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Sub-Postmasters: Compensation

Volume 711: debated on Tuesday 22 March 2022

To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy if he will make a statement on the steps taken to ensure that the group of 555 sub-postmasters are fairly compensated.

I fully take your words on board, Mr Speaker, and humbly apologise. I thank the right hon. Member for his question. It is really important that we discuss this matter.

Over recent weeks, the House has repeatedly returned to the subject of the Post Office Horizon scandal. Members from all parts of the House are rightly united and outraged at what the sub-postmasters experienced and at the way that they have suffered as a consequence. Some people’s lives have been unjustly devastated, losing their roles as postmasters and often their other businesses as well. Some were imprisoned, and more faced the shadow of convictions over their working and personal lives. Saddest of all, some did not live to see justice, including some who took their own lives.

The Post Office has already apologised, but we know that that is not enough. The victims rightly want the truth to be known and those responsible to be held accountable. That is why we asked Sir Wyn Williams to hold his inquiry, which has lately heard so much tragic testimony from those affected.

As well as apologies and accountability, people want proper compensation to be paid. Those people who exposed the scandal in the first place—the postmasters who won the court case against the Post Office—have not been fairly compensated. But those who were not convicted were not entitled to receive historical shortfall scheme compensation themselves, which, paradoxically, could leave those postmasters eligible for receiving the HSS better compensated than those who won the court case.

The Government recognise that this is just not right, which is why the Chancellor announced today that we are making funds available to ensure that those in the group litigation order group are not financially disadvantaged by the decision to litigate against the Post Office. The GLO group will now be able to access the same levels of compensation as its non-GLO peers.

The postmasters’ legal case was funded by litigation funders Therium. Our worry in Government has always been that any compensation that we bring forward for this group of postmasters would not be fully passed on as Therium has a right to claim a proportion of any compensation received. However, following extensive negotiations with the company, I am really pleased that Therium has agreed to waive its rights to any claim on this compensation, meaning that we can now proceed.

We envisage that the funding will support payments under a new scheme similar to the HSS to compensate those GLO members who were not convicted. Those who have convictions overturned already have access to compensation, and we want this compensation to be paid as promptly as possible. We will be writing to the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance to consult it about the scheme’s operations, and I am meeting representatives of the JFSA on 30 March to discuss these proposals. We will set target dates for compensation awards in the light of our discussions with them. It will not be a long and formal consultation. It will aid decisions on the approach, and I will then inform the House of our plans to deliver that just compensation, which these people so richly deserve.

I thank the Minister for his statement. I congratulate him on moving this matter further than his predecessors who made pathetic attempts and showed such ignorance.

The Treasury statement this morning said that the 555 group will be fully and fairly compensated. Similar things were said by the Prime Minister, and the Minister said that before the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. Can he outline what that means in practice? Is it just reimbursing the legal costs, or will we have a more sophisticated scheme? Certainly, my constituent Tom Brown, who paid back £84,000 that he did not need to pay, is £84,000 out of pocket. He needs that back.

I am also interested to know about interim payments. The sad fact is that there are people in abject poverty now, who are living from week to week, so the quicker we can get some interim payments to those people, the better.

On the overall historical shortfall scheme, has the Minister any idea about how many people were affected by it? I would like to reopen that, because the window given to these sub-postmasters was very short, so it needs to be looked at in detail.

The other question I would like to ask the Minister is about those who have died. He points to the fact that, tragically, some have taken their lives, but there are many others who have died. Will the scheme involve their estates? It would be a complete injustice if those families did not get any of that compensation. I urge him to take the administration of the scheme out of the hands of the Post Office. I, the 555, the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) and others have no faith at all in the Post Office to administer it. It is important that it is seen to be independent of the Post Office.

The Minister talks about the 555. I am happy to meet the Minister and, I am sure, the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire and Lord Arbuthnot to talk about the details of the scheme, but I reiterate the point that we need to get this right now. I accept that this is a step forward, but this will not go away. The Minister knows that—can he tell the Treasury that? It will cost quite a lot of money, and I do not know whether he has established yet how much. Does he have an open cheque book now from the Treasury? He might need one.

