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Post Office: Horizon Accounting System

Volume 806: debated on Tuesday 6 October 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to decisions by the Criminal Cases Review Commission and the Post Office in relation to the Horizon accounting system, what is their response to the 44 appeals not being opposed by the Post Office.

[Inaudible.]—the largest number of referrals by the Criminal Cases Review Commission in history. Yet the Government are expressly excluding from the scope of their inquiry the Post Office Ltd prosecution function, the Horizon group damages settlement and the conduct of current or future litigation. Given that the sub-postmasters who sued remain impoverished and, in many cases, bankrupted by the Government, why have the Government excluded these most important things? Why are they punishing those brave people who brought this essential litigation?

The noble Lord was getting a bit ahead of himself in asking his supplementary question before he asked his main Question, so I will answer that main one first and then come on to the second one.

The answer to the Question that he originally posed to me as a Private Notice Question is that, on 2 October, the Post Office announced that it would not oppose 44 of the 47 cases referred to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission. This is an important milestone for the postmasters appealing their convictions. It is now for the courts to decide whether their convictions should be overturned, and it would not be appropriate for the Government to comment on these cases until that process is complete.

I will now move to the question which the noble Lord just asked. The settlement was agreed in December and was full and final; for this reason, it has been excluded from the scope of the inquiry.

On the question of its prosecution function, the chief executive of the Post Office, Nick Read, has assured the Government and confirmed publicly that the Post Office is not currently conducting any private prosecutions and has no plans to do so.

As regards current and future litigation, of course only the courts can decide on criminal matters, such as whether to overturn the postmasters’ convictions, so it would not be appropriate for the inquiry to look at these questions, especially when the court process is still ongoing.

My Lords, we are all very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, for continuing to press this issue doggedly over the last decade. Under the framework document, the Post Office business plan must address

“the state of the relationship … with the community of postmasters.”

The sole shareholder—the Government—is required to meet the CEO

“at least twice a year”.

Ministers have known all about this grotesque scandal. It is not good enough to hide behind the pretence that these matters were merely operational. At how many of those biannual meetings did the Minister pursue this? If he did not, surely that is negligence? If he did, why has it taken so long?

I am not the Minister directly responsible for the Post Office; Paul Scully is the Minister who is directly responsible. He has regular meetings with the Post Office chief executive, and, indeed, I have also met him to discuss this matter. This scandal has been going on for the best part of a decade now, through successive Governments and Ministers. We are not trying to hide behind anything. That is why we have announced this inquiry with a High Court judge to try to get the bottom of these matters. It has been extensively looked at and the High Court opined on it, but we think that more can be done, and I assure the noble Lord that we want to see these matters properly examined and the appropriate blame apportioned.

My Lords, the Criminal Cases Review Commission refers cases of miscarriage of justice to the Court of Appeal. In this case, we understand that it will not receive a challenge from the Post Office on this matter. When the matters have been dealt with, would the Minister promise that the matter will be referred to the Crown Prosecution Service and the police to see what further action could be taken in relation to this matter?

The CPS is already examining the conduct of Fujitsu in this case, but the noble Lord will understand that it would not be appropriate for me to comment on those proceedings.

My Lords, in earlier responses to questions on this issue, the Minister has confirmed that, although the review is not a statutory inquiry under the Act, the reviewer—we now know his name—will get full access to the Post Office’s and Fujitsu’s papers and personnel. Can the Minister confirm that the reviewer will have similar rights of access to Ministers and civil servants involved in this case?

My Lords, I too pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, for bringing a measure of justice to this case. In a debate in February, he said:

“It is hard to find words strong enough to condemn the people in charge of this catastrophic fiasco. What have the people in charge suffered as a result? One of them, Paula Vennells, has been given a CBE and now sits on government-sponsored boards. None of the rest, as far as I can see, have suffered at all.”—[Official Report, 25/2/20; col. GC 87.]

When the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, answered a question from the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, in March, he said:

“There is no question but that the Post Office management at the time behaved disgracefully but none of them is now in post.”—[Official Report, 5/3/20; col. 719.]

None the less, what are the Government doing to hold these people to account, at least by reviewing honours and public sector appointments awarded?

The noble Baroness makes a very good point. I made my views clear on this matter earlier in the year, and I have written to the Department of Health and Social Care—the letter is now public—expressing my views on this. Of course, there are appropriate procedures that need to be followed in appointments and in honours, but personally I would have no problem with those matters being looked at.

My Lords, as this is a reserved matter, has the Minister and the Minister for the Post Office had initial discussions with the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure that the inquiry by Sir Wyn Williams will be all-encompassing and cover all the issues that emerged in the Horizon programme in Northern Ireland post offices, with assurances that such actions will never happen again and that those people will never suffer such undue burdens?

It is for Sir Wyn to decide how the inquiry gathers the necessary evidence, but I imagine it will want to gather evidence from all affected postmasters, including those in Northern Ireland. The noble Baroness makes a good point and I will ask my officials to speak with the Northern Ireland Executive on this matter.

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House how many lawyers were engaged opposing the sub-postmasters’ appeals? How much taxpayers’ money has been spent on it? How much of that money was spent since it was realised it was the Horizon scheme to blame, not the sub-postmasters?

I am afraid I cannot give the noble Lord a direct answer. I do not know how many lawyers were engaged. I will try to find out and will write to him on this. I should imagine a lot. But I do not know the number because the matter was one for the Post Office. We have announced the inquiry. These are matters that the inquiry will want to go into. I am sure Sir Wyn will want to pursue this. I hope he will produce the appropriate conclusions and will attach the blame—if there is any—to those who are responsible.

Sitting suspended.