Post Office Court of Appeal Judgment

– in the House of Commons at 1:14 pm on 27th April 2021.

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Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London) 1:14 pm, 27th April 2021

On Friday 23 April, the Court of Appeal handed down its judgment to quash the convictions of 39 postmasters. This is a landmark judgment, and I know that colleagues on both sides of the House will join me in welcoming the court’s decision to quash those convictions. I will turn to what more needs to be done to address the wrongs of the past and to ensure that injustices such as this do not happen again, but I will begin by setting out the context to the judgment.

Over the years, the Horizon accounting system recorded shortfalls in cash in post office branches. The Post Office at the time thought that they were caused by postmasters, and that led to dismissals, recovery of losses and, in some instances, criminal prosecutions. A group of 555 of those postmasters, led by former postmaster Alan Bates, brought a group litigation claim against the Post Office in 2016. In late 2019, after a lengthy period of litigation, the Post Office reached a full and final settlement with claimants in that group.

It is clear from the findings of the presiding judge, Mr Justice Fraser, that there were real problems with the Horizon IT system and failings in the way that the Post Office dealt with postmasters who encountered problems or raised complaints in relation to Horizon. The findings of Mr Justice Fraser led the Criminal Cases Review Commission to refer the convictions of 51 postmasters for appeal: eight to the Crown court and 43 cases to the Court of Appeal. The Crown court quashed the convictions of six postmasters back in December 2020, and 42 further appeals were heard in the Court of Appeal in late March.

The Court of Appeal was asked in late March to decide whether the convictions of those postmasters were safe based on two grounds of appeal, namely whether the prosecutions were an abuse of process either because of the postmaster being unable to receive a fair trial or because of its being an affront to the public conscience for the postmaster to be tried. On Friday, the Court of Appeal announced its judgment. The Court decided to quash the convictions of 39 postmasters. The Court of Appeal also concluded that the failures of investigation and disclosure were so egregious as to make the prosecution of any of the Horizon cases an affront to the conscience of the court. In the remaining three cases, the convictions were found to be safe.

In response to the Court of Appeal judgment, the Post Office has apologised for serious failings in historical prosecutions. Tim Parker, the Post Office chair, has said that the Post Office is

“extremely sorry for the impact on the lives of these postmasters and their families that was caused by historical failings.”

The Government recognise the gravity of the court’s judgment in those cases and the hugely negative impact that the convictions have had on individual postmasters and their families, as has been highlighted on a number of occasions in this place. The journey to get to last Friday’s Court of Appeal judgment has unquestionably been a long and difficult one for affected postmasters and their families, and the Government pay tribute to them for their courage and tenacity in pursuing their fight for justice. The Government also pay tribute to colleagues across the House who have campaigned tirelessly on their behalf.

However, while the Court of Appeal decision represents the culmination of years of efforts by those postmasters, it is not the end of the road. The Post Office is already contacting other postmasters with historical criminal convictions between 1999 and 2015 to notify them of the outcome of those appeals and provide information in respect of how they could also appeal. The Post Office’s chief executive officer, Nick Read, is also leading a programme of improvements to overhaul the culture, practices and operating procedures throughout every part of its business. The Government continue to closely monitor delivery of those improvements. The changes are critical to ensure that similar events to these can never happen again.

Last week, the Post Office announced the appointment of two serving postmasters, Saf Ismail and Elliot Jacobs, as non-executive directors to the Post Office board. I wholeheartedly welcome those appointments. Their presence on the Post Office board will ensure that postmasters have a strong voice at the very highest level in the organisation. As part of the 2019 settlement, the Post Office also committed to launch a scheme to compensate postmasters who did not have criminal convictions who had suffered shortfalls because of Horizon, and who were not party to the 2019 settlement. The Post Office established the historical shortfall scheme in response.

Applications to that scheme were much higher than anticipated. Consequently, in March 2021, the Government announced that it would provide sufficient financial support to the Post Office to ensure that the scheme could proceed, based on current expectations of the likely cost. Payments under the scheme have now begun, and the Government will continue to work with the Post Office to see that the scheme delivers on all of its objectives, and that appropriate compensation is paid to all eligible postmasters in a timely manner.

While those are positive steps in the right direction, the Government are clear that there is still more to do. Postmasters whose convictions were quashed last week will also now be turning to the question of appropriate compensation, which I know will again be of great interest to the House. The judgment last week will require careful consideration by all involved. The Government want to see all postmasters whose convictions have been overturned fairly compensated as quickly as possible, and we will work with the Post Office towards that goal. I commit to keep the House informed on this matter going forward.

Finally, it is essential that we determine what went wrong at the Post Office during this period to make sure a situation like this can never happen again. To ensure the right lessons have been learned and to establish what must change, the Government launched an independent inquiry led by ex-High Court judge Sir Wyn Williams in September last year. The inquiry has made swift progress already, having heard from a number of affected postmasters and a call for evidence has recently closed. The inquiry is now planning public hearings. The Horizon dispute has been long-running. For the benefit of everyone involved, it is important that the inquiry reaches its conclusions swiftly. I look forward to receiving Sir Wyn’s report later this summer. As the Prime Minister said, lessons should and will be learned to ensure that this never happens again.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement.

This is the largest legal miscarriage of justice in our history: 900 false prosecutions, each one its own story of persecution, fear, despair, careers ruined, families destroyed, reputations smashed, lives lost, and innocent people bankrupted and imprisoned. I want to congratulate each and every postmaster and their families who withstood this onslaught of false accusations and fought back. I want to congratulate the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance and the Communication Workers Union who campaigned to get at the truth for over a decade. I want to congratulate hon. and right hon. Members across this House who fought for justice for their constituents.

I wish I could congratulate the Minister and the Government, but I cannot. I am pleased to see the Minister here making today’s statement, but the Government have consistently failed to stand with the postmasters in their quest for justice: investigations delayed, claims denied and not one word of explanation or apology as to why the Government let it take so long to clear these innocent victims.

Now, to add insult to injury, the Government are failing to deliver the proper statutory public inquiry that postmasters, their families and the British public deserve. Let us be clear: Friday’s judgment vindicates the postmasters, but to deliver justice we need a statutory inquiry with genuine subpoena and witness compulsion powers, and a specific remit to consider compensation claims. We have the greatest respect for Sir Wyn Williams, but his inquiry has no real powers and key questions about compensation, the criminal prosecutions of postmasters, and the responsibility of civil servants and Government, are outside its remit. As such, the inquiry is toothless and may even lead to a whitewash. Postmasters have been clear that they will fail to recognise and participate in such an inquiry. How can the Minister stand there with the wreck of hundreds and hundreds of lives before him, and say that this scandal does not warrant a statutory inquiry?

The sad truth is that this horrific miscarriage of justice did not happen overnight. For a decade now, we have known that there were serious problems with the Horizon system, but the Post Office denied all wrongdoing, pursuing the victims and imposing huge lawyers’ fees on the claimants. Even after the High Court ruling vindicated postmasters in 2019, the Government refused to act. Given the long litany of Government failure, there are a number of urgent questions for the Minister. The Government are the Post Office’s only shareholder, yet time and time again the Post Office was allowed to abuse its power over postmasters. That was the finding of the court. Will the Minister acknowledge the Government’s failure of oversight and due diligence with regard to public money? Will he apologise to the victims and their families today?

The postmasters were criminalised for a culture that assumed technology is infallible and workers dishonest. How will the Minister change that and what are the implications for algorithmic management? The faulty software was provided by Fujitsu. What steps are the Government taking to hold it to account? Will ongoing Government contracts with Fujitsu be reviewed? Paula Vennells led the Post Office during this time and was honoured with a CBE. Is it right that she continues to be so honoured? The Minister referred to what he described as a full and final settlement for some postmasters with the Post Office. Their compensation was largely taken in lawyers’ fees. Does the Minister agree that they