Skip to main content

Post Office (Horizon System) Compensation Bill

Volume 742: debated on Tuesday 19 December 2023

Proceedings resumed (Order, this day).

Considered in Committee

[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]

I remind Members that, in this capacity, I am not the Deputy Speaker, but “Chair”, “Mr Chairman” or whatever you want—just not “Mr Deputy Speaker.”

And not Nige, either.

Clause 1

Expenditure in connection with compensation schemes relating to Post Office Horizon system etc.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Thank you, Chair Nige—el.

We had a useful Second Reading debate. I am grateful for the constructive contributions from Members across the House. I welcome the chance for a more detailed examination of the Bill in this Committee of the whole House.

Clause 1 provides the continuing legal basis to pay compensation to members of the group litigation order scheme beyond the current deadline of 7 August 2024. As we have discussed, that is the deadline by which the Government aim to have concluded compensation payments to GLO members, but that power removes any doubt as to our ability to fund compensation beyond that date should it prove necessary.

Clause 1 does that by empowering the Secretary of State to make payments

“under, or in connection with, schemes or other arrangements—

(a) to compensate persons affected by the Horizon system;

(b) to compensate persons in respect of other matters identified in High Court judgments given in proceedings relating to the Horizon system.”

That definition provides additional flexibility beyond the specific GLO scheme to facilitate compensation payments related to Horizon should it ever be required in future.

Clause 2 sets out the short title of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

New Clause 1

Eligibility of Potential Claimants

“The Secretary of State must amend the schemes to which this Act applies to ensure that—

(a) all persons affected by the Horizon system who have had their convictions quashed are compensated on the same basis, regardless of the rationale of the decision to quash the conviction; and

(b) all persons affected by the Horizon system with extant convictions relating to the Horizon system are compensated on the same basis as those claimants with quashed convictions, with the exception of those claimants whose convictions were based on clear, compelling and corroborated evidence.”—(Mr Kevan Jones.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I rise to speak to new clause 1, which stands in my name and those of the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), the right hon. Members for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) and for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), and my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne). The clause would do two things: first, it would provide that all those with overturned convictions would receive compensation on the same basis, including the so-called public interest cases. Secondly, it would provide for all those with convictions that have not been overturned to receive compensation on the same basis as those with overturned convictions. I will deal with both issues in turn.

Reference has already been made to the number of overturned convictions that have gone through the Court of Appeal. Lord Arbuthnot and I approached the criminal cases review body about 10 years ago to highlight the injustice of these cases. In 2020, the Criminal Cases Review Commission started referring cases to the courts to overturn the convictions—the number of Post Office Horizon cases sent back to the courts has already made this the most widespread miscarriage of justice seen by the CCRC. Many of those cases have been described in quite a lot of detail today, with individuals such as pregnant women and others being sent to prison, including individuals who have since had their convictions overturned.

In April 2021, 39 former sub-postmasters had their convictions quashed by the Court of Appeal. The court concluded that the Post Office should not have prosecuted them in the first place, and found the Post Office’s conduct to be

“an affront to the conscience of the court”.

What has subsequently come out in the inquiry makes me wonder how on earth some of these people slept at night, knowing what they knew at the time while pursuing those individuals in court. Earlier, I made reference to Paula Vennells, who I understand is also an ordained Church of England priest—she clearly did not extend her godliness and forgiveness to those who were clearly innocent, but who she was quite content to see prosecuted. As far back as 2011, if not earlier, she knew that the Post Office system was not infallible, as other things possibly are in biblical spheres.

As the right hon. Member for East Antrim said, the idea that we suddenly had a huge influx of kleptomaniacs working for the Post Office—that all these individuals were somehow guilty—was absurd. It should have rung alarm bells, but it did not. The Post Office went on regardless. Not only did it pursue people and take them through the courts, but it took individuals such as Tom Brown to court and then, at the last minute, supplied no evidence, having already ruined those people’s reputations and lives.

As has been said, 93 individuals have had their convictions overturned so far, but there are many more people whose convictions remain unchallenged. We have had some debate on the advisory board about the numbers—I think the figure for the Post Office is about 700, but another 200-odd cases relating to Horizon issues were prosecuted by other bodies, including the Department for Work and Pensions. It worries me that only 93 of the 700 Post Office cases have been overturned.

Some people might ask, “Why haven’t these individuals come forward?” Having met many of them—those who have had their convictions overturned, or other victims of the sub-postmasters injustice—I think that they just want to close this chapter of their lives. They are not going to go anywhere near a court, and in some cases they have passed away. However, I urge anyone who was prosecuted to please try to come forward, although I know how difficult that is for some individuals. It is to the credit of the Minister and the Department that they have tried to reach out to some of these people but, as I say, having met them, I know that is not very easy.

