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House of Lords Hansard
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Post Office: Horizon Accounting System
07 September 2020
Volume 805

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made in the review of the Post Office’s Horizon accounting system.

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My Lords, the Government are keen to see this review launched as soon as possible. We are making progress with the appointment of a chair. Once this process is complete, the review will then be formally launched. My colleague, the Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Labour Markets, has also spoken to Paul Patterson—managing director and head of sales and country leadership for Fujitsu UK—who has confirmed that Fujitsu will collaborate fully with the review.

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My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. The delay to this review suggests that the Government are having some difficulty finding someone unwise enough to take on the chairmanship. Is my noble friend aware that the historical shortfall scheme, set up to give compensation to sub-postmasters who have suffered through the Horizon fiasco, is not available to those sub-postmasters who have been employed through others—like McColl’s or the Co-op—even though they have suffered in exactly the same way as the rest? Is this not another injustice inflicted on sub-postmasters who have surely suffered enough already?

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I pay tribute once again to the tenaciousness of my noble friend in raising this sad tale. The historical shortfall scheme was open to people or companies who had, or have, a direct contract with the Post Office, including companies such as McColl’s and the Co-op. Assistants of postmasters or employees of other companies who had no contract with the Post Office would not be eligible, as they had no contractual liability directly to the Post Office.

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My Lords, there are three strands to this scandal: the continuing failure of the IT scheme, the devious behaviour of the Post Office and the heroic persistence of 550 postmasters and postmistresses. In their case, it has been a story of lost livelihoods, bankruptcies, prison, mental health problems, and now death. Seventeen claimants have died, some without their convictions being quashed; the doctors of one, Julian Mason, spoke of the stress as a contributing factor. There has also been a suicide. Will the Government acknowledge the urgency of this review to bring peace of mind to those who have suffered and, indeed, to hear their evidence before it is too late?

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I certainly acknowledge the urgency of the situation. We are working as fast as possible to get the review under way and to announce the chair—we will do so as quickly as possible.

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My Lords, my heart goes out to all the sub-postmistresses and sub-postmasters who have been dragged through this Horizon hell. They have been treated despicably. Will the Government act ahead of this review and pay the legal fees of those brave sub-postmasters and postmistresses who took legal action? They were awarded £57 million; after legal fees that is now down to £11 million. Surely the Government can take that action without having to wait for the review to commence?

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Of course, there was an agreed settlement for the sub-postmasters who took legal action. It would not be right for the Government to interfere in that settlement.

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As is clear for the individuals and families caught up in the Horizon disaster, life continues to be unbearable. I ask my noble friend the Minister to help me answer my friend Rita Threlfall, the former sub-postmistress from Liverpool, whose story I highlighted in this House on 18 June. She said this weekend: “We seek reasonable justice, and it is still our aim to have a judicial inquiry, as we all feel it is the only way to uncover the truth behind the reason we have suffered financial loss through no fault of our own. But more importantly, it will help us in some way to mend our broken lives.”

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The lady that my noble friend mentions is one of many tragic cases arising from this. It is indeed an appalling scandal. Of course, there has already been a judicial finding of faults in this, and the comments of Mr Justice Fraser are well worth reviewing. We want to go further than that: we want a proper review, and to be fully assured that through the review there is a public summary of the failings that occurred at the Post Office through this scandal—drawing on the judgments from the Horizon case and by listening to those most affected—without repeating the findings of Mr Justice Fraser.

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This has been the most appalling scandal. Those impacted are still waiting for justice, not just for themselves but in holding to account those who appear to have sought, at every stage, to cover up what actually went wrong. Can the Minister give some assurance that the appointment of a chairman, and this going ahead, is imminent, and that those responsible at the Post Office and elsewhere will be held to account?

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I can certainly give the noble Lord the assurance that the appointment will be made as quickly as possible. We are under no illusion about the urgency of the case and the need to get on with it as quickly as possible. I am hoping that an announcement can be made very shortly.

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My noble friend the Minister made similar comments three months ago when my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot, to whom we all pay tribute, raised this subject. It is a disgrace. The Government, as my noble friend will agree, have both an actual and a moral responsibility here. Can he remember the old adage that “justice delayed is justice denied”?

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I agree with my noble friend on this: we need to get on with it. There have been a number of delays, for various reasons, but I am hoping that an appointment can be made imminently, because we all want to see this under way as quickly as possible.

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Can the Minister confirm that the review will not have the powers under the Inquiries Act 2005? Therefore, how will the reviewer compel witnesses, including Ministers, to give evidence, or see the papers necessary to assess, for example, whether lessons have been learned and that whistleblowers in the Post Office will not be treated in such a disgraceful way again in the future?

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The review is non-statutory, but the Post Office, Fujitsu and the Government have all committed to co-operate as fully as possible with the review. The chair will, of course, be fully independent of both the Post Office and Government, and will draw conclusions and recommendations as they see fit.

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My Lords, we all know that sub-postmasters are the pillars of local communities, and yet they have suffered by being compensated for an insultingly small proportion of the losses they incurred through this terrible scandal and the cruel unfairness that followed. The Minister says that he does not want to interfere, but the Government are 100% owner of the Post Office—the Permanent Secretary of the department is its accounting officer and there is government representation on the board. The Government are ultimately responsible for this scandal. It is not good enough to keep delaying this with lots of process and reviews. They must be compensated fully.

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The court case resulted in a substantial award of compensation and the Post Office has a separate historical shortfall scheme, which it is looking at and progressing. We want to get on with this as quickly as possible. I agree with all the comments which have been made. This is an appalling scandal: it has originated over many years and we are doing what we can to try to get to the bottom of it.

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My Lords, so many careers have been ruined and reputations destroyed because of the failings of the Horizon system. How has the Post Office been encouraged to strengthen its relationship with postmasters? Has there been postmaster training to help build a commercial partnership?

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I have spoken to the chief executive of the Post Office, as has my ministerial colleague who is responsible for this matter. We are conveying the strongest possible message that the Post Office of course needs to have a strong and robust relationship with its sub-postmasters.

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My Lords, I am very grateful to be here; I thought I might have to be scratched as my train was late. The Minister has said that there was a substantial award against the Post Office, but every noble Lord who has spoken has pointed out that most of that went on legal fees. Is it not the duty of the Government to properly compensate the people who have incurred this loss?

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I am pleased that the noble Lord’s train was not late. I understand the frustration expressed by noble Lords. When I first saw the award, I shared some of that frustration, but that was the process and that was the judicial outcome. There is a separate historical shortfall scheme, which the Post Office is following. We believe that this is the appropriate way for compensation to be awarded.

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My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed.