Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Horizon Settlement: Future Governance of Post Office Ltd

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:36 pm on 19th March 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 4:36 pm, 19th March 2020

As others have done, I thank Mr Jones for securing the debate. I will try to cut my speech to allow others to get in.

As we have heard, ordinary men and women throughout the UK have had their lives ruined by the scandal. Two constituents have had their lives turned upside down. I will say more about the trauma and anguish that they have been through later.

Although the court case has concluded, it is not enough to bring closure for those families, many of whom have endured 10 years of trauma. The Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance was formed in 2009, but it took until last December to get the settlement agreed. Any struggle for justice is difficult, but being put through a decade of hardship and anguish is more than many of us would have the fortitude to endure.

For my constituent Jacqueline El Kasaby and her husband, it was too much. They were not part of the group legal action because they had already settled through the earlier mediation. Their story is a little different from that of those who went on to pursue a legal remedy in that they just could not continue the fight. Who can blame them? Facing a bill of £36,000, the El Kasabys agreed to settle by paying the Post Office £10,000. The El Kasabys knew that they had done nothing wrong, but they had no fight left in them, and, thinking they had no redress, just wanted to start to close that chapter in their lives. They scraped the money together and continue to pay the mental, emotional and financial cost to this day.

What of those, like the El Kasabys, who settled through mediation and were forced to pay bills that were not theirs to settle? Given what we know now about the culpability of the Post Office and Fujitsu in the scandal, what action will the Government take urgently to ensure justice for them? Speaking to my office last week, Jacqueline outlined the position she now faces due to the covid-19 outbreak. She has been dealt a double whammy in that she is losing income and struggling to pay a previous debt accrued as a result of the Horizon faults. As a matter of urgency, will the Government step in and ask the Post Office to pay back those settlement amounts immediately and to reopen the remediation cases?

Another constituent, Mrs Elizabeth Barnes, was part of the group legal action. She will receive a pay-out, but does not know exactly how much. As other hon. Members have said, a lot of it will be subsumed in legal fees. One thing is for sure: she will not be paid anywhere near what she deserves. Once the costs associated with funding the action are subtracted, the claimants will receive much less than they should get. Mrs Barnes has one ask of the Government: to back her and the others by paying the funding so that she and 554 others get what they deserve. The Government must take some responsibility for cleaning up the mess.

Serious questions remain about the mess: about oversight and what was known by whom about the ham-fisted attempts to try to cover it up. Post Office Ltd may be an arm’s length organisation, but a Government shareholder sat on that board throughout the period when the scandal occurred. Why was the saga allowed to drag on for so long when it was apparent that the problems were so widespread? Why was £100 million of public money spent defending the case when it was clear that the Post Office had no business continuing to prosecute innocent people? Why are the Government not taking more action to put things right, given all the injustices that have been laid bare, particularly this afternoon?

All too often, the Government cite post offices as ideal replacements for bank branches that have closed, but Post Office Ltd struggles desperately to get sub-postmasters to take on branches. Tollcross post office in my constituency was closed for almost two years before finally reopening in December. Who can be surprised that that challenge exists when sub-postmasters have been treated as horrifically as the El Kasabys and Mrs Barnes?

One other point I wish to make is the need for a public inquiry. In response to Kate Osborne, the Prime Minister seemingly gave a commitment at PMQs to get to the bottom of this matter through such an inquiry, and I would expect further details to be divulged by the Government today.

I will conclude, but I want to comment that, given the sheer scale of this scandal, it is surprising that there has not been more media coverage. An honourable mention should be given to the freelance journalist Nick Wallis, who has been following the case since 2010. The independent online technology outlet, The Register, also deserves commendation for continuing to cover this story. With the campaign group up against such massively well-funded organisations, this really has been a David and Goliath story, as Kevin Hollinrake mentioned. It is right to put on record our appreciation of those who have ensured that this story and the plight of those involved have been reported. I very much look forward to the Minister’s response, and I hope he takes this opportunity to start putting things right.