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Horizon Settlement: Future Governance of Post Office Ltd

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:09 pm on 19th March 2020.

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Photo of David Jones David Jones Conservative, Clwyd West 4:09 pm, 19th March 2020

I, too, congratulate Mr Jones and my hon. Friend Andrew Bridgen on securing the debate. I have the privilege of representing Mr Alan Bates, who was the lead claimant in the proceedings that were settled in December. If it had not been for his tenacity and that of others, the consequences would have been that the wrongdoings of the Post Office and Fujitsu would have gone undetected and the reputations of many hundreds of completely decent, innocent people would have been completely destroyed without any hope of being repaired.

It is clear from the judgment delivered last year by Mr Justice Fraser that the Horizon system was, at all relevant times, defective. It is also clear that the Post Office and, by extension, its directors and, by further extension, its Government-appointed directors must have been aware that the system was defective. Notwithstanding that, for over 20 years, the Post Office stubbornly and aggressively continued to assert that the system was fit for purpose. Many innocent sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses lost their livelihoods, some of them went bankrupt, some of them were prosecuted and, indeed, some of them were sent to prison. It is an absolutely scandalous tale.

It is, indeed, a credit to Mr Nick Read, the new chief executive of the Post Office, that his intervention helped achieve a settlement to the legal dispute last December, but that settlement cannot be the end of the matter. The Government cannot simply regard the settlement as putting the Horizon issue to bed. As other hon. Members have said, after costs are taken into account, the settlement sums for those 500-plus litigants will be paltry. The Government have a duty to further compensate the sub-postmasters who have been so appallingly treated by a Government-owned company.

I will be brief, because I know others wish to speak, but there is a vehicle that could be used to pay that compensation. The Post Office operates a suspense account for unallocated money and, given the history we have heard today, I suggest there is rather a lot of unallocated money in the Post Office.

According to a 2015 report by Second Sight, unreconciled balances for the 2014 financial year were approximately £96 million in respect of Bank of Ireland ATMs and approximately £66 million in respect of Santander. Bank of Ireland and Santander are just two of approximately 170 so-called client accounts operated by the Post Office. The question of how much has been going into the Post Office’s profit and loss account from unreconciled balances would clearly have to be a matter for further inquiry. However, it is surely a source available to repay the costs of the claimants in these court proceedings.

To summarise, the Government owe a significant debt, both financial and moral, to the wronged sub-postmasters as a consequence of the deplorable conduct of those responsible for the direction of the Post Office, including non-executive directors appointed by the Government. Ministers should ensure that the debt is discharged as quickly and as fully as possible. Although it is pleasing to hear assurances from Ministers that they recognise the Post Office needs to do more to strengthen its relationship with sub-postmasters and to regain public trust, it would be even more pleasant to hear they are making arrangements to compensate the claimants as quickly and as fully as possible.

Finally, I fully support the calls for an independent inquiry, which the Government have a moral obligation to deliver.