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Horizon Settlement: Future Governance of Post Office Ltd

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:55 pm on 19th March 2020.

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Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Conservative, Cleethorpes 3:55 pm, 19th March 2020

I will try to complete my contribution in even less than five or six minutes, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Mr Jones has given a comprehensive explanation of the background to this case, and many of us taking part in this debate will be familiar with it. We have met constituents whose lives have been destroyed, which is not too strong a word to use.

I have six constituents who have been affected. They are decent, honest, hard-working individuals—indeed, they are public servants—but their lives have been wrecked. Some have lost their homes, and some now have a criminal conviction. Surely the Post Office will recognise that these people have not become criminals overnight. Why were no questions asked? During my 10 years in the House I have attended numerous debates on the issue and, to be absolutely honest, and as the right hon. Gentleman has said, Ministers have tried to wash their hands of it. They stood back when clear injustices were being ignored.

As Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance has said that, given the tyrannical conduct of the Post Office over the years, it had no alternative but to seek litigation. Scores of postmasters contacted the Post Office to tell it of discrepancies. They were not trying to hide them. Their actions were hardly those of someone deliberately engaging in fraudulent activity.

The judge was scathing in his remarks about the Post Office, and rightly so. The Post Office relied heavily on section 12, clause 12, of its contract with the sub-postmasters. The judge rightly drew attention to that. The clause states:

“The Subpostmaster is responsible for all losses caused through his own negligence, carelessness or error, and also for losses of all kinds caused by his Assistants. Deficiencies due to such losses must be made good without delay.”

Yet the judge found:

“It is not for a Subpostmaster to demonstrate that there was no negligence, carelessness or error on his or her part. It is for the Post Office to demonstrate that there is. It is only if the Post Office can demonstrate that there is a loss which falls within the scope of the clause, that it is entitled to rely upon the clause”.

As has been mentioned, it is staggering that Fujitsu could access a sub-postmaster’s account without his or her knowledge. That left it wide open—though one hopes that this was not the case—to others to interfere with the account entries.

It is perfectly obvious that Horizon is not fit for purpose. The attitude of the Post Office is a scandal and a disgrace. As I have said, successive Ministers have sought to wash their hands of this. Yes, the Post Office is an arm’s length body, but, as has been said, the Government cannot escape their share of responsibility. Circumstances have changed. Anyone who has read the judge’s remarks cannot avoid acknowledging that they have some responsibility. We now have a new Minister in post and he has an opportunity to show some sympathy. As with the previous debate on IR35, this is about correcting an injustice, and the Government, along with the legal process, have an opportunity to achieve that. The Government should act without delay in instituting a full, independent inquiry and compensate in full those who have suffered.

Financial compensation, though, can never wholly recompense those whose lives have been utterly and totally destroyed. I and, I am sure, other Members, have had people in our constituency surgeries who have been reduced to tears because of how the Post Office has treated them. They have been diligent public servants for many years, and it is intolerable that they have ended up in this situation. I urge the Minister to take action on this as quickly as possible.