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Post Office Horizon Scandal: Racism

Volume 836: debated on Monday 19 February 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the reports from sub-postmasters involved in the Post Office Horizon scandal that racism affected the way they were treated by the Post Office.

I thank the noble Lord for his Question. Some of the evidence that has been brought to light through Sir Wyn Williams’s inquiry has been appalling and regrettable. The Government are committed to ensuring that lessons are learned and events are never repeated, but it is important that Sir Wyn is given the time and independence he needs to draw conclusions and report to Ministers on his findings.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. My heart goes out to all the sub-postmasters, whatever community they belong to, who were victims of this miscarriage of justice. I thank Balvinder Gill, who is in the Public Gallery and who has been through a horrendous experience, along with his mother. Just like Balvinder’s mother, many victims were hard-working, first-generation immigrants, who had accumulated wealth and had a good status in the community. They generally did not have a full grasp of the English language and were treated like second-class citizens by the Post Office. As the Minister will know, over 40% of sub-postmasters were from minority communities. Why was such a high percentage of Asian females prosecuted by the Post Office when, in reality, the prison population of Asian females is less than 5%?

I thank the noble Lord. We are all deeply distressed by the events that have happened during this 25-year sorry saga. The noble Lord refers to one of the documents that was used by Post Office Ltd, which was released in 2023 under the Freedom of Information Act. That did have language in it using descriptors that were very much out of date and should have been updated; it was offensive language and the Post Office has now, rightly, completely changed its methodology. But, once again, Sir Wyn Williams will go into this in great detail.

My Lords, it is easy to see why the noble Lord was shocked by the racist terms uncovered, which were used by the investigating team in Post Office Ltd. It is even more shocking to note how recently those terms were being used, and still more shocking that many of the people who were using those terms are still employed by Post Office Ltd. We do not need the conclusion of the inquiry to know that Post Office Ltd is rotten to the core. When will the new chairman be appointed and when will the work start on cleaning this rotten business out?

I share the noble Lord’s frustration with this process. There was indeed offensive language used in the official documentation, which had not been updated since the 1980s and for which the Post Office has clearly apologised. As far as the culture in the Post Office is concerned, there is a rebuilding job required. The chairman has been removed and live conversations are going on right now to appoint a new chairman. My department is fully focused on rectifying this sorry situation.

My Lords, none of the racist terms in the report, codenamed Project May, could have been used without the approval of directors, all of whom were appointed by the Government. Rather than hiding behind the claim that the Horizon inquiry might look at it, the Minister needs to be accountable to Parliament. An inquiry is not a substitute for parliamentary accountability. So, can he tell us when he first became aware of these racist terms and why he has not already referred the Post Office to the Equality and Human Rights Commission for investigation?

I thank the noble Lord. He is referring to the historical document that was released under the Freedom of Information Act in 2023. It has clearly been identified to have offensive language in it, which had not been updated since the 1980s. There is an ongoing inquiry into this. We all want to know the answer. The reason we got into this position in the first place is that people were deemed guilty rather than innocent without due process. Let us not do the same thing again.

My Lords, is it not obvious, as the noble Lord, Lord Fox, said, that there has been a complete failure of corporate governance here, and the only way to deal with that in the real world is to clear out the people responsible and put in some people who are capable of bringing order and good management to the Post Office?

I thank my noble friend. We both come at this from the same point of view: the private sector board. The board currently in place is not the board that prosecuted any of these postmasters. In fact, of the non-executive directors, three have been appointed in the last 12 months. There is no question that there has been a failure of governance. As we discussed last time, the governance of this company goes through the chair to the Secretary of State to Ministers. That is where we need accountability and where the inquiry will focus.

My Lords, as we have heard, the BBC recently reported a number of concerns and comments made by Post Office staff. One sub-postmaster was told:

“All the Indians are doing it. They have relatives so they take the money and send it to them abroad”.

But neither the terms of reference nor the completed list of issues for the inquiry explicitly mentions racism or discrimination. Is the Minister comfortable that the Wyn Williams investigation will deal with these specific issues of racism and discrimination in his report?

I thank the noble Lord for that question. The inquiry was set up by this Government in 2020, initially on a non-statutory basis, immediately following the case with Lord Justice Parker in 2019. That was then upgraded to a statutory inquiry. So Wyn Williams has the full authority of the judicial process to get to the heart of this matter. We are also being advised, as we know, by the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, and the advisory committee. It is very clear that we will get to the bottom of all these issues.

My Lords, the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Sahota, about why there were more Asian subpostmasters treated harshly and sent to prison is important. Nick Wallis, who has written the book on this scandal, said:

“As I spoke to them I did start to wonder why Asian sub-postmasters seemed to be getting far more punitive sentences than their white counterparts”.

It is good that the Minister said that the Government want to learn from the mistakes. Is anyone looking at the difference in sentencing terms between white and Asian sub-postmasters?

I thank the noble Baroness for that question. Absolutely—this is fundamental to looking at the overturning of the convictions. There were 983 wrongful convictions and the Ministry of Justice is now working through that process and it absolutely needs to understand exactly how these convictions came about and to whom.

My Lords, the chairman of the Post Office, who has now resigned, was recently quoted in the press as being advised several times on the quiet by officials in Government to go slow with giving money back after prosecutions in order to save government expenditure. Was that the reason he was sacked or was it because the Government wanted to have a new broom there? It does not reflect very well on what the civil servants were reported to be telling him.

I thank the noble Lord for that. I can inform the House that the Secretary of State for the Department for Business and Trade will be giving a detailed Statement in the other place on this in about half an hour’s time, where she will categorically refute the allegations made by Henry Staunton—with evidence that we will put in the House of Commons Library to demonstrate that that was absolutely not the case. It does not match the facts. The fact of the matter is that we have compensated 64% of all the postmasters already and in the HSS scheme 100% already had offers in Henry Staunton’s time—so the facts do not match the article.

My Lords, listening to the noble Lord, Lord Sahota, has made me question whether or not misogyny and sexism played a role in the sentencing of the Asian sub-postmasters. Is that being looked into as well?

I thank the noble Baroness. As I said, these are all issues that will be looked at. Sir Wyn Williams has complete authority to look into all these matters and he will be guided by the public interest—where this is clearly in the public interest—and also by the advisory committee, with the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, and Mr Bates et cetera.

I refer noble Lords to my interests as set out in the register. I ask the Minister: does this not show one of the concerns that we should have about arm’s-length bodies, where they are supposed to be accountable but there are many questions over their accountability? They can act in this way but actually not be held responsible. I wonder whether that has wider lessons for who regulates the arm’s-length bodies and how they are accountable, not only to Parliament but to the British people.

I thank my noble friend for that. I have said at the Dispatch Box before that there will quite a lot of examination required following the Wyn Williams report. There are number of arm’s-length bodies that are set up to look like plcs but do not behave like plcs, largely because there has not been the challenge and the scrutiny typical of non-execs and from Ministers in terms of oversight. That is, I imagine, something which will be very much focused on following the Wyn Williams report.

The Minister mentioned Wendy Williams as looking into the sub-postmasters. Is it the same Wendy Williams who looked into the Windrush scandal? The mere fact is that the Government took no notice of that and have not implemented anything there, so how is that going to work with this new thing around the Post Office scandal?

My understanding that the judge in this inquiry is Sir Wyn Williams. I will have to write and find out whether there is a connection to Windrush. I am afraid I am not aware of that.