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Horizon: Compensation and Convictions

Volume 835: debated on Wednesday 10 January 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they plan to introduce legislation to quash the convictions of, and compensate, those sub-postmasters and post-mistresses prosecuted and convicted of fraud by the Post Office as a result of faulty Horizon software.

My Lords, the Prime Minister has announced today in the other place that the Government intend to bring forward legislation to overturn the convictions of all those convicted in England and Wales on the basis of Post Office evidence during the Horizon scandal who have not yet had their cases considered by the courts. Following measures to prevent fraud, the person will become eligible for compensation—this includes the upfront offer of £600,000—or to claim more through the individual claim assessment process.

My Lords, I am grateful for that, but forgive me for being even more grateful to Mr Bates and his colleagues, the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, who is now in his place, and the dramatists and broadcasters who captured the imagination and sense of righteous indignation of the decent people of this country. What might we learn from this? Why did it take a prime time TV drama to cause the Government to leap into action? What might we learn about the appropriate relationship between Ministers and arm’s-length agencies, about the unthinking reliance on new technologies, about using public inquiries to kick scandals into the long grass, and about government procurement and corporate greed?

I thank the noble Baroness for those sentiments, which are shared on all sides of the House. The Post Office scandal is one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in living memory and the victims must get the justice they deserve. It is important that everyone knows the truth about what happened and that steps have been taken to right the wrongs of the past. Truth and accountability are one part of providing justice; another part is the compensation, which we are dealing with in this House next week. It is crucial that lessons are learned. I also pay tribute to our noble friend Lord Arbuthnot, who has acted tirelessly on behalf of the victims. He has been in the other place as well, to hear my colleague the Postal Minister give the Statement this morning, and has now taken his place in this House. He is a member of the advisory committee which will be a key part of the process as we work through this terrible chapter in our legal history.

My Lords, I join everyone in this House in recognising the appalling scandal that has been placed before us and the appalling position sub-postmasters have been put in. Any quashing of convictions is to be welcomed, but what is the position as regards prosecutions in Scotland and Northern Ireland, which are under a different system? The Minister made reference to the quashing of convictions in England and Wales. What action are the Government taking to ensure that all victims across the UK, from whatever jurisdiction, are able to have their convictions quashed? Justice has got to be for all, across the UK.

I thank my noble friend for his point. There have been 983 wrongful convictions, of which 24 are in Northern Ireland and 76 in Scotland. We in this House know well that we have separate legal systems in Northern Ireland and Scotland. Conversations have begun with the devolved Administrations; formal discussions are going on now between the justice department in Scotland and the Lord Chancellor. The compensation remains a reserved matter, and will be paid by the UK Treasury, but due process must take place in Northern Ireland and Scotland. Those discussions are under way, to make sure that all are treated equally in all parts of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I will say two things. First, I give my thanks to my noble friend the Minister, to the Minister in another place, Kevin Hollinrake, and to noble Peers across this House for helping to produce a solution which, while difficult and inevitably a compromise, resolves the vast majority of the issues in this dreadful case. Secondly, does my noble friend the Minister agree with Sir William Blackstone, of a little time ago, when he said:

“It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer”?

I thank my noble friend again for being so dogged in his pursuit of these matters. We are absolutely indebted to him for continuing his role on the advisory committee; my colleague in the other place, Minister Hollinrake, is meeting actively with that committee. The William Blackstone principle has been around for 250 years, and it could not be said better than in this House.

My Lords, following the debacle of the failed prosecution of Matrix Churchill in the 1990s, the role of Customs and Excise as an independent prosecutor was brought to an end and supervision passed to the Attorney-General. In the light of what has happened, should not the same thing happen in the case of the Post Office? Is it not wrong in principle that a public body should have independent powers of prosecution when it has a financial interest in the success of that prosecution?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. He highlighted exactly the anomalies that this case has thrown up; the Lord Chancellor in the other place and the Ministry of Justice are looking very carefully at them. In fact, the Post Office has not pursued any private prosecutions since 2015—thankfully —and there is a debate to be had as to whether this power should be withdrawn. We know that, in the Scottish jurisdiction, private prosecutions are not capable of happening; perhaps the English and Welsh system will follow the Scottish system.

My Lords, this awful situation highlights so many of our inadequacies in focusing our attention on the right things at the right time and within the right timescale. It is obviously far too early for restorative justice processes to be put in place, but could the Minister offer assurance that attention is being given to mental and emotional support, as well as financial, for all who have lived with the consequences of this injustice for so long?

I thank the right reverend Prelate. The consequences of this are absolutely wide-ranging and beyond just the immediate financial matters. Our Government are working hard to make the process full, fair and quick. Interim payments have already been made to GLO members, and those with lower-term convictions are having their full claims processed. The emphasis now is on speed and supporting the victims with the immediate issue of compensation. The second issue is getting to the bottom of this awful matter; that is where the Williams inquiry will do its detailed work, and we will get detailed answers to these questions.

My Lords, we welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement that primary legislation will be brought forward, but we still would like to have some more details. Given the speed with which this has been moving, I understand that it is difficult to be specific, but it would help if the Minister could tell your Lordships’ House whether it is the intention that the pardons will come en bloc or still have to be pursued individually. Will these people actually receive pardons? They have been publicly humiliated for years, so the process of exonerating them has to be more than just the stroke of a pen. It is very important that, more than just receiving a pardon, they are seen to be pardoned.

I thank the noble Lord for that very important question. I can clarify that this is not a case of being pardoned; these convictions are being overturned. The primary legislation will take account of all of these convictions en bloc; it would take too long to go through each individual case and it would be too stressful. Of the 983 convictions, only 20% of the victims have actually come forward—so many people are just scunnered with the situation that they are in. Therefore, this will be a blanket overturn of convictions.

My Lords, we on the Labour Benches welcome the Government’s Horizon announcement, although more details would be appreciated, especially on the timescale. I hope there will be more detail in the Statement. Given the emergence of new pilot scheme victims since the ITV drama, how confident are the Government that they are aware of everyone who has been affected? What steps are they taking to make sure that all those affected are identified and fully compensated—surely Fujitsu has that data?

When it comes to data, there are all sorts of confidentiality requirements that need to be kept. We know that a considerable number of claimants have come forward—more than 100—since the TV programme. We think that the total number of postmasters involved is about 3,500. We have compensated 2,700 of those already, and we will leave no stone unturned to make sure that we reach everybody affected by this scandal.