I come next to paragraph (a) of new clause 1, on compensation on the same basis. Where an appeal takes place depends on where a conviction was made. If an individual is convicted at the Crown court, they can go to the Court of Appeal, and this does not require a retrial. However, if an individual is convicted in a magistrates court, the appeal is taken to a Crown court, and the case must be retried. If the respondent—in this case, the Post Office—does not volunteer to retry the case, the judge could actually quash the conviction.

Such public interest cases receive lower compensation than other overturned convictions, because the Post Office deems that in many cases people pleaded guilty on false confessions and that was the basis of their conviction. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) is not here today, but we have heard before from him about how he represented one individual who was actually advised to plead guilty to get a lesser sentence. Some individuals did plead guilty, but in many cases that was done on legal advice. We know that many sub-postmasters had already been traumatised by having false accusations made against them and, as I say, they were advised to plead guilty to get a lesser punishment. Unfortunately, in many cases that did not lead to a lesser punishment, but it does not change the fact that those convictions are simply unsafe.

Five individuals have had convictions overturned so far on that basis, yet despite, having their convictions overturned in these so-called public interest cases, they are entitled to less compensation than others. I think that injustice needs to be addressed. As the Minister knows, the advisory board, of which I am a member, has addressed this. In the minutes of our September meeting, we say that the approach fails

“to put these victims of overturned convictions in the position which they would have been had they not been prosecuted… the rationales for treating them differently in effect re-victimised them; and it was also contrary to the stated intention…not to run schemes on too legalistic a basis.”

It also goes to the heart of what I think the Minister is committed to, which is making sure that people are put back into the position they would have been in if they had not been involved in the Horizon compensation scheme.

Paragraph (b) of new clause 1 relates to sub-postmasters who were convicted, but have yet to have their convictions overturned. As I have said, there are about 900 individuals who were convicted on the back of Horizon-related issues, and only 93 of them have had them overturned. That leaves quite a few hundred people who have been criminalised by the system and whose convictions have not been overturned. They are therefore unable to get compensation, even though this has not only devastated their lives through having a criminal conviction, but caused related problems of loss of income and other things.

Overturning convictions takes time, and for many, as I have said, it involves a process that they will simply not pursue, because that will reopen wounds that are already deep. When we speak to some of the individuals, they say they just want to close that part of the lives. In many cases, they are terrified of any form of publicity around these cases, because they do not want to be re-victimised, as I have said. New clause 1 would entitle all those with Horizon-related convictions to compensation on the same basis as those who have had their convictions overturned. I know that is possibly a radical solution. There will, of course, be a small number of people who did wrong, so it is right to exclude people when there is clear and compelling evidence of wrongdoing, and not simply the guilty plea.

There is a big difference between a false confession—a guilty plea put forward on legal advice—and someone who has clearly done something wrong. I would not want to suggest in any way that individuals who have done something wrong, when there is evidence behind that, should receive compensation. Some people might think that I am putting the cart before the horse, but it is important to bring the matter to the attention of the House. I do not accept—I think this was a strong feeling among members of the advisory board—that the other 700 or 800 people are somehow guilty of what they were accused of. Again, the advisory board raised that issue, and its minutes of an October meeting state clearly that

“as long as unjust convictions were maintained, which clearly involved 700 or 800 people, the means of delivering any compensation…is seemingly blocked. This is itself a major affront to a civilised state.”

That issue needs addressing. I know that the Minister will be meeting the Lord Chancellor, and those on the advisory body have asked to meet him as well.

There are broader issues around how the Post Office pursued some of the investigations. When we talk about people who are responsible, there is certainly a question mark over some of the lawyers involved in the process who might have some professional questions to answer. I think that automatically quashing those convictions is the way forward. I accept that the new clause would put the Minister behind the eight ball a little bit—I see his officials sweating in the Box—but I would like him to address the issues I have raised. He is well versed in a number of these questions, as we have gone round them in the advisory board, but if we are to bring closure to this issue, leaving the matter unresolved is not acceptable. I feel very strongly about that. I am not minded to press the new clause to a vote, but I would like the Minister to reply to my points. If he cannot give an answer today, perhaps he could give us some idea of his thoughts on how we will resolve this issue.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) for speaking powerfully to new clause 1. As the Minister heard, he raised the important point that 93 convictions have already been overturned, and there are hundreds of other people who just do not have the bandwidth to face the trauma of having to go through the legal process. It is imperative that the Government ensure that we get ahead of this issue and do not have to come back to the House to consider how we support that group of people who do not have the appropriate compensation programme in place. I encourage the Minister to consider the new clause seriously, and to work with us to ensure that we address the issues that that group of sub-postmasters face.

