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Horizon Settlement: Future Governance of Post Office Ltd

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:48 pm on 19th March 2020.

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Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London) 4:48 pm, 19th March 2020

First of all, I congratulate Mr Jones and my hon. Friend Andrew Bridgen, who cannot be here today, for securing today’s important debate. I thank all Members for their contributions to this excellent and heartfelt debate.

We know that the Government recognise the role of post offices, and that was articulated by my hon. Friend Duncan Baker. It is so important that we make sure that we build on the network. There is no programme of closures—there have actually been 400 new post offices in the past few years, and I want to make sure that we can develop on that, although individual post offices may open or close at various points. I want to make sure that I spend the rest of my time covering as many as possible of the questions that have been raised in this interesting debate.

It is impossible to ignore the impact that the litigation process has had on the affected postmasters and their families. We have heard about Tom Brown, Janet Skinner, Alan Bates, Kamran Ashraf, Siobhan Sayer, Elizabeth Barnes and Jacqueline El Kasaby, among others. As my hon. Friend Jerome Mayhew said, they are all real people, not just people on a spreadsheet or a list. They are individuals whose families have been affected, so I will not hide and I will not wash my hands of it. It is so important that we get as much done as possible, even if we cannot achieve everything that has been asked.

I am glad that the Post Office has accepted that it got it wrong in the past on the Horizon accounting system and in its dealings with a number of postmasters, and that it has apologised. I am glad that we got a comprehensive resolution to the litigation following several days of respectful, challenging and ultimately successful mediation, although several hon. Members have raised issues about where we go from here.

Beyond the financial settlement, the Post Office committed to directly address past events for affected postmasters, so it will shortly announce a scheme to address the historical shortfalls for postmasters who were not part of the group litigation. That scheme has been designed to offer a fair, fast and transparent means for postmasters’ historical issues to be resolved.

The terms of the settlement put the onus on the Post Office to implement the necessary cultural and organisational changes highlighted by the litigation, which means that the company should foster a genuine commercial partnership with postmasters. Clearly, it has to settle its past relationship with postmasters to look forward and ensure that postmasters can have confidence in their future relationship with it.

It is important that the necessary support for postmasters to operate branches successfully is available. That includes newly established area managers to deliver support on the ground, an improved branch support centre to support teams throughout the UK, an overhaul of postmaster training and, above all, a further increase to postmaster remuneration, as we heard earlier.

In terms of the management of the Post Office, there is a new chief executive officer and two new non-executive directors, so its leadership has changed significantly in the last few months as a result of the situation. I recognise the strength of feeling surrounding the case, which is why the Government and I are determined to take the necessary steps to ensure that lessons are learned from the Horizon litigation and that past issues will not be repeated.

We have talked about the independent review, which the Prime Minister mentioned a couple of weeks ago. We are looking at the best way to do it. There will be a further announcement as soon as possible in the very near future. I know that hon. Members want progress, but I want to ensure that we get it right, rather than rushing into the terms of reference and other details. I want to make sure, as I said, without hiding and without washing my hands of it, that we actually get something that means something to the affected postmasters.