them. As well as contributing £1.65 billion to fund Gavi’s core programme we have committed £48 million to its newly launched covax advanced market commitment, aimed at incentivising manufacturers to produce sufficient quantities of a potential vaccine to ensure future access for low-income and middle-income countries.
The UK is proud to support the World Food Programme, with £500 million last year, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, with £40 million, and the International Fund for Agricultural Development, with more than £50 million, in their efforts to end hunger, achieve food security and improve nutrition across Africa. We are also assisting countries to respond to the desert locust upsurge in east Africa, which threatens 25 million people with severe food shortages. UK aid has funded a supercomputer to track that and help develop early warning systems and has provided £5 million to the UNFAO’s regional emergency appeal.
I assure the right hon. Gentleman that all Departments are closely integrated in the work of humanitarian aid, economic development and improving our planet. The work of my right hon. Friend Lord Goldsmith means that we are fully integrated in ensuring that economic development is not done at the cost of the environment and the planet.
The Prime Minister was asked—
As we approach the third anniversary, this coming Sunday, of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, I know that the whole House would wish to join me in sending our heartfelt sympathies and thoughts to the families and friends of the 72 people who lost their lives and to the survivors. Across Government, we remain committed to ensuring that such a tragedy can never happen again.
Members from across the House will want to join me in offering our very best wishes to His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh on his 99th birthday. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I am sure the whole House will also want to join me in wishing you, Mr Speaker, a very happy birthday.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
As a shielded person, I am grateful to once again contribute to Parliament. Many shielded people have contacted me, worried about Government guidance on going for walks. They want a “safe hour” walk for shielded people similar to that adopted in many other countries. Will the Prime Minister do that? They also want more transparency on the shielding list, with each category named and risks published. Will he provide that? Finally, will he agree to review the furlough scheme so shielded people, in the future, are not penalised?
Yes, I can tell the hon. Lady that we certainly will be doing as much as we can in the near future to ensure shielded people get guidance about how they can come out of their shielded environment safely, in a way that is covid secure. Her point about furlough is a very important one, and clearly newly shielded people may be asking themselves whether they will be entitled to furlough funds. I have been made aware of the issue very recently. I can assure her that we will be addressing it forthwith.
Perhaps it would be helpful in advance of any consultation paper if I just set out my own broad position, and stress that I am a Sinophile. I believe that we must continue to work with this great and rising power on climate change or trade or whatever it happens to be, but when we have serious concerns as a country—whether it is over the origins of covid or the protection of our critical national infrastructure or, indeed, what is happening in Hong Kong—we must feel absolutely free to raise those issues loud and clear with Beijing, and that is what we will continue to do.
May I join the Prime Minister in his comments on Grenfell—that dreadful night—in his comments on the Duke of Edinburgh and, of course in his best wishes to you, Mr Speaker? May I also say that I listened carefully to what the Prime Minister just said on furlough for those newly shielding, which I welcome? That has been something we have been concerned about. We will look at the proposal when it is put on the table, but I am grateful that he has listened to that and for what he has said this morning.
The Prime Minister on Monday said that feelings of black and minority ethnic groups about discrimination are “founded on a cold reality”, and I agree with him about that. There have been at least seven reports into racial inequality in the past three years alone, but precious little action. For example, most of the recommendations in the Lammy report into inequality in the criminal justice system have yet to be implemented, three years after the report was published. Similarly, the long-delayed and damning report by Wendy Williams into the Windrush scandal has yet to be implemented.
I spoke last night to black community leaders, and they had a very clear message for the Prime Minister: “Implement the reports you’ve already got.” Will the Prime Minister now turbocharge the Government’s responses and tell us when he will implement in full the Lammy report and the Windrush recommendations?
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, and of course I understand, as I said, the very strong and legitimate feelings of people in this country at the death of George Floyd. Of course I agree that black lives matter. We are getting on with the implementation, not just of the Lammy report but also of the report into Windrush. For instance, on the Lammy report, which this Government commissioned, and for which I thank the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), we are increasing already the number of black and minority ethnic people in the Prison Service, as he recommended. We are increasing the use of body-worn cameras, and we are trying to ensure, among other things, that young BME people are not immediately prosecuted as a result of the trouble they find themselves in. We try to make sure that we give people a chance, but I must stress that on the Lammy report and all these matters, it is absolutely vital at the same time that we keep our streets safe and that we back our police, and that is what we are going to do.
I welcome what the Prime Minister says about implementing the reports, and obviously we will hold him to it. He will appreciate that people do notice when recommendations are made and then not implemented, so it is very important that they are implemented in accordance with those reports. The latest report is the Public Health England report on the disproportionate impact of covid-19. That report concluded that death rates are
“highest among people of Black and Asian ethnic groups.”
It went on to say—this was the important bit—that
“it is already clear that relevant guidance…and key policies should be adapted”
to mitigate the risk. If it is already clear that guidance and policy need to be changed, why have the Government not already acted?
Not only is it already clear, but we are already acting. I can tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman that as a result of the report by Professor Fenton, which again we commissioned, we are looking at the particular exposure of black and minority ethnic groups to coronavirus. We should be in no doubt that they have been at the forefront of the struggle against coronavirus, whether that is in the NHS or in public transport. Some 44% of the NHS workforce in London are black and minority ethnic workers. That is why what we are doing first and most directly is ensuring that those high-contact professions get expanded and targeted testing now, and that is what I have agreed with Dido Harding from NHS Test and Trace. I think that is the first and most practical step we can take as a result of Professor Fenton’s report.
The Prime Minister, I know, understands the frustration of those most at risk when they see a report like that and they know action is needed. Action is needed now, not in a few weeks or months, so can I ask for the Prime Minister’s complete—[Interruption.] Well, perhaps the Prime Minister will indicate whether that is all the action or whether there is more action. This is a serious issue, and we can make progress together, but it is important that it is done swiftly for those most at risk.
I want to turn to the overall numbers of those who have tragically died from covid-19, because those overall numbers haunt us. Since the last Prime Minister’s questions, the Government’s daily total figure for those who have died from coronavirus has gone past 40,000. The Office for National Statistics figure, which records cases where coronavirus is on the death certificate, stands at just over 50,000. The number of excess deaths, which is an awful phrase, stands at over 63,000. Those are among the highest numbers anywhere in the world. Last week the Prime Minister said he was proud of the Government’s record, but there is no pride in those figures, is there?
Let me just say that on the death figures for this country, we mourn every one; we grieve for their relatives and their friends. But I must also tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman—he has raised this point repeatedly across the Dispatch Box—that the best scientific evidence and advice is that we must wait until the epidemic has been through its whole cycle in order to draw the relevant international comparisons. I simply must repeat that point to him.
As for what this country did to fight the epidemic, I must say I strongly disagree with the way he characterised it. I think it was an astonishing achievement of the NHS to build the Nightingale hospitals. I think it was an astonishing thing that this country came together to drive down the curve—to follow the social distancing rules, in spite of all the doubt that was cast on the advice, to follow those rules, to get the number of deaths down, to get the epidemic under control in the way that we have. This Government announced a plan, on 11 May, to get our country back on to its feet, and that is what we are going to do. We have a plan, we are following it and we are going to stick to it.
It just does not wash to say that we can’t compare these figures with other countries. Everybody can see those figures and see the disparity, and we need to learn from those other countries—what did they do more quickly than us, what did they do differently? We can learn those lessons and ensure that the numbers come down. It is little solace to the families that have lost someone to simply be told, “It is too early to compare, and to learn from other countries.” And of course there will be long-term consequences of the Government’s approach.
I want to turn now to another aspect of Government policy, and that is school reopening. We all want as many children back into school as soon as it is possible and as soon as it is safe. What was required for that to happen was a robust national plan, consensus among all key stakeholders and strong leadership from the top. All three are missing. The current arrangements lie in tatters; parents have lost confidence in the Government’s approach. Millions of children will miss six months’ worth of schooling and inequality will now go up.
Several weeks ago, I suggested to the Prime Minister that we set up a national taskforce, so that everybody could put their shoulder to the wheel. It is not too late. Will the Prime Minister take me up on that?
As I told the House before, I have been in contact with the right hon. and learned Gentleman by a modern device called the telephone, on which we have tried to agree a way forward, which he then seemed to deviate from later on. Last week—[Interruption.] Last week he was telling the House that it was not yet safe for kids to go back to school; this week he is saying that not enough kids are going back to school. I really think he needs to make up his mind.
Since he is so fond of these international comparisons, he should know that there are some countries in the EU—in Europe—where no primary school kids are going back to school, I think. We are being extremely cautious in our approach; we are following the plan that we set out, and I think that the people of this country will want to follow it. All the evidence—97% of the schools that have submitted data are now seeing kids come back to school. I think what we would like to hear from the right hon. and learned Gentleman is a bit of support for that, and a bit of encouragement to pupils, and perhaps even encouragement to some of his friends in the left-wing trade unions, to help get our schools ready.
Let us just have this out. The Prime Minister and I have never discussed our letter in any phone call; he knows it, and I know it. The taskforce has never been the subject of a conversation between him and me, one-to-one or in any other circumstance on the telephone; he knows it, so please drop that.
Secondly—he mentions other countries—plenty of other comparable countries are getting their children back to school. Wales is an example; across Europe there are other examples. We are the outlier on this. And it is no good the Prime Minister flailing around, trying to blame others. [Interruption.]
I was saying it is no good the Prime Minister flailing around, trying to blame others. A month ago today—a month ago today—he made the announcement about schools, without consulting relevant parties, without warning about the dates and without any scientific backing for his proposals. It is time he took responsibility for his own failures. This mess was completely avoidable. The consequences are stark. The Children’s Commissioner has warned of
“a deepening education disadvantage gap”
And she spoke yesterday of, “an emerging picture, which doesn’t give confidence that there’s a strategic plan.”. She called for the Government to scale up their response and said, “It must have occurred to the Government that space would be a problem; that there would be a need for temporary accommodation and classrooms.” The Government built the Nightingale hospitals; why are they only starting on schools now?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman still cannot work out whether he is saying that schools are not safe enough or that we should be going back more quickly. He cannot have it both ways. It is one brief on one day and another brief on the next. I understand how the legal profession works, but what the public want to have is some consistency. I hope he will agree that it is a good thing that 37% of kids in year 6 in our primary schools are now coming back, and that is increasing the whole time. I think the message that teachers want to hear across the country is that all parliamentarians in this House of Commons support the return of kids to school and, furthermore, that they are encouraging kids to come back to school because it is safe. Will he now say that?
I want as many children to go back to school as possible, as soon as possible, as quickly as possible—when it is safe. I have been saying that like a broken record for weeks on end. I know that the Prime Minister has rehearsed attack lines, but he should look at what I said in the letter and what I have been saying consistently.
One way in which the Government could help those worst affected would be to extend the national voucher scheme. Because child poverty numbers are so high in this country, 1.3 million children in low-income families rely on those vouchers. They mean that children who cannot go to school because of coronavirus restrictions still get free meals. The Labour Government in Wales have said that they will continue to fund those meals through the summer. Yesterday, the Education Secretary said that will not be the case in England. That is just wrong, and it will lead to further inequality, so may I urge the Prime Minister to reconsider on that point?
Of course, we do not normally continue with free school meals over the summer holidays, and I am sure that is right, but we are aware of the particular difficulties faced by vulnerable families. That is why we are announcing a further £63 million of local welfare assistance to be used by local authorities at their discretion to help the most vulnerable families. This Government have put their arms around the people of this country throughout this crisis and done their absolute best to help—[Interruption.] I may say that this is not helped by the wobbling and tergiversation of the Labour party and the right hon. and learned Gentleman. Last week he said that it is not safe; this week he says we are not going fast enough. We protected the NHS, we provided huge numbers of ventilated beds and we are now getting the disease under control, but we will do it in a cautious and contingent way.
Today I will be announcing further measures to open up and unlock our society, but only because of the huge efforts and sacrifice that this country has made. We are sticking to our plan of 11 May. It is a plan that is working and will continue to work, with or without the assistance of the right hon. and learned Gentleman.
Yes, and I thank my hon. Friend; he is absolutely right. We will be funding the Advanced Research Projects Agency to the tune of £800 million, and it will be tasked with supporting really revolutionary breakthroughs in this country. It is the UK—from the splitting of the atom to the jet engine to the internet—that has led the world in scientific research, and under this Government we intend to continue.
May I associate myself with the remarks of the Prime Minister on Grenfell, and on the birthdays of both the Duke of Edinburgh and yourself, Mr Speaker?
The Prime Minister told the Liaison Committee:
“I do not actually read the scientific papers”.
It is no wonder, then, that it took the UK so long to act on quarantine measures. The Prime Minister’s scientific advisory group was not even asked for advice on this significant policy. This has been a complete shambles: too little, too late. We cannot risk ignoring the experts once again. Can the Prime Minister confirm what scientific papers he has read on the 2 metre social distancing rule?
I must say that I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman. I have read a huge amount about a disease that affects our entire nation. I have actually read many papers on the social distancing rule, and it is a very interesting point. Members across the House of Commons will want to understand that I believe that those measures—the 2 metre rule—need now to be kept under review. As we drive this disease down and get the incidence down, working together, I want to make sure that we keep the 2 metre rule under constant review, because, as I think the right hon. Gentleman indicates, there is all sorts of scientific advice about that particular matter.
Of course, we know that the Cabinet has discussed reducing the 2 metre social distancing rule, but that is not the experts’ advice right now. SAGE reported that being exposed to the virus for six seconds at 1 metre is the same as being exposed for one minute at 2 metres. That is a significant increase in risk. The last time that Professor Whitty was allowed to attend the daily press briefing, he stressed that the 2 metre rule was going to be necessary for as long as the pandemic continues.
People are losing confidence in this Government: a U-turn on schools; a shambolic roll-out of quarantine measures; and now looking to reduce the 2 metre rule far too soon. Will the Prime Minister continue to ignore the experts, or will he start following the advice of those who have actually read the scientific papers?
Actually, the people of this country are overwhelmingly following the guidance that the Government give. Tomorrow the House will be hearing a bit more about what has happened with NHS Test and Trace, and they will find that there is an extraordinary degree of natural compliance and understanding by the British people.
In spite of all the obscurantism and myth making that we have heard from the Opposition parties, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that there are all sorts of views about the 2 metre rule. He is absolutely correct in what he says about the SAGE advice, but, clearly, as the incidence of the disease comes down—I think members of SAGE would confirm this—the statistical likelihood of being infected, no matter how close or far people are from somebody who may or may not have coronavirus, goes down.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We want to reopen hospitality as quickly as we possibly can. The House will remember that, according to the road map, we were going to open outdoor hospitality no earlier than 4 July. That is still our plan, and we are sticking to it. Guidance is now being developed for such hospitality. What we do not want to see is a roiling, Bacchanalian mass of people who can spread the disease, so it is very important that people understand the continuing risks that this country faces.
The Prime Minister will be aware that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has today published the guidelines for the special payment scheme for severely injured victims linked to the troubles in Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister will also know that this House passed legislation that excludes those injured by their own hand. But the innocent victims have not yet been able to benefit from this scheme, not least because of the actions of Sinn Féin, who are blocking the next steps to implementation. Will the Prime Minister and his Government now commit to doing all they can to move this matter forward so that our most vulnerable of innocent victims can receive this pension?
Yes indeed. I think the scheme provides a fair, balanced and proportionate way of helping all those who have suffered most during the troubles. It is very important that Sinn Féin, along with all other parties, allow the scheme to go forward as soon as possible.
I thank my right hon. Friend. I completely agree with the need for all political leaders to promote these issues—to recognise how important they are in people’s hearts. I am very proud of what I did as Mayor to encourage the promotion of young BAME officers in our Metropolitan police; we had a system to move them up. I want to see that kind of activity across the government of this country. It is the right way forward for the UK.
I renew what I have said many times; it is important for the House to hear it again. Yes, black lives matter, and yes, the death of George Floyd was absolutely appalling. As for the qualities of Mr Trump, let me say that, among many other things, he is President of the United States, which is our most important ally in the world today. Whatever people may say about it—whatever those on the left may say about it—the United States is a bastion of peace and freedom and has been for most of my lifetime.
It is very important that stop-and-search is carried out sensitively in accordance with the law. The fact that we now have body-worn cameras has made a great difference to the way it happens. I must say that section 60 powers can be very important in fighting violent crime. I am afraid that what has been happening in London with knife crime has been completely unacceptable, and I do believe that stop-and-search, among many other things, can be a very important utensil for fighting knife crime. It does work. It worked for us when I was running London and it must work now. I am not saying it is the whole answer—the right hon. Gentleman is right; it is not the whole answer—but it is part of the mix.
What I can say is that we will unite and level up with infrastructure projects across our country. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his lobbying for that particular scheme and can tell him that last year we put £31 million into the Preston western distributor scheme, which is a new dual carriageway that will reduce congestion in Preston and lead directly to the creation of 3,000 houses and more than 500 jobs. As for further expansion of the M55, my hon. Friend will have to wait, but there will be further announcements in due course.
Yes, of course, statutory sick pay is an important part of the way we tackle the problems of self-isolation and all the issues faced by people facing coronavirus, but people also receive additional funds. Anybody looking impartially at what we are doing to support the people of this country throughout this epidemic will concede that the UK has done more than virtually any other country on earth to look after the people of this country, whether through the furloughing scheme, the bounce-back loans or anything else. Having listened to the hon. Gentleman, I should say I have also pledged that we are going to put in gigabit broadband across the whole of the UK, so that he can be heard more clearly in future.
Yes, which is why I am encouraged by NHS Test and Trace and the progress that it is making. With the help of the joint biosecurity centre, we are now able to identify hotspots, to do whack-a-mole and to stamp out outbreaks of the epidemic where they occur.
Not only will we protect animal welfare standards but, on leaving the EU, as we have, we will be able to increase our animal welfare standards. We will be able to ban the treatment of farrowing sows that is currently legal in the EU, and we will be able to ban the shipment of live animals, which currently we cannot ban in the UK. We will be able to go further and better, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman supports that. By the way, I also hope that he will tell all his friends in the—SNP, is it?—SNP that that is one of the reasons why their plan to take Scotland back into the EU would be completely contrary to the instincts of the British people.
Because I think the British public, with their overwhelming common sense, have ignored some of the propaganda that we have been hearing from the Opposition about our advice. They have ignored the negativity and the attempts to confuse and they are overwhelmingly following advice, and indeed, they are complying with NHS Test and Trace—which is the way forward—which will enable us to defeat this virus both locally and nationally.
Pre-covid, the Prime Minister made a firm commitment to reaching out to some of the most deprived areas and levelling up the country. This is needed now more than ever. Will he make a firm commitment—and re-commit—to Whitmore Reans, Chapel Ash, Penn Fields and the rest of Wolverhampton, so that they will not just survive but thrive?
Yes, I certainly will. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the way he represents Wolverhampton and the many campaigns he fights for that great city. I can tell him just for starters that Wolverhampton will benefit from around £217 million of the growth deal funding across the Black Country, which aims to create 5,000 jobs, 1,400 new homes and £310 million in public and private investment—just for starters.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. This country is going through a very difficult crisis—a public health crisis, an economic crisis—and of course, it has put many families to great hardship. I think the Government have done a huge amount to look after families across the country. We have, as she knows, put £3.2 billion more into local government. I announced earlier today—just now—that we are also putting another £63 million into extra welfare support for particularly disadvantaged families to help with meals throughout the summer period. She is entirely right. We face a huge economic problem. That is why we need to get moving, get this country going forward together, and work as parliamentarians and politicians to communicate to the public jointly what we are doing.
Hon. Members will know that preparations are under way for the new Division system of using pass readers in the Division Lobbies. Based on the tests so far and the best professional advice, I have concluded that we cannot use the new system today. I will make a further statement on Monday.
Horizon: Sub-Postmaster Convictions
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy what steps the Government are taking to support sub-postmasters wrongly convicted in the Post Office Horizon scandal.
I wish you a very happy birthday, Mr Speaker, and many happy returns.
Happy Birthday, Mr Speaker. I have listened to a number of postmasters’ stories personally, and I saw the recent “Panorama” programme. It is impossible to ignore the negative impact that the Horizon dispute and court case have had on affected postmasters’ lives, livelihoods, financial situations, reputations and, for some, as we know, their physical and mental health.
Convicted claimants’ seeking to overturn their convictions are going through a further process with the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which has the power to refer cases to the Court of Appeal to consider whether any of the convictions are unsafe. As the hon. Lady will appreciate, it is important that the Government do not seek to influence this process or comment on any individual cases. I can confirm, though, that the Post Office is co-operating with the CCRC to the fullest extent and the Government are monitoring this. Forty-seven of the 61 CCRC cases have now been referred to the Court of Appeal, and it is for the courts to decide whether the convictions are unsafe.
Let me acknowledge the strength of feeling on this matter on both sides of the House, which was evident in the debates I participated in earlier this year and in the correspondence I have had from many Members. That is why the Government are committed to establishing an independent review to consider whether the Post Office has learned the necessary lessons from the Horizon dispute and court case, and to provide an independent and external assessment of its work to rebuild its relationship with its postmasters. Full details of the terms of reference for that independent review are set out in a written ministerial statement that I laid in the House this morning. We are keen to see that review launched as soon as possible, and we are in the process of identifying a chair to lead the work of the review.
The Post Office Horizon scandal may well be the largest miscarriage of justice in our history. Nine hundred prosecutions, each one its own story of dreams crushed, careers ruined, families destroyed, reputations smashed and lives lost—innocent people bankrupted and imprisoned. Does the Minister agree that Monday’s “Panorama” adds to the sense of a cover-up on a grand scale in the Post Office, a trusted national institution? And all because of the failings in the Post Office Horizon system.
For over a decade, the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance campaigned to get at the truth, but the Post Office denied all wrongdoing, imposing huge lawyers’ fees on the claimants. Mr Justice Fraser’s High Court ruling in December paved the way finally for justice for some, but the mediated settlement means the truth remains hidden. Does the Minister agree that there can be no justice without truth?
So many questions remain unanswered. When did the Post Office know that the Horizon system could cause money to disappear, and what responsibility did the developer, Fujitsu, have? What did Ministers, to whom the Post Office is accountable, do, and what did they know? Who was responsible for innocent people going to jail? Have they been held accountable? Will all the victims be properly compensated?
Three months ago, the Prime Minister committed to a public inquiry, but we now hear that that is to consider whether the Post Office has learned the necessary lessons. We need an inquiry not simply to learn lessons but to get to the truth. Only a judge-led inquiry can do that, with the Post Office compelled to co-operate. Will the Minister now agree to the judge-led inquiry we need? It is the very least the victims deserve.
We need answers, not more delay. We will not rest until we get that and justice for all those wronged in this scandal.
I welcome the hon. Lady to her place, and I appreciate her comments. A public inquiry, according to Jason Beer QC, one of the leading experts on this, talks about what happened, why it happened and who is to blame, and what can be done to prevent it from happening again. This independent review, chaired by someone independent of both the Government and the Post Office, will indeed look to do that—to understand and acknowledge what went wrong in relation to the Horizon system by drawing on the evidence of those people who, as we have discussed, have been wronged in this situation, using both Mr Justice Fraser’s judgment and words and his own evidence that he will call upon.
The Government want to be fully assured—I want to be fully assured—that the right lessons are learned for the future and concrete changes have taken place at Post Office Ltd to ensure that this is not repeated. We want to be sure that, through this review, there is a public summary of the failings that occurred at Post Office Ltd, drawing on the judgments and, as I say, listening to those who have been most affected. That is the purpose of the independent review we are in the process of setting up.
It is absolutely right that we acknowledge the injustices that were done at the time. I have spent a bit of time in post offices in my time, and I remember having conversations with sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses in which they acknowledged to me that they could not get their books to balance at the end of particular days. They were really worried about it at the time. It is worth remembering that the post office network is made up of sub-postmasters, and they need our support at this moment in time. What can the Department do to ensure that our sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses who are working around the country have the ability to continue while the Horizon scandal is taking place?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. The Government provided nearly £2 billion for the period 2010-18 and are investing a further £370 million from 2018-21 to invest in the transformation of the business. A negotiated agreement was secured with all 28 UK banks in 2019 and took effect in 2020. That has resulted in a significant increase in the overall fees received by the Post Office from the banks, and that will rise further if transaction volumes continue to grow. We have also encouraged the Post Office to strengthen its relationship with postmasters and postmaster training to foster a stronger commercial partnership. We recently put in place personalised support for postmasters. If we are going to get the future relationship with postmasters right, we have to tackle the injustices that have happened in the past, but we also have to rebuild, with the new management in the Post Office, trust and training and respect for the sub-postmasters of the future.
We can all agree with the Minister that the reputations, mental health and lives of the victims of this scandal have been ruined. Alan Bates, the former sub-postmaster who led the legal case against the Post Office, has been clear that the Post Office has not changed. It is six months since judges found major issues, including an excessive culture of secrecy and confidentiality generally in the Post Office, but specifically relating to Horizon, so can the Minister explain why we still are not getting a public inquiry into the scandal? The Prime Minister told the House on 26 February that such an inquiry would be established, but the proposals set out by the Minister today fall short of that. We welcome the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee inquiry into this issue, but we really need a full independent public inquiry.
Does the Minister understand the anger and disappointment at the length of time it is taking to get the truth about one of the largest miscarriages of justice in the UK’s history, amidst very serious allegations of perjury levelled against employees of Fujitsu, the company behind the system, and will he apologise to the hundreds of postmasters whose lives have been ruined—who have lost their homes, their livelihoods and their reputations as a result of inaction by this Government?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for those questions. The review that we are putting in train covers the areas that a public inquiry would achieve. We want to find out exactly what is going on. We do not want to duplicate the effort, and we already have a number of words from Justice Fraser that point to exactly where the chairman of the independent review needs to look.
This situation has been going on for some 20-odd years. It is disgraceful that it has taken this time for Alan Bates and his fellow group-litigants to actually get to a settlement and that so many people have had to suffer as a result. What I am keen to do now—my tenure in this role has been brief—is push on and make sure that they can get the answers that they need.
It is clear that the Post Office concealed evidence that would have cleared sub-postmasters who were convicted and have had their lives ruined. A major part of the evidence came from a Fujitsu whistleblower, who revealed that Post Office accounts could be changed remotely from Fujitsu offices. Sub-postmasters now have the opportunity to sue the Post Office for malicious prosecution, but while those who were subject to criminal proceedings are able to make claims, people who brought civil claims that have been settled cannot. This was clearly not the intention of the courts, so how can such a disparity in outcome be justified?
In terms of the whistleblower, Justice Fraser recommended a number of individuals to the criminal prosecution service, and that will follow its train accordingly. In terms of the group litigation, the settlement was agreed with the Post Office and that included legal and all other costs. In those circumstances, the Government cannot accept any further requests for payments, but for postmasters who have been convicted and had their convictions overturned there is a process in place for them to receive compensation, if appropriate.
The Minister will know that the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, which I chair, is undertaking an inquiry on the Post Office Horizon scandal, and it is a matter of regret that we were unable to take oral evidence from Mr Read, the current chief executive officer of the Post Office, Ms Vennells, the former CEO, and Fujitsu as planned on 24 March, because of the lockdown. The sub-postmasters who have suffered such a depth of injustice, such a wide range of harm, will no doubt welcome the news today of the Minister’s inquiry, but will he confirm to the House that that inquiry will have sufficient power to compel the disclosure of documentary evidence and to compel witnesses to come before it to give evidence in public?
I am sorry that, for the same reason, I was unable to attend that session, but I hope in future to engage fully with the Select Committee. The key point is that the Post Office has said that it will disclose everything, and I will ensure that it does, to the best of my ability. I saw the same “Panorama” programme as the hon. Gentleman did, in which there was a big discussion and a long piece about non-disclosure. That cannot happen again. We have to draw a line and make sure that we get answers. The chairman of the independent review will push for that and so will I, to ensure that the Post Office complies appropriately.
The Post Office has acknowledged mistakes in the settlement and the case that we have had. I am glad that both parties to the group litigation were able to reach a settlement. Other sub-postmasters who suffered a shortfall will be able to take advantage of the historical shortfall scheme that the Post Office has launched. They will be able to come forward and have their case investigated, and hopefully those wrongs will be righted.