As my right hon. Friend pointed out, many of those sub-postmasters’ convictions were not built on sound evidence, and they were based on guilty pleas that they were advised to offer to reduce the sentences put before them for false reasons. As he also pointed out, we saw the spectre of the Post Office spending £100 million of public money—taxpayers’ money—to go after those sub-postmasters and cause the injustice that we are now trying to correct. It is therefore crucial that those who do not want to go through a legal process, because of the trauma they have faced, have the support of the Government in dealing with this issue separately through the Department’s work. My right hon. Friend is involved in that, working with the Minister, his officials and my party.

The new clause would ensure that the victims of all Horizon-related convictions that have not been quashed were entitled to compensation on the same basis, as has been pointed out. My right hon. Friend is not pressing the new clause to a vote, but I hope the Minister takes it seriously. I know that when he was on the Back Benches, he was a powerful campaigner on not only this issue but many others. As he is in a position of power, we look to him to make sure that the hundreds of others in this position are properly supported and protected, and that they do not face the double jeopardy of being victims without the compensation that the vast majority of them rightly deserve.

I thank the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) for his new clause on the eligibility of convicted claimants to access compensation. Eligibility for compensation currently depends on a conviction being overturned. Appeals against convictions in a magistrates court go to the Crown court, where a retrial of the original offence is held. When deciding whether to oppose an appeal in the Crown court, the prosecution must apply the relevant test in the code for Crown prosecutors. That test has two parts. First, the evidence must be such that there is a realistic prospect of conviction. In some cases, that test is met because a prosecution concludes that Horizon evidence was not essential to the case. In those cases, the prosecution must consider the second test, which is whether it is in the public interest to hold a retrial. Retrying someone for an offence allegedly committed years ago, for which they have already been punished, would be harsh. In such cases, the convictions are quashed on public interest, rather than on evidential grounds. Those cases differ from those where Horizon evidence was essential to the prosecution and an appeal is conceded by the Post Office.

In response to the right hon. Gentleman’s point about guilty pleas, there are cases where convictions have been made upon Horizon grounds where there were guilty pleas, but those have now been overturned. A guilty plea is not a barrier in itself. Notwithstanding that, it is open to claimants to submit a claim to the Post Office compensation scheme.

I recognise the concerns expressed by many about how the Post Office appears to have discharged its prosecutorial powers. Accordingly, we should remain open to considering any new evidence on liability in relation to these specific public interest cases. The right hon. Gentleman’s new clause refers to the payment of compensation to people with convictions. He is right to say that to date the courts have only overturned 93 cases, which is a small fraction of the more than 900 convictions prosecuted by Post Office and non-Post Office prosecutors during the time that Horizon was active that therefore could be unsafe.

I note that in addition to the work of the Criminal Cases Review Commission, the Post Office has adopted a more proactive approach to encouraging appeals by conducting a review of cases that have not yet been appealed. Independent counsel instructed by the Post Office will review cases to determine whether it already holds sufficient material to reach a view as to whether an individual’s case could be conceded, were an appeal to be brought. Where the Post Office identifies such cases, it will write to the postmaster to notify them that it would not oppose any future appeal based on the information it currently holds and to set out what to do next to initiate an appeal. I strongly share the advisory board’s desire to see more innocent postmasters receive compensation.

The right hon. Gentleman set out the letter that the advisory board recently sent to the Justice Secretary, and I completely understand the reluctance of postmasters to come forward to appeal their convictions. It must be very hard to trust authority when it is authority that has let them down for decades.

Some of the evidence given to the Williams inquiry about the way prosecutions were handled by Post Office is horrifying. There are obvious implications for the safety of prosecutions, and the way disclosures seem to have been handled meant that defence lawyers were inevitably fighting a losing battle. When a postmaster does get to the Court of Appeal, the onus is on them to show that their conviction is unsafe. I recognise all the difficulties that that burden of proof causes, especially with the passage of time leading to evidence being lost or destroyed. It does not seem right that these people face an uphill battle to clear their names.

Last week, the advisory board released some significant recommendations, and its contribution is very welcome. I am sure the right hon. Member for North Durham will be interested to note that I have already asked for legal advice on what more can be done in this area, so I want to look closely at the ideas he has floated and the ideas of the advisory board. I know that his ideas are slightly different from those of the advisory board: the advisory board is looking at a blanket overturning of all convictions, whereas he seeks to compensate everybody, regardless of whether they have a conviction. Looking at his new clause, I question who would be the decision-making body that would confirm whether there was clear, compelling and corroborated evidence, which normally a court would do, so there is more work to do before we can get to a position that he and I are both happy with. I want to look very closely at his ideas and, as he rightly says, I am also talking to my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor.

I heard Flora Page, one of the claimants’ barristers, acknowledge on the “Today” programme that overturning all the convictions automatically raises some constitutional issues, so this may not be easy. However, I am determined to make it easier for people to come forward and for convictions to be overturned. I honestly do not think there is anything between the position of the right hon. Member for North Durham and my position in terms of our desire to see justice done and compensation paid. That is what he is calling for, and it is the Government’s job to try to achieve it. I promise him that we shall do our best. I hope that in the light of that assurance and the other assurances I have given, he will be willing to withdraw the new clause.

Mr Jones, you indicated that you did not wish to press the new clause to a vote. Is that still your intention?

It is, given the assurances that the Minister has given. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Third Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

It is a great pleasure to be speaking on Third Reading. As we have heard this afternoon, this small but important Bill will ensure that victims of the Horizon scandal, who have suffered over a period of more than 20 years, are not timed out on their rightful compensation because of an arbitrary deadline.

This Government have responded to the concerns of campaigners and of the statutory inquiry under Sir Wyn Williams, which recommended this legislative action in its interim report in July. The Government will continue to ensure that GLO scheme members are compensated as quickly as possible, and our intention remains that this should be done by next August. However, this Bill will ensure that those entitled to compensation, who have waited too long for justice, are not rushed or bounced into making a decision on final settlements, which should be full and fair.

May I thank Opposition Members and the usual channels for enabling swift consideration of the Bill? I thank the House authorities, parliamentary staff, the Clerks, the doorkeepers, and Members of different parties who have participated in today’s debates. I also thank my officials in the Department, who have worked hard to prepare and deliver this Bill at pace while continuing to run the GLO scheme.

The Bill is a further demonstration of the action that the Government are taking to address the wrongs of the past and to demonstrate that we are firmly on the side of postmasters. I commend it to the House.

I am pleased that the Bill will pass and make at least some effort in addressing this injustice—to the extent that that is possible. What the sub-postmasters have gone through is horrific: as we have heard, they have suffered from years of uncertainty, years of not being listened to and years of not getting the justice they deserve. The Government must act quickly to process claims and provide the compensation that people desperately need. Even though the Bill will extend the compensation deadline, it is crucial that the Minister and his team act with urgency to ensure that this miscarriage of justice is addressed.

I thank the officials, the Clerks, you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and all those involved in getting the Bill through. Most importantly, I thank those who have campaigned tirelessly—the sub-postmasters and all those who have supported them in the legal system and beyond—to bring this issue to the fore. I also thank Members of this House and the other House for all that they have done collectively to bring it to our attention and the Government’s attention. We would not be here today if it was not for all those who campaigned. Let us be clear: we need to learn the lessons—I hope that the inquiry will help with that—to ensure that an injustice like this never happens again and that taxpayers’ money is not used to persecute people who should never have been pursued in such a way.

I welcome the Bill’s passage, which is another small step on a long road. I note what the Minister said about the response to the overturned convictions, which will be difficult, but, as he well knows, we have been there before over the last few years. Again, I thank him for his active involvement.

I also thank the other members of the advisory board—Professor Chris Hodges, Professor Richard Moorhead and Lord Arbuthnot—for their continuing work. We will no doubt be meeting shortly, in the new year, to ensure that we achieve what we all want, with people getting the compensation they deserve as well as the answers. I thank the Minister’s officials, and in particular Carl Creswell, Rob Brightwell and Eleri Wones. They may seem long-suffering given some of the expressions they give to advisory board members when we raise more work and more difficult tasks for them to do, but without their support we could not have got to where we are today. Officials are sometimes not thanked, but it is right to thank them for their work on this. Again, what the Minister and all of us want is for the system to work and for it to go some way to help heal the great wrong done to the individuals concerned.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for chairing our proceedings. I wish you, Mr Speaker, the Deputy Speakers and Members of the House all the best for Christmas and the new year. Let us hope that in 2024 we can have a conclusion for all the compensation and, more importantly, Sir Wyn Williams’s review, which will certainly make for interesting reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

I will just say a few words before we bring the parliamentary proceedings to a close for yet another year. On behalf of Mr Speaker and the entire Deputy Speaker team, I thank all those who work here in our Parliament for their service through the year. It does not matter in what capacity people work here; we are all a team. Without their support, we simply could not do the work that we do. A big thank you to all of you. I wish everybody—those who report on our proceedings and those who watch our proceedings diligently—a very merry Christmas and a happy new year. We do not know what next year will bring. I will carry on playing the national lottery; I will live in hope in 2024, if nothing else, as this year was not particularly fruitful—none the less, I will carry on. Merry Christmas everybody.