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Horizon Settlement: Future Governance of Post Office Ltd

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:59 pm on 19th March 2020.

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Photo of Karl Turner Karl Turner Shadow Minister (Transport) 3:59 pm, 19th March 2020

I congratulate my right hon. Friend Mr Jones on securing this debate and on moving the motion. We have had discussions over the years about this case, which is a massive scandal, the likes of which I have not seen before.

Before my election to this House in 2010, I prosecuted and defended in criminal proceedings from my local chambers in Hull and, prior to that, I worked with a firm of criminal solicitors. It was there that I met Janet Skinner, who is a constituent of my hon. Friend Dame Diana Johnson. Janet Skinner was prosecuted by the Post Office for dishonesty—theft, fraud and other related offences. I took Janet Skinner’s instructions. It was a very brief encounter, from memory. It was probably a conference that would have lasted no more than 20 minutes, but I remember her instructions and, indeed, she has reminded me of them since. She could not understand why she was being accused of dishonesty. When she explained the situation to me, it was clear that what she had committed, if anything, was the offence of false accounting. Why? Because when her books did not balance, she would ring the helpline and it would tell her—and other sub-postmasters and mistresses—off the record, “You just need to make the books balance.” Effectively, they were told to make up numbers. The helpline said, “Put the information in, then you can close the system down for the night and trade the next day.” That was utterly disgusting.

My analogy is that it is like being trapped in a burning building. You ring the emergency services, you explain the situation and you are advised to smash a window to escape the building. Once you have, you are eventually prosecuted for criminal damage. That is the scenario. It is not a perfect analogy, certainly not for a criminal lawyer, because there is an inbuilt defence in criminal damage of reasonable excuse.

Janet Skinner was of good character, with no previous convictions. She reminded me recently that she had never even had so much as a parking ticket to her name. But if she had sat down with a probation officer for pre-sentence report, it was clear it would not be a good one. Why? Because she would have said, “I didn’t do anything.” When she was asked if she was sorry, she would have said, “No, I am not sorry because I do not think I have done anything wrong.” I did not represent her at the sentencing hearing as it happens, but when she was sentenced, the judge would have questioned whether she was likely to commit further offences because she had admitted no culpability whatever and she was not sorry. She was not sorry because she had done nothing wrong. We now know that she should not have been investigated, she should not have been interviewed and she certainly should not have been prosecuted. We now know that she should not have pleaded guilty to false accounting and that she certainly should not have gone to prison for nine months.

Since I have been involved in representing victims of this scandal, I have been contacted by other sub-postmasters, and a few days ago I received some startling documents. In 2006, a sub-postmaster was prosecuted. I have documents showing discussions between lawyers within the Post Office conceding that there was no theft, no dishonesty, no fraud and no false accounting in this case, yet she was prosecuted. It is utterly disgusting. When this person found out that these documents existed, because they had been leaked to her, she asked the Post Office whether they would produce the documents to the Criminal Cases Review Commission and she was met with aggression the likes of which I have never seen. She was told that these documents were privileged and that if they were leaked she could be in serious trouble. There was bullying, aggression, and constant lies from the very beginning—lie after lie after lie.

I have read Mr Justice Fraser’s judgment—it is a pleasure to read—and to someone reading the judgment it is clear that lies were constantly told. I am prepared to accept that Ministers and Government officials were misled from the very top of the Post Office and Fujitsu. What do we do now to put matters right?