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Horizon Settlement: Future Governance of Post Office Ltd

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 19th March 2020.

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Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham 3:30 pm, 19th March 2020

Yes, and I was going come on to that, because I would love to know who those non-executive directors have been over the years and what they said to Ministers. If I had been the Minister, I would have had that person in and scrutinised what was going on, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would. That would certainly have applied in the past few months, given the hundreds of millions of pounds that have been spent defending the indefensible.

In December, the Post Office agreed a settlement worth £57 million. Unfortunately, most of that has been swallowed up in the fees and the after-the-event insurance that the litigants had to afford. I do not criticise the lawyers—the people who funded this—because without them we would not have got justice, but that leaves about £15,000 for each of the successful people in the class action. We must recall that my constituent has lost more than half a million pounds, and the Post Office is settling cases outside this settlement for £300,000. What has to happen now is that a scheme has to be set up to compensate individuals properly. We must remember that £15 million of those costs were legal costs for pursuing the case, and £4 million of that is VAT, which will go straight back to the Government. Over the time that Paula Vennells was at the Post Office, she earned nearly £5 million, which just shows how the individuals who have been affected are not having happy retirements and peace of mind, but have been put through this system. The issue is clear to me: the figures that are being paid out now privately need a scheme.

I wish to make a couple of further points before I finish. The first is that the National Federation of SubPostmasters needs winding up now. It is not independent, nobody joins it—sub-postmasters are auto-enrolled. It is basically an arm of the Post Office and is paid for by the Post Office. Surely if it is going to be an independent voice for sub-postmasters, it should be that.

If anyone saw the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee hearing last week, they will have seen the chief executive, who could not answer on how many of his members had been affected by Horizon or what his organisation had done about it. I will tell the House exactly what it did: nothing. In Tom Brown’s case it just said that the Post Office must be right. The organisation is a sham and it needs to be wound up now. We need an independent organisation to represent sub-postmasters—including through the recognition of the Communication Workers Union, which some people are members of—that can actually be an independent voice for sub-postmasters.

The other thing that I, the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire and James Arbuthnot did was to take some cases to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, because there are people who have been found guilty and in some cases jailed unfairly. I pay tribute to that body, which took the issue seriously and took on a number of cases. It has stayed those cases—quite rightly, in my opinion—until the outcome of the civil litigation. It is important that those cases are now moved on and considered, because there are miscarriages of justice in some of those cases that need to be put right very quickly.

The right of the Post Office to take forward its own prosecutions needs to be removed. This issue goes back many centuries in the Post Office’s history. When Tom Brown asked whether he could get the police or the Crown Prosecution Service involved in looking at the evidence against him, he was told no. Likewise, it was the same for everyone else. Removing that right is something that the Government could do straight away, because there is no adequate oversight of how cases are being prosecuted. In Judge Fraser’s summing up, he described the contract and the way in which the Post Office acted as

“capricious or arbitrary ways which would not be unfamiliar to a mid-Victorian factory-owner”,

and said that the Post Office appears to

“conduct itself as though it is answerable only to itself.”

That is the case: it was answerable only to itself, with little or no insight in terms of oversight from Government.

Let me say what needs to be put right now. I have already mentioned that compensation needs to be put in place. We now need a full independent inquiry, and in a response in Prime Minister’s questions on 26 February, the Prime Minister indicated that that might be the case, calling the issue a “scandal”. In response to Lord Arbuthnot in the other place on 5 March, Lord Callanan said that the issue would be under consideration. We need as a matter of urgency an inquiry to cover not just what has gone on but how we can improve the situation for the future, and it has to be independent of Government. The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee is looking into the matter, and I give credit to it for doing that, but we need some recommendations about what went on in the past. I am sorry, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley said, we need to expose who did what. I have to say, if in some cases what I would argue was criminal activity took place, people have to be prosecuted. Given their involvement, they certainly need to be removed from any public bodies on which they currently serve.

The Minister’s predecessors have not been good at looking into this issue. They have not asked the right questions—they have not asked questions of their officials or the Post Office. The Minister now has a chance to put this right. I know that he spoke to Alan Bates yesterday, and I know that he is hiding behind the court case in terms of compensation—his officials are saying that they cannot get any more. I have to say: please do not do that. It is now time for bold action. If we do not take action, this injustice will continue.

Let me finish with this: my constituent Tom Brown should be enjoying a happy, well-funded retirement, but he is not. He is still a proud man, as I said—he is a man who has not lost his dignity—but he is living in social housing with his son, and that is not his fault; it is down to people such as Paula Vennells and the board at the Post Office, and the failure and cover-ups that have been perpetrated by individuals. The Government, who should have stood up for him, have turned a blind eye.