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Sub-Postmasters: Compensation

Volume 820: debated on Wednesday 23 March 2022

Commons Urgent Question

The following answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 22 March.

“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.”

My Lords, yesterday in the other place the Minister committed to hold those responsible to account. Can the Government confirm that this will extend to the directors of the Post Office who wrongly sanctioned legal action? Last year’s historic shortfall scheme included interim payments specifically for those within that scheme. Can the Government confirm that interim payment will now be offered to the 555 trailblazers?

I thank the noble Lord for his Question. This is a historic injustice as we all know, going back many years. I know that my noble friend the Minister and my right honourable friend Minister Scully in the other place are grateful for the support given to the Government from all sides of both Houses in their efforts to resolve these issues. We must make public exactly what went wrong and ensure that something like this cannot happen again. We have established the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry, chaired by Sir Wyn Williams. As of 11 March, 45% in the historic shortfall scheme have already received initial offers of payment, and we hope to make 95% of initial offers by the end of the year.

My Lords, on the face of it, this is belated but good news. We should remind ourselves that this all started when a large international corporation, a huge public service and Government ganged up together to steamroller the lives of ordinary postmasters who were struggling with the Horizon scheme. I get no sense of the same vigour of their campaign on postmasters from that now on Fujitsu, whose product was the root cause of this problem, which went on for decades. Can the Minister please reassure your Lordships’ House that Fujitsu will be pursued with the same energy with which the postmasters and postmistresses of Britain were pursued?

I am sure that view will be expressed by a number of people around the House. The investigation led by Sir Wyn Williams will investigate all aspects of this scandal, including the role of Fujitsu. In the light of his report, we will have the information we need to shape our future relationship with Fujitsu and any future action we take against it for compensation. The UK taxpayer should not pick up the tab for problems caused by others.

My Lords, will the Minister please pass on to my noble friend Lord Callanan my thanks for the work that he did, along with Minister Scully in the other House, to achieve this excellent result? I come back to the point raised by the Front Benches opposite: will any interim payments be made to the 555 as there were with those whose convictions were overturned?

I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Callanan is not here to receive those plaudits, but he was suddenly taken ill last night. I hope he will be back tomorrow. The Minister, Paul Scully, is meeting the 555 group next week on 30 March. Interim payments and steps that will be taken to compensate the original 555, the GLO group, will all be discussed at that meeting. I am sure we will bring back more information as a result of those discussions as soon as we can.

My Lords, as well as commending the Government on this Statement, so far as it goes, I commend the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom, on his unbelievably consistent campaigning on this issue. The House, the country and the Government all owe him a great debt of honour in this respect. It has always been the case that this issue will not be resolved until all victims of this egregious miscarriage of justice are fully compensated and exonerated. We are well on our way to full compensation, but we are very far behind on exoneration. Fewer than 10% of the 736 people wrongly convicted on Fujitsu’s evidence have been exonerated. It is beyond doubt that a short, two-clause Bill in Parliament could exonerate the rest in a day. What other evidence do the Government need on these wrongful convictions before taking that step, which will be welcomed universally across Parliament?

The noble Lord makes a very good point. For this third group, 73 of their criminal convictions were overturned, including one yesterday—it could be hundreds, but it depends on individuals taking action to get their convictions overturned. The Post Office has contacted 640 of the 740 it prosecuted, offering help. They have had an interim payment of £100,000. We urgently want to resolve this issue and hope that all will be compensated in the current year.

My Lords, I join others in congratulating the noble Lords, Lord Arbuthnot and Lord Callanan, on their work in chasing this. I am concerned about the Minister’s answer on the time it will take before anyone in the Post Office or Fujitsu who might be implicated can be brought to task. At the moment, it appears they will all have retired, or worse, before there is any penalty. Presumably in the meantime they will get promoted and do other jobs. Is there no way of speeding this up a bit?

I sense the frustration in the noble Lord’s voice, but the statutory inquiry is in the hands of Sir Wyn Williams. It is for him to decide when it will report. He has announced that he will take evidence until November this year, so we hope that we will at least have a report out within the next 12 months.

I thank my noble friend for the good news in this Statement, which was welcomed at the meeting of the APPG on Post Offices today, which I attended. What lessons for the future have the Government already learned from this long and deplorable scandal, which the noble Baroness rightly described as an historic injustice?

There are many lessons to be learned. Everybody is appalled at the ability of so many different factors—from different Governments, to Post Office officials and management —to see this particular demographic of individuals prosecuted in this way, when it was almost certainly obvious to the outside world from the beginning that it was a very odd process. I am sure there will be many lessons to learn. Most of them will probably be highlighted in the report by Sir Wyn Williams, but I do not think we should wait for that report to look at this in detail. I know that my noble friend Lord Callanan and my right honourable friend in the other place will be doing just this within the department.

My Lords, I do not want to prejudge the outcome of the public inquiry, but the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, made a point about speed. Does my noble friend know if the Government already have in mind which sanctions are at their disposal to be taken against those who are likely to implicated at the end of this inquiry?

I think I had better write to the noble Baroness on the specifics of what action we can take. Fujitsu is no longer a preferred supplier to the Government; in common with any other company, it can bid for contracts. I envisage that there is much we can do, and I will write with the specifics.

My Lords, will my noble friend join me in commending the work of my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot and extend my gratitude to the Minister in this place—my noble friend Lord Callanan—and Paul Scully in the other place? Can I press my noble friend Lady Bloomfield a bit more on the position of Fujitsu? Can she give the House some idea of what actions the Government could take now for the historic injustices inflicted on these absolutely innocent people, not least to send a message to other corporates that such behaviour is utterly unacceptable and will have expensive consequences?

I do not believe I can go further than what I have already said in our action against Fujitsu. Obviously there will be repercussions for it, but I do not want to prejudge what the inquiry will set out. All I can say is that, while it is at liberty to bid for future government contracts, I am sure the history of this sorry saga will be taken into account in that process.