I, the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) and Lord Arbuthnot have been campaigning on this for over seven years. People have been imprisoned; they have been ruined, both financially and mentally. As I have said on the record previously, they have been treated in a way a totalitarian state would treat people. The fact is that only a judge-led inquiry will get to the bottom of what is needed. Over the past seven years, I have cross-examined many of the Minister’s predecessors; today, I urge him to insist on that, because without it we will not get to the truth.
The Post Office is not the only one to blame; the Government are to blame as well, because Government Ministers have shareholder representation on the Post Office board and they have sat back and done absolutely nothing. Last year, they allowed the Post Office to spend nearly £100 million of public money on trying to bankrupt the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance. That disgrace also needs to be exposed.
I acknowledge the right hon. Gentleman’s long campaign on behalf of the Horizon postmasters, which is to be welcomed. I have been shocked and surprised by the revelations I saw when I took over and continue to see. The terms of reference of the review are the same as those for a public inquiry. It is to work out: who is to blame, can it happen again, how can we prevent it from happening again, what wrongs were done, and how can we right them? The chairman will be independent of both the Post Office and Government.
On the Government’s role as a shareholder, clearly the Post Office has operational independence, but numerous attempts have been made over the years to resolve the dispute, including an independent investigation in 2013 and a mediation scheme in 2015, which was supported by Post Office Ltd and Ministers. All those attempts failed to resolve the issues, leaving the court as the only way to provide the independent review that all sides needed.
I am sure we all agree that sub-postmasters are at the heart of our communities, none more than the communities I represent in Wednesbury, Oldbury and Tipton. It is right that the Post Office is able to compete in challenging times, but may I ask my hon. Friend to reassure sub-postmasters in my constituency that the Government will continue to review the Post Office’s relationship with sub-postmasters and make sure that they are given the protection and respect they are entitled to and deserve?
One of the first things I said to the chief executive was to acknowledge the fact that we need to build the relationship with postmasters and give them the support they need in the future, and we need to make sure that we right the wrongs of the past. The chief executive has assured me, and his background supports this, that he is used to working with sub-postmasters as stakeholders, and I think that is what they need to be.
Postmasters across the country have been fired, gone bankrupt and, in some cases, gone to prison. Given the scale of this injustice, with over 550 postmasters’ families left in financial ruin, does the Minister agree that the current compensation, which fails to cover their legal costs, is neither fair nor just?
I agree that so many people have suffered. Indeed, some people have taken their lives, as well as losing their livelihoods; that is not to be forgotten. I was pleased that a settlement was reached by both sides of this agreement and, as I say, sub-postmasters caught within shortfalls in the past who were not part of that agreement are able to claim under the historical shortfall scheme.
One of the great frustrations to date has been the refusal of the former senior management of the Post Office to answer detailed questions on this issue and to be held to account. That is the least that is owed to those who have been wrongly convicted, including my constituent Siobhan Sayer. Will my hon. Friend confirm that individual culpability of senior management figures within the Post Office will be part of this review?
I totally empathise with the suffering of my hon. Friend’s constituent, Siobhan Sayer. The chairman, who is independent of the Post Office, and the Government need to look at exactly what went wrong, which will by necessity mean looking at who took what decisions when. It will be complicated, because this happened over a period of 20 years, but none the less, they must get to the bottom of it.
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.
Post Office Ltd has been allowed to destabilise the post office network by its underhand and legally dubious actions. This Government must take up their responsibilities as a special shareholder in Post Office Ltd and commission a judge-led inquiry—I make no apology for repeating that. Nothing less will do. Will this Government help to compensate those postmasters who have been so wrongly convicted and help shore up the finances of Post Office Ltd?
In terms of the finances, the Government continue to work with the Post Office on its needs and to ensure that, although it is an independent company, it can work within its service obligations. In terms of the review, we recognise the hugely negative impact that the Horizon dispute had on postmasters. The financial settlement was a major step towards resolving some of those grievances, but there is more to be done. That is why we have launched the independent review, to ensure that the lessons are learned and that they can never be repeated.
This is one of the worst disasters in public life since the contaminated blood scandal. Does the Minister agree that, if it is proven that Post Office executives were aware of the software faults but allowed innocent people to rot in jail, they were guilty of criminal negligence and possibly criminal conspiracy and therefore ought to be brought to justice? Will the proposed inquiry allow that to be done?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question. The Horizon IT system was put in place in 1999, with the first issues being raised in the early 2000s, so this was over a long period. Mr Justice Fraser considered what happened over that period and set out his findings in considerable detail and, as I said, he has referred some individuals to the Crown Prosecution Service. Post Office is now working to implement all the vital changes to which it has committed under the leadership of its new CEO, to reset the relationship with its postmasters.
Many hundreds of postmasters were forced to pay back many thousands of pounds to the Post Office—moneys that were never in fact owed or, indeed, missing. That in itself should trigger a criminal investigation. How much of that money went to pay the previous chief executive’s £5 million salary, and why can the Minister not accept that only a judge will get to the bottom of this miscarriage of justice?
I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s part not only in campaigning on the plight of the sub-postmasters since coming to this place, but in his previous work representing some of them in the court case. As I said, the important thing about the review is: does it find out what went wrong and who made what decisions when, does it listen to the evidence of those who were wronged and get those voices out there, complementing what Justice Fraser said, and does it make sure it can never happen again? Those are the terms of the inquiry and review. The independent chair will get to the bottom of that while being independent of Government and the Post Office.
I cannot understand why the Government want to prolong the agony on this with the halfway house of an independent review. I add my calls for a judge-led review that progresses speedily. Does the Minister share my amazement at the behaviour of the Post Office, which had employed these postmasters and postmistresses for years and realised they were decent, hard-working people? They did not suddenly all become criminals. Did no one ask the questions? Can we please get on with this and get the full judge-led inquiry now?
It is for that very reason that we have announced an independent review. Of all the judge-led inquiries in the last 30 years, the shortest lasted 45 days —that was one Minister dealing with two people, whereas this is an incredibly complicated case—and the longest lasted 13 years. In the last 30 years, inquiries have cost £600 million. We need something reasonable in its timing and extensive in its remit so that we can get to the bottom of this as quickly as possible.
The covid crisis has revealed what should have been obvious: that key workers, including postmasters, are essential workers and should have been treated with respect, not suspicion. Why did the Minister’s Department fail to protect workers from a corporate governance failure of this magnitude, and how will it prevent such a failure from happening again?
The Government have challenged it over the years, especially in recent years—the Horizon situation has come about over 20 years, but as I have said, recently there have been independent reviews in 2013 and investigations in 2015. It is because we have been unable to get a result that we have had to resort to the courts. We need to get to the bottom of this so that we can right the wrongs done to the postmasters of the past and ensure the respect of future postmasters, who must feel secure in their positive relationship with the Post Office.
I fear the cover-up could continue. The Post Office has decided to bring in Herbert Smith Freehills to oversee historic cases. This is the practice that contributed to the cover-up of a fraud at Lloyds HBOS over seven years and oversaw the establishment and operation of the Lloyds bank customer review, which was described by the Financial Conduct Authority’s review of that scheme as discriminatory, flawed and an unacceptable denial of responsibility, and that review is now having to be done again. Does the Minister think the Post Office should reconsider that decision?
My hon. Friend and I spoke about this earlier. As he says, the Post Office decides its own legal advisers. As far as I understand it, the Post Office changed its advisers to Herbert Smith Freehills in the latter stages of the litigation, which resulted in the settlement, good progress in resolving outstanding claimant issues and a successful launch of the historical shortfall scheme.
Happy birthday from me also, Mr Speaker.
We have seen some movement today from the Government, and I do welcome that as far as it goes, but like the Equitable Life scandal, this is an ongoing deep injustice, as is the plight of people currently suffering under the loan charge. There is a consensus across the House that this just does not go far enough. Could I urge the Minister to build on the progress he has announced today and accept the will of the House that we need a judge-led inquiry to properly ventilate all the issues?
As I have said, the terms of reference of this review are deep enough to get to the bottom of exactly what has happened. The fact that the chairman, who will be appointed, is independent of Government, independent of Post Office Ltd, and will have the freedom to be able to go and find evidence to complement the evidence that has already been published by Mr Justice Fraser in his judgment means that there will be plenty to draw on in order to come to conclusions and recommendations.
Does the Minister not accept that this is as big a scandal as that of the Guildford Four? Although the settlement was reached by mediation, which I approve of, much of that settlement was taken away in cash for lawyers. Can we not do something to ensure that the settlement justifies the indignities that many of these people have had to suffer?
With regard to the scale of the issue, I agree with my hon. Friend that this has gone on for so long and has involved so many people who have suffered as a result, some with their lives, as we have heard. The point is that the mediated settlement was between the Post Office and the sub-postmasters who took out that group litigation. I am pleased that it came to a conclusion, but, as a result of that, the Government cannot enter into a new discussion with the Post Office on that basis.
It is noble of the Minister to offer himself up as a human shield for the Post Office in this way, but I hope that, when he returns to the Department today, he will tell his officials, who, I fear, have perhaps not briefed him as well as they might have done, and Post Office senior management that this review will just not cut it. He says that this is a complex case spanning a long period of time, and he is absolutely right about that. That is why it requires a judge-led inquiry. That is what will happen eventually, so why not just cut to the quick and do it now?
Because I do not want an inquiry that will last 13 years, with sub-postmasters coming back time and again with no justice. I have been pushing on this from the moment that I found out the details about it as postal affairs Minister. That is why I will drive this through to make sure that the answers are heard and that the independent chairman, who is independent of Government and independent of the Post Office, gets to the bottom of the case and gets some answers.
In 2015, Post Office Ltd closed its own review of Horizon IT by saying that there were “no system-wide problems with our computer systems”. Nothing could have been further from the truth. We have all been let down, and many sub-postmasters have been badly treated. I urge the Minister to start the independent review as soon as possible to discover precisely who knew what and when in Fujitsu, Post Office Ltd, and the National Federation of SubPostmasters. Does he agree that nothing should be ruled out, including criminal prosecution, if justified?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, as the criminal proceedings continue, those wrongly convicted continue as well, and that will sit along with Justice Fraser’s findings. I do want to move this on as quickly as possible—not to rush anything, but to make sure that those postmasters can get answers and bring the injustice to an end.
I add my support for a proper judge-led inquiry, too. Della Robinson was sub-postmaster at Dukinfield post office. She lost her business, the building the post office was in, her rental property, her job, and almost her home. It is just wrong. Can the Minister confirm that the Government are re-evaluating any public positions held by current or former senior employees at the Post Office who were intimately involved in decisions that victimised sub-postmasters?
I am aware that a former chief executive of the Post Office took up a role as a non-executive director at the Cabinet Office until she stood down. I am also aware that the Care Quality Commission has written to Imperial following a fit-and-proper-persons referral. The CQC is considering this. Lord Callanan wrote to the Department of Health and Social Care on 18 May to draw the Department’s attention to the strength of feeling about the position in the NHS of the former chief executive of the Post Office.
Post offices are at the heart of our communities, yet the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses have been so badly let down. I share the clear anger felt across the House on this issue, but to keep the network open and viable it must be attractive to take on a Post Office franchise. To do that there is the critical question of rebuilding trust. As the Minister holds the Post Office to account, will he hold it to account on how it is rebuilding trust with all sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses right across the network?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. That is why some of my first conversations with Nick Read, the current chief executive of the Post Office, have been to ensure that he can do exactly that. We need to draw a line and right the wrongs of the past to give respect and trust, as well as support, for future postmasters to make sure they are valued stakeholders.
Many innocent sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses have been bankrupted, imprisoned and wrongly accused of theft due to the Post Office’s heavy-handed approach, when accountancy issues with Horizon reported financial irregularities. Sadly, one of my constituents tragically took his own life after being falsely accused of financial impropriety, leaving his family destitute and without their business. It is too late for an apology or compensation for that family. What new procedures have the Post Office introduced to protect sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses as a consequence of this scandal? What protections has the Post Office put in place to ensure accountancy software is fit for purpose? What action will be taken against those in positions of leadership in the Post Office during the scandal? And does the Minister agree that actions speak much louder than words?
I sympathise with the hon. Lady’s constituent who sadly took his life. That is one of many tragic stories. The fact is that we have now got the Post Office to accept its wrong position and the fact that the Horizon software could make mistakes—things were being changed there. That is why it is important to get that acknowledgment. It is also important that we continue to build trust with sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses in their relationship with the Post Office. That is why every time I speak to the chief executive, I make sure that that is at the top of our agenda.
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.
The Post Office Horizon scandal begs the question: why did the Post Office not believe its own sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, many of whom had given decades of loyal service, even after evidence was presented to them that the Horizon system was most likely faulty? Can the Secretary of State give a cast-iron guarantee, as other hon. and right hon. Members have requested, to all sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses and their families whose lives have been ruined, that there will be a judge-led inquiry, not merely a review, so we can ascertain how this happened, who is responsible and what steps can be taken to ensure that this never happens again?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that promotion to Secretary of State. He raises some really important points. The point is that, whether we call it a review or an inquiry, the terms of reference are exactly as he describes. We want to make sure we can get to the bottom of this to find out who made what decisions and how they were made, and ensure they can never happen again. That is exactly why I have pushed to make this happen as soon as possible.
Isabella Wall was a sub-postmistress in Barrow. She ran a thriving shop and let flats above the property. As a result of the scandal, she lost everything. She was the very first person to come and see me at a surgery as a newly elected MP and I carry with me the anger she brought to that meeting. Does my hon. Friend accept that while the Post Office has accepted it got things wrong, there is a long, long way to go for people like Ms Wall before they are properly compensated for the financial and emotional losses they faced? Will he confirm that the Government will give weight to fair compensation being paid to wronged sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses?
Isabella Wall is one of far too many constituents of ours who have suffered in this. The hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) was right when he said that the Post Office should have had more faith and trust in its sub-postmasters. Of course we will make sure we can get to the bottom of this to get some justice for Isabella Wall. On the group litigation, I am glad that they have reached a settlement. As for sub-postmasters who have not yet been part of a case but may have suffered a shortfall, I encourage them to come forward to take advantage of the historical shortfall scheme the Post Office has launched.
Many happy returns, Mr Speaker.
There is no doubt that many grave injustices have been served upon sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, some of whom have gone to jail and lost everything. I know that my constituents will want two things. The first is to see justice done and the full facts brought out in a public inquiry, which is why a judge-led public inquiry is so important. They will also want to see their local post office network protected, ensuring it is shielded from the potential ramifications arising from the actions of management. So what plan does the Minister have to ensure both?
On the inquiry, I have set out the fact that the terms of reference are wide and deep enough. The judge has already reviewed this situation; Justice Fraser has already come up with many, many pages of a response about what happened when and what went wrong. We need to make sure we can build on that evidence, we listen carefully to those who have been wronged and we make sure it can never happen again.
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.
We are all aware that victims of this scandal have lost their livelihoods, savings and reputations, and that some have lost their liberty, as a result of a faulty computer system. I know that my hon. Friend understands the financial and emotional suffering that the Horizon litigation has brought on the victims, but does he agree that the only right and just situation will be to restore those victims to exactly the financial position they would have been in had this faulty system not occurred? I am talking about full compensation and an apology, and, equally, about the real criminals being brought to justice.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The point he raises shows why it took a court to get to the bottom of this, to break the deadlock that had been happening over so many years, which should have been settled so much earlier. That is why in December 2019 both parties in the group litigation agreed a settlement, following several days of mediation—it was a financial settlement totalling £57.75 million. Convicted claimants can still go through a further process; processes are in place for them to receive compensation, if appropriate.
The Post Office was not slow in dragging hard-working, honest sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses before the courts based on spurious data from a flawed IT system, one that it knew to be flawed, thereby depriving good people at the centre of their communities of their reputations, businesses and personal assets, in some instances their liberty and, tragically, for some their lives. Does the Minister accept that a judge-led public inquiry, not a review, is required now, without delay, and that anything less is a further assault on the welfare of Horizon victims?
The findings outlined during the Horizon case provided extensive insight into what went wrong with the Post Office—this includes the independent judicial review of the facts that all sides have been looking for. However, the serious impacts of this case mean more needs to be done. We want to be assured that the right lessons are learned, and that is the purpose of the independent review that we are in the process of setting up.
Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the postmasters in Beaconsfield and Bucks and across the country who have tirelessly carried on throughout covid-19? Will he also join me in paying tribute to Mr Patel, who passed away from covid-19 and served the people of Hedgerley loyally? He was lovingly known as CD to many of the customers. Will the Minister please not only demand an apology but demand justice for the countless men and women who served and have suffered at the hands of the Post Office, and who see no justice? I hope that he will have the courage to deliver that for them.
Justice is exactly what I want and what I want to be seen to be done. I would go further to extend my sympathy to the family of Mr Patel as well, because we must not forget, in all of this, at this particular moment in time, postmasters up and down the country are doing an incredible job for the most vulnerable people in society.
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.
At Prime Minister’s questions on 24 February, the Prime Minister agreed with my request to commit to hold an independent inquiry into this horrific scandal. I followed that question up with a letter to the Prime Minister. Three months later, only this week, I received a response from the Minister. I welcome the Government’s commitment to a review of mishandlings, but this cannot just be a review of past mistakes. With a background of many years in the postal industry, I know many whose lives have been destroyed by this scandal, including sub- postmasters and sub-postmistresses in my constituency of Jarrow. So I ask the Minister again, and make absolutely no apology for doing so: will he commit to having a judge-led review as quickly as possible that will take action against those responsible for the scandal, and ensure that each individual case is assessed and proper compensation is paid to all those affected?
I thank the hon. Lady for the work that she has done on this matter. Given her background, I can understand her motivation. As I have said, it is important to know that the terms of reference of this independent review are wide enough and deep enough to get to the bottom of what happened. An independent judge has already looked at this and built up a body of evidence and other views, which will be then be looked at as a complement to the review. Do not forget that public inquiries cannot determine criminal or civil guilt in themselves; that is reserved for a court.
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.
Many colleagues in the House have alluded to the importance of sub-postmasters during this global pandemic. What reassurance can my hon. Friend give that Post Office Ltd has understood that there needs to be fundamental cultural and organisational change to ensure that sub-postmasters come forward and that therefore the critical network of post offices remains in our communities for years to come?
I think that that lesson has definitely been learned by the new chief executive. Certainly, the Government have worked, as shareholders, on a new framework for the Post Office to make sure that we can build a solid, confident relationship with future sub-postmasters. Nick Read’s background working with independent convenience stores suggests that he is used to working with people as stakeholders rather than as simple employees or instruments of a large company.
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.
The Minister has said several times that the victims of this situation need to be heard and their cases listened to, so can he name any one of them who is in agreement with his position and is not calling for an independent judge-led inquiry?
The sub-postmasters who have been wronged by this want some justice and they want it quickly. What I do not want to happen is a public inquiry that may take many, many years and cost them a lot of money to get more legal representation in. When people have the chance to study the terms of reference, they will realise that the chair will be independent of Government and independent of the Post Office, and that he or she will listen to them to make sure that their stories are told—not just listen to them but make sure that those stories are actually there to feed into making sure that this can never happen again. Then, I hope, they will see that justice can be done.
I thank my hon. Friend for his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), but one of the stumbling blocks to a judge-led inquiry is cost. Does he agree that it is absolutely imperative that the honest, decent sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses across the whole country, and indeed specifically in Romsey and Southampton North, should not have a price put on lifting the stain on their characters?
Sub-postmasters who have been wronged, including in Romsey, need to ensure that their voices can be heard quickly, with no cost. They need to be sure that this can never happen again, and get the acknowledgement that there have been severe mistakes that have caused misery for so many.
This scandal represents a massive failure of accountability and oversight, not just by Post Office Ltd, but by the Government. Will the Minister apologise to those whose lives have been ruined? What assurances can he provide that the losses arising from the Horizon case will not affect postmasters’ pay and unfairly penalise even more postmasters and sub-postmasters?
There have been numerous attempts over the years to try to resolve the dispute. The fact is that the Post Office has independent operational control. However, facts have come to light through the litigation, revealing that the advice that the Government and the shareholders received over that period was flawed. That is why the Government will be monitoring closely the progress of the Post Office in delivering the programme of commitments following the settlement, including through the review. We have also reviewed the mechanisms that we have in place to maintain oversight of the Post Office, by increasing the frequency of shareholder meetings, establishing a Post Office policy team within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and publishing a framework document to govern the relationship between BEIS, UK Government Investments and the Post Office.
A very happy birthday to you, Mr Speaker.
This Government have had six months to enact an inquiry—six months to seek justice for the damage, disruption and loss of livelihood caused by this scandal, not just to see whether the Post Office has learnt lessons. The Minister has said that he pushed for the independent review, but what about listening to the sub-postmasters who have been left destitute by this scandal and providing them with the judge-led inquiry they so desperately want? Will the Minister stop stalling with reviews and commit today to a judge-led inquiry?
We can talk about semantics, but what we actually need are the terms of reference that get people what they want. Whether we call it a review or an inquiry, the fact is that it will understand and acknowledge what went wrong in relation to Horizon by drawing on the evidence. It will assess whether the Post Office has learnt its lessons, whether the commitments made by the Post Office in the mediation settlement have been properly delivered, and whether the processes and information provided by post offices to postmasters are sufficient. It will also examine the governance and whistleblowing controls now in place at Post Office Ltd. That is what we need to ensure that we get answers in as timely a fashion as possible. I am sorry that it has taken six months. These things are complicated; I would love to have announced the review that following day. However, I am glad that we now have terms of reference that are deep and wide enough to get the answers that we need and for which sub-postmasters have desperately been waiting.
My hon. Friend the Minister is quite right to emphasise the need for speed, but people have taken their own lives, and have been wrongly convicted and imprisoned. It does not get much more serious than that. This House is here to defend the liberties of our constituents. Will he bear in mind that the Prime Minister confirmed on 26 February that there would indeed be an inquiry, and, following this urgent question, will he discuss with his colleagues in the Government whether the will of the House may be different on this point from the will of the Government?
We have looked at the different options. I do not want something that is long, drawn out and costly for sub-postmasters, and which does not necessarily get any answers for years and years to come, if ever. Someone used to say to me, “Less haste, more speed.” Yes, we need to ensure that we can do this in a timely fashion, but that does not mean that we need to rush through the detail as the review is going ahead. We need to listen to the views of the sub-postmasters who have been wronged and put that alongside the findings of Justice Fraser to ensure that such things will never happen again.
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.
The Government speak as if there is nothing that they could have done as a special shareholder. Well, of course they could have done something. This situation has left communities in York, such as Clifton, bereft of a post office. The fact is that the Government sat on their hands and did not use their powers, and sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses were thrown into jail and made bankrupt, and some took their lives. Do the Government not want a full, judge-led inquiry with the powers necessary to investigate and dig deep because a review does not hold those powers and will not expose their failings in this matter?
The Post Office has said that it will comply fully with this review. I will push fully for that compliance, and I am sure that the independent chair will want to get right to the bottom of things, however long that takes. We need to get on with the review and get it started now.
On the Government’s actions over the past few years, this issue happened over 20 years, and with hindsight facts have come to light in the litigation that some of the advice received was flawed. However, we have pushed for many years to make sure that we can get a settlement, and I am glad that we are at the point at which we can start to get some answers.
As a barrister of more than 30 years’ experience, I have witnessed at first hand the sheer devastation that a wrong conviction, or even a false accusation, can bring to a family. This is the United Kingdom. This is an injustice. Will the Minister reassure me that following the review there will be real sanctions, because this injustice has effectively destroyed a much-loved public institution?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. She is right about its being a much-loved institution. What we must not lose is the amazing work of post offices and sub-postmasters up and down the country. We must make sure that their reputations are not tarnished by what happened over a 20-year period. We need answers as quickly as possible, so that I, the Government and all of us can see the recommendations that the chairman will bring forward from that review.
Many happy returns, Mr Speaker.
For the Patels, moving from being managers of Acton Crown post office for more than three decades to their own sub-postmaster role in the country was meant to be a dream come true, but it turned into a nightmare when they lost not only substantial sums of money but their mental and physical health and their reputations. Mr Patel ended up with a criminal electronic tag—the humiliation of it. They want to know why in Acton, for more than 20 years, they were seen as upstanding pillars of the community—they handled multi-million pound sums and had a safe key—but suddenly in Oxfordshire they were falsely branded as criminals. Why did it take the Criminal Cases Review Commission to say that there had been a miscarriage of justice? Where was the oversight? Finally, can the Minister make good on the promise that Paula Vennells gave me in 2018 that Acton Crown post office will reopen? It closed on her watch, and she has since done a runner.
We have had the most stable network of post offices for a number of years now, on which—obviously, covid-19 notwithstanding—we need to make sure we can build. I also want answers to why the three Patels—her constituents, who were fine, upstanding members of the community—were seen in that way because of the actions of the Post Office. That is why we need to get this review done and why we need to get the independent chairman’s recommendations out, so that we can see justice done.
Many happy returns of the day, Mr Speaker.
The scale of this scandal demands no less than a judge-led inquiry that has appropriate power. Why can the Minister not accept that that is the only way to examine fully and get answers on how this sorry saga went on for so long and caused so much misery and heartache to my constituents and thousands more across the country?
We have 1,000 pages of Justice Fraser’s findings to build on. Reviews are going through to over- turn and look at a number of convictions. We have this review to build on all of that. I hope and believe that all that body of work will find the answers that sub-postmasters are after about when decisions were taken, who took those decisions, how they went wrong and how they were allowed to go wrong. The fact is that we must get some answers so that it can never happen again.
I think the Minister is doing an excellent job, and I have been in his position, where I have announced a review but was not allowed to call it a review. I appreciate that he might think the difference between a review and an inquiry is just semantics, but for many people those semantics really matter. I share colleagues’ views about the need for an independent inquiry. I would also like to know what the Minister will do about financial compensation. He has said that there are limits on what the Government can do, but it is really important that he looks at this again and sees what steps can be taken to ensure that those affected are fully and fairly compensated.
In terms of compensation, the mediation that took place allowed a settlement to be reached by the members of that group litigation. Other sub-postmasters who have been found to be wrongly convicted will be able to go through other procedures to get compensation, and any postmasters who were not part of that litigation but suffered a shortfall as a result of the Post Office will be able to apply to the historical scheme. I believe that this review will be able to get to the answers and build on the body of evidence that Justice Fraser has built up through the findings of his court case. There will be a lot of answers and recommendations there to secure the future trust and relationship between postmasters and the Post Office.
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.
Following this case being taken to the High Court, I have read that some Fujitsu employees are being investigated for perjury, which is a big deal. What discussions has the Minister had with the Attorney General and the Ministry of Justice on this issue, and when will he announce a judge-led inquiry into this whole sorry debacle?
I hope that all the time taken to wish you a happy birthday has not delayed any celebration you might have planned for later, Mr Speaker.
I want to raise a case that is one of many. Susan Knight was a postmistress of 32 years who was dragged before magistrates courts three times and Truro Crown court twice and made to pay over £20,000. This lady’s life was made a misery, with her reputation trashed and 32 years of service for the Post Office counting for nothing. It is too late for her to rebuild her business. She is basically left with nothing. Can the Minister assure me, my constituents and Susan Knight that she will be adequately compensated in good time without a huge effort to achieve that result?
My hon. Friend refers to Susan Knight. He has also told me about another constituent of his who was the landlady of a local pub and lost that pub. It was another terrible story, alongside those we have heard from Members on both sides of the House about their constituents. In terms of compensation, members of the group litigation have reached a settlement, and I am pleased that a settlement was reached after many years and that the deadlock was broken. As I said, anybody else who has not claimed can join the historical shortfall scheme, and if people have been wrongly convicted, there will be procedures in place for them to claim compensation.
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.
While the Post Office was wilfully hiding its own failings, it operated a system where sub-postmasters were automatically guilty. The Post Office then ran its own prosecutions, so in effect, it was judge, jury and executioner. This proves that we need a judge-led public inquiry, with all the powers associated with that, to get full disclosure and a call for evidence. In the meantime, can the Minister tell me what steps the Government have taken to ensure that this abuse of power can never be replicated and that sub-postmasters now have fair and transparent contracts?