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Horizon System: Exoneration of Sub-postmasters

Volume 745: debated on Tuesday 20 February 2024

4. What steps he is taking to exonerate sub-postmasters who were prosecuted due to errors in the Post Office Horizon system. (901578)

7. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to exonerate sub-postmasters who were convicted due to errors in the Post Office Horizon system. (901583)

10. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to exonerate sub-postmasters who were convicted due to errors in the Post Office Horizon system. (901586)

In September 2020, a public inquiry was set up into the failings associated with the Post Office Horizon IT system and it is expected to report back later this year. In addition, over £160 million has already been paid out in compensation across three schemes.

However, in its December 2023 letter, the independent Horizon compensation advisory board expressed concern that the pace of exonerations was too slow, not least because evidence had been lost and many were simply too traumatised to come forward. That is why the Prime Minister has decided to bring forward legislation to quash the relevant convictions, and the Department for Business and Trade will be announcing details shortly. These wholly exceptional circumstances have led to this wholly exceptional course.

While I welcome the Government’s commitment to quash the wrongful convictions of sub-postmasters caught up in the Horizon scandal, I also recognise that this is a complex area of law that could even raise constitutional issues. Given that some sub-postmasters have been suffering for an extremely long time, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that any legislation should deal with these issues swiftly and avoid any further delays?

I thank my hon. Friend for the careful and thoughtful way in which he addresses this significant issue. The judiciary and courts have dealt swiftly with the cases before them, but the scale and circumstances of the prosecution failure mean that this demands an unprecedented response, and that is why the Prime Minister announced this major step forward in response to the Horizon scandal. We are keen to ensure that the legislation achieves its goal of bringing prompt justice to all those who were wrongfully convicted, followed by rapid financial redress. It is not right that wholly innocent people could potentially go to their graves with the mark and stigma of a conviction hanging over them.

Every day we hear further revelations about the Post Office, and today’s shocking—well, it should be shocking—BBC story states that the 2016 Swift review noted that the Post Office had always known about the balancing transaction capability of Horizon and that the Government knew in 2016 that a Deloitte investigation into all Horizon transactions was under way and that this investigation was suddenly halted after sub-postmasters began legal action. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether the Ministry of Justice was aware of this, and does he believe that that apparent non-disclosure to the inquiry is a threat to judicial freedom and independence?

In 2020—coming up to four years ago now—an independent inquiry was set up under Mr Justice Wyn Williams. That is expected to report later this year, and it will go into properly exhaustive details about who knew what and when. We are absolutely clear that there has been an egregious failure of prosecution conduct—frankly, one that brings shame on those involved—and it is absolutely right that that inquiry should get to the bottom of what took place and who knew what and when.

The current chief executive of the Post Office said in evidence to the Business and Trade Committee last month that, despite various audits and investigations, we still do not know the full scope of the money overclaimed through Horizon, or where it went. Even the auditors are unable to give a firm figure. Postmasters such as my constituent Roger have suffered incredible stress and worry as well as significant financial loss, but the prospect of getting to the truth on these figures still seems far off.

Will the Secretary of State commit to working with the Secretary of State for Business and Trade and set out a timetable for updating the House on how much the Post Office took and what it did with the money, so that constituents like mine can start to get the answers and the justice that they deserve?

My heart goes out to Roger and people like him. I have constituents who are affected, as I am sure everyone in this House does. We are a fair-minded nation, which is why it strikes us to the core. The hon. Lady asks me to liaise with the Department for Business and Trade. Of course the MOJ will do everything it properly can, but DBT is leading on this. It is also worth reflecting that £160 million has already been paid out across the three schemes, and there is a very important, swift and robust approach of paying £600,000 to those who have their convictions quashed. That is the right approach. It is exceptional, but these are exceptional circumstances.

My right hon. and learned Friend will know that, only last week, the Court of Appeal criminal division, presided over by the Lady Chief Justice, quashed in bulk a number of Horizon appeals, on the basis of a half-hour hearing. When the cases get to court, the courts can deal with them swiftly.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that in framing any legislation, because of the constitutional implications, it is important that we bear in mind that the failures are the failure of a prosecutor to do their duty, or perhaps the failure of the state to come to the aid of victims, but they are not the failure of the courts, which always acted entirely properly on the material put before them by the parties at the time? It was a failure of the parties, not of the courts.

As always, my hon. Friend gets to the heart of it. This was a failure of the Post Office, which is an emanation of the state, and it is the duty of the state to put it right. The courts have approached this entirely properly. The Post Office failed to discharge the solemn obligations on any prosecutor to act fairly and to comply with their obligations under section 3 of the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996 to disclose material that might reasonably be considered capable of undermining the case of the prosecution, or of assisting the case of the defence. When I was prosecuting, the first rule was that we did not seek a conviction at all costs, which is an important principle that the Post Office failed to appreciate.

Whistleblowers have come forward to provide information that Fujitsu was given an additional contract by the Post Office in 2013 to re-platform transaction data that was previously held on an external storage system that was considered to be the gold standard. It was replaced by a system that made it virtually impossible to investigate financial transactions in a forensic audit. Does the Justice Secretary share our concern that this decision effectively destroyed evidence, preventing exactly the sort of audit trail that would exonerate those sub-postmasters who were convicted?

The Department for Business and Trade is better placed to answer those specific points, but I would say two things. First, as a matter of sacred principle, if material comes into a prosecutor’s possession that might be considered capable of undermining the case of the prosecution, that material should be disclosed to the defence. That is one of the things that has been considered by Sir Wyn Williams’s inquiry. What did the Post Office know, when did it know it, and what did it do with the material before it? Across the House, we want to get to the bottom of those questions.