Once again, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his work and for bringing this urgent question to the House today, because it is important that we continue to press on and get this done. I really welcome his attention to this matter. I also thank Lord Arbuthnot, whom he mentioned, who has helped in the past couple of weeks to unlock the situation we have today.

The right hon. Gentleman asks how the process will work and how quickly the 555 will get their money. That is the conversation I want to have with Alan Bates and the JFSA over the next couple of weeks, to ensure that we get something that they feel confident in. I envisage its sitting alongside and being similar to the HSS scheme, which starts on the basis of looking at losses and ongoing losses. It is important that we address those in the full and fair way I have described and make the compensation meaningful. Yes, we will absolutely work with estates; the HSS already works with the estates of those who have died and with the creditors of those who may be bankrupt, to ensure that they can be restored to a far better position.

I will happily meet the right hon. Gentleman and colleagues across the House who have campaigned on this issue for so many years. I would love to say I have a blank cheque from the Treasury, but that is clearly not going to happen in this place. However, the Treasury knows that we need to sort it out. I want to ensure that the scheme has the confidence of the JFSA. The HSS has an independent panel with it, so it has a degree of independence specifically to give people confidence, but we will work on that in the weeks to come.

I welcome the announcement that the 555 sub-postmasters, including my constituents, will now at long last get the compensation they deserve. Does the Minister agree, however, that it is important that the public inquiry currently running gets to the truth of why the Post Office decided to defend the action brought by the 555 for more than four years, at huge cost to the public purse, when back in 2015, following the investigation by Second Sight and Ron Warmington and the evidence from the Fujitsu whistleblower, I knew, the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) knew and more importantly the Post Office knew that the Horizon system was faulty and that the convictions of the sub-postmasters were completely unsafe?

I thank my hon. Friend for all the work he has done to expose this matter. That is why the independent statutory inquiry led by Sir Wyn Williams has been listening to testimony from those so badly affected. The next stage of his inquiry is exactly to get to the bottom of the questions my hon. Friend asks: who knew what and when in the Post Office, Fujitsu and Departments across Government. We will get to the bottom of that.

The Horizon scandal has spanned decades under Labour, Lib Dem and Tory Ministers. It is a stain on the Post Office and its single shareholder the Government. This response proves that the Government do the right thing in the end, once they have done everything else. I congratulate the Minister on his work. He has been true to his word; among all the Ministers who went before him, we never had that, so I do praise him.

The Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance took on the Post Office and shone a light on it. It should be commended and properly, fully compensated for everything it has done. Many parliamentarians have already mentioned some of this, including members of the all-party parliamentary group on post offices, of which I have the honour of being chair. We need to see a firm commitment in tomorrow’s spring statement to the full compensation that has been promised by the Minister, and reassurance that there will be no impact on the post office network as a result.

I thank the hon. Member for all the work that she does with the APPG, not just on righting this wrong but on the future as well. I thank her for her kind words. This is a moment in time that I hope we can all be really pleased with, as we are moving this on, but it is only a moment in time—it is not finished. There is a lot more of the process to go. I will be judged on this only when I know that the 555 and other members have had the full and final compensation. I accept and agree with that. I want that money to go into the pockets of the postmasters, and I want to minimise legal fees. Clearly the Post Office does not have the resources to pay that level of compensation without affecting the future network, which is why it has been separated so that the Post Office has the future that we all want it to have.

I thank the Minister from the bottom of my heart for everything that he has done—I am extremely grateful. Does he agree that the conduct of the group litigation by the Post Office was shameful, that it was a war of attrition trying to grind down people who wanted to seek justice, and that it was intentionally trying to stop this coming to light? Thanks to the 555, it is now impossible to ignore. Does he join me in thanking the 555 for their tenacity and determination? Will he ensure that the Post Office apologises for what it has put them through?

I thank my hon. Friend for all the work that she has done on behalf of her constituent Tracy Felstead and the 554 other postmasters. I will not comment on the Post Office, purely and simply because having instigated the independent inquiry, I want it to remain independent. I do not want to put undue pressure on it. Clearly the Post Office has apologised, and I suspect it will not be the last time that it does so. We absolutely want to get answers. I also thank Nick Wallis, who has done amazing work—his life’s work in journalism—in setting out the stall of the 555 and telling their story.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) for securing this urgent question and for his tireless efforts in standing up for all those affected by the Horizon scandal. I pay tribute to all the postmasters who fought for justice, and especially to the efforts and determination of the 555 litigants whose civil case paved the way for convictions to be quashed and compensation finally delivered.

Labour has consistently called for all those affected by the Horizon scandal to be able to access the compensation they deserve. It was simply unacceptable that those who led this slow march to justice had been excluded from the historical shortfall scheme. In a week in which we have had plenty of warm words from the Government on their commitment to British workers but little by way of action, it is vital that the Government get this right. Hard-working, honest people had their lives torn apart because of a misguided belief that workers are dishonest and technology infallible.

Today’s announcement is warmly welcomed on the Labour Benches. I thank the Minister for his work on this issue; his commitment has been unquestionable throughout. However, I do want to press him in saying that speed is now vital. The Government have delayed far too long in getting to this point, and there can be no further delays for all those affected to get the compensation that will go some way towards making amends for this appalling injustice. As such, will he say how many are affected and provide a timescale for when all compensation payments will have been made? Labour has called for all those involved to be held accountable, so will he update the House on what investigations are ongoing into the role of Fujitsu? Will he commit to regularly updating the House on the progress of the scheme? This has been one of the greatest miscarriages of justice this country has ever seen. Every day’s delay only compounds that injustice. I hope the Government can finally start to right these wrongs for good.

I hope I can show by my actions that I will keep the House updated as we go along. On where we are with the compensation, I can announce that as of 11 March, 45% of people in the historical shortfall scheme had already received offers. That amounts to 1,067 individuals. The Post Office reports that it is firmly on track to make 95% of initial offers by the end of the year. The historical shortfall scheme started slowly, as it first worked through the cases and benchmarked those that would help inform future payments, so that we know so much more about the 555. Dovetailed with the HSS information that we have gained, I want to ensure that we can start delivering that compensation very quickly. I am still aiming for the end of the year for the HSS. We need to establish, once we know what the process is, an exact timescale agreed with the JFSA.

And we will hear it first in the Chamber, and we will make sure it is done via a statement, rather than by me granting urgent questions. Lovely, Minister.

I very much welcome what my hon. Friend has said today, and there is no doubt that he has been part of the resolution of this problem, but he will know that across the House for many, many months everyone has accepted that this is a huge miscarriage of justice and a disgrace. There is an independent inquiry, which he has rightly referred to today, but will he make sure that within Government there is a lessons learned process and lessons drawn for the future, so that the role of Government, too, is placed under the microscope, to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again?

First, my right hon. Friend talked about the independent inquiry, and I want to answer the earlier question about Fujitsu. Fujitsu is not on the preferred list of Government suppliers, but it can tender for Government contracts. Indeed, when we hear from the independent inquiry, that will give us all the information we need for how we move our relationship going forward.

To speak to the point that my right hon. Friend made, we always want to learn lessons, not just on what happened with the scandal, but on how we have handled it recently. Covid has taught us how to accelerate decision making, which has given me some of the weaponry I needed to get to this point quicker than we might have done in normal times. There are plenty of lessons we will be learning in the Government.

I begin by thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) and the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) for the work they have done throughout this scandalous issue. I thank the Minister, too. It is rare for me to congratulate Ministers, but he has ploughed through real barriers in Whitehall to get where we are today. What people are asking me is this: what are we doing to get some money back from Fujitsu? This will cost the taxpayer potentially hundreds of millions of pounds. How on earth are we going to allow Fujitsu to get away with it?

I thank the hon. Gentleman not only for his kind words, but for the work he has done in representing members of the group litigation order in the first place, as well as for his work here and his determination. The frank answer is that we will not—we will push as much as we can in any avenue to tackle compensation. Wherever it comes from, it should not be the UK taxpayer who is picking up the tab for other people’s problems.

This scandal continues to shock, and I thank the campaigners and the Members in this House with greyer hair with me, perhaps caused by this horrendous situation. I echo the calls for interim payments and more information about the practical steps to manage expectations, but it is understandable that victims, such as my constituent Nichola Arch, want to see the details. They are also looking to see whether things such as mixed malicious prosecution are included. For those found not guilty, can the Minister provide some comfort from the Dispatch Box today?

I thank my hon. Friend for the work she has done representing Nichola Arch and others. I saw her on GB News the other day talking with Nichola in the constituency casebook section. They both spoke excellently on this. I can confirm that our intention is very much to allow people who were prosecuted but not convicted full access, in the same way as members of the HSS. We have to work through that detail, but I have full confidence that we will get there.

I add my thanks to the Minister for his tenacity in pushing this through some of the barriers that we have faced over a long time. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) and the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) for sticking with this for such a long time. It is great that we are now getting a clearer picture of the compensation. I support what my right hon. Friend said about interim payments being key, because there is real hardship in this injustice, but I want to ask the Minister about the 736 who have been wrongly convicted of misdoing. Only 72 of them have had their convictions quashed or overturned. What are the Government doing to ensure justice for all sub-postmasters?

Anyone who was convicted can apply for interim payments, and the majority of them have had their payments. The 555 will be able to have that, should they have been convicted. We are working with the Post Office to ensure that we can get to the remaining people so that they apply for their convictions to be overturned. Clearly we do not want anyone to have a conviction on their record that should not be there and is there through no fault of their own. We will ensure that we continue to push for that.

I remember my first ever job was working on the Post Office counter automation project—it was some 40 years ago, I hasten to say, and for Burroughs Machines, not Fujitsu. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work he has done thus far, but clearly this is a case of needing to compensating people quickly. He is going to do a short consultation. Will he consider now, after that consultation, making interim payments immediately, rather than waiting to the end of the year?

First, I do not want to pre-empt anything that we may do, but when I talk about a short consultation, this is about 555 people who have a well organised group together and their lawyers. We have already started, so this is not something where we are writing out to people and waiting for answers to come back; this is a focused bit of work. What I can say is that we will start the process that is agreed with the JFSA as soon as possible—and as soon, Mr Speaker, as I have updated the House first.

The Minister will be aware of the plight of my constituent Myra, who jointly ran a post office with her mum. They begged and borrowed £70,000 from friends and families to fill a shortfall that they could not understand, but which we now know—and the Post Office probably knew at the time—was not a shortfall at all. They lost their jobs, lost their home and were branded thieves and liars. Myra’s mum did not live to see her name cleared. Myra was not allowed to claim under the historical shortfall scheme. Does the Minister agree that no matter how carefully the criteria for any compensation scheme are drawn, there will always be people who do not fit those criteria? Will he ensure that there is a catch-all clause in the compensation scheme so that nobody but nobody is left without the compensation for which they have waited far too long?

Please send my condolences to Myra and the family. Within any scheme there will always be hard edges, but please let me know if particular people are falling through the gaps and let me see what further we can do to support them through this difficult time.

I add my tribute to the Minister, who came after a long line of Ministers who did not grasp this issue, but he certainly has. Following other points that have been made, may I seek clarity on those who have died? Will their estates benefit?

Yes. In the same way as with the HSS, we can work with the estates to ensure that compensation is paid through them. That is my understanding.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) on securing this urgent question. I also congratulate the Minister, who has stuck at this and been candid with us on every occasion. This is one of many battles—it is won, and I congratulate him—but the purpose of compensation is to put people in the position they would have been in had the insult not occurred in the first place. It is essential that this scheme properly compensates people for their past and future pecuniary losses, as well as compensating for their pain, suffering and loss of amenity, including the loss of liberty. Will he ensure that those principles are adhered to in this scheme, because nothing less than that will satisfy the people who have been so badly wronged by this terrible episode?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. In terms of loss of liberty, that comes up with the overturned convictions. In terms of the overall losses, as I said, the HSS works by looking at the past losses as well as what is ongoing and making an assessment of that with an independent panel behind it. I envisage that there will be the same scheme for the 555 so that there will be parity in their compensation.

As Back Benchers, we often ask Ministers for action and get absolutely nowhere, but today is different. I join the tributes to the Minister for how hard and how successfully he has been working in Government to get to a solution. I also put on record my recognition of Therium’s decision not to seek its extra compensation. This week of all weeks, it is nice to have a business doing the right thing. Can he give some indication to my constituents and others of the rough timeframe for receipt of the compensation payment?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. It is difficult for me to say, because it depends on what scheme we come up with. If it is the scheme that I am envisaging, which is similar to the HSS and runs alongside it, I expect those payments to be largely out of the door and in people’s pockets by the end of the year. I do not see there being a long time delay from adding the 555 to that, because we know so much about them and can include them in that scheme or something similar.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) and the Minister for their work in this area. I also pay tribute to the 555 for their long battle to get justice and compensation in one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in our history. I pay particular tribute to my constituent Chris Head, who is one of the 555 and a tireless campaigner on the issue. Chris would like me to ask the Minister whether the scheme will have independent oversight so that victims are fairly and independently assessed.

I, too, pay tribute to Christopher Head, who was one of the youngest postmasters involved. We often have Twitter ding-dongs, shall we say, which have mellowed slightly since we have all got to the same point. The hon. Lady asks about independent oversight. The historical shortfall scheme has independent oversight with an independent panel. None the less, I want to ensure that the JSFA is as comfortable with the scheme that we come up with as it can be, because we want to give it the confidence that there is independent oversight of it so that those people can get full and fair compensation.

I join hon. Members in welcoming the announcement and the tenacity that the Minister has shown in addressing this injustice. Will the Government look to recover the compensation costs from those responsible for the scandal—the providers of the Horizon system—and to recover the bonuses paid to those who were running the Post Office during that shameful period?

Nothing is off the table. We need to look at all those sorts of things, because the UK taxpayer should not be on the hook for other people’s mistakes and sometimes deliberate—often deliberate—approaches in that regard.

I add my thanks and I welcome the Minister’s statement. The reality is that sub-postmasters have lost enormously and compensation will go only so far. One thing that they want is to know that there is genuine accountability. I know that the Minister does not want to anticipate the inquiry, but can he make it clear that where there is individual wrongdoing, it will be properly dealt with at whatever level is appropriate?

Absolutely; I can make that clear. We want to know those answers. People want full and fair compensation, but they also want answers and accountability. We can have accountability only if we do exactly what the hon. Gentleman said.

I congratulate the Minister; there is light at the end of the tunnel for a lot of people now. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) has played a blinder, but this is another example of cross-party Back Benchers in this House working hard for their constituents and making a difference. I briefly mention the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which has a very small staff who have worked really hard on the issue. The chief executive Helen Pitcher and her team have done a solid amount of work. Can we recognise that and can the Minister give Helen and her team some help, because they desperately need to retain some commissioners to finish this work?

I pay tribute to the CCRC. It is because of its resource that we want to ensure that people can go directly to the Court of Appeal to try to circumvent overloading it. I pay tribute to the work that it has done to get us this far.

I commend the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) for his endeavours and for his tenacity. I also commend the Minister for delivering on it; it is always good to have a Minister who does that, so I thank him. I welcome the news that payments will be equalised, but this is the second time in two days that I have come across a case where those who paid for litigation and went through the stress of a court case ended up worse off than those who did nothing. Could consideration be given to the court costs being covered as an act of good faith for those postmasters whose lives and reputations have been decimated?

In terms of the original funding, the court cases will absolutely be taken into account—that is the entire process. They will be compensated as if they were going through the HSS and as if they had not gone through the court case in the first place and had those court fees and legal fees taken away from them. I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman.

I welcome the Government’s move to ensure that the 555 sub-postmasters receive the compensation that they deserve. I thank the Minister for his work to fix this matter; he has really cared about it. Can he confirm what discussions he has had with his Cabinet colleagues about how we can ensure that future victims of such scandals do not face the same issues of accessing compensation that is swallowed up by legal fees?

That is the last question, so I will say that although the last three quarters of an hour have been my moment in the sun, it is not about me: it is about the 555. I thank all hon. Members on both sides of the House who have been involved in ensuring that we have reached this point. There is plenty more to do. Clearly, we will all learn from this to inform us in other situations that may arise so that we can ensure that people get compensation as soon as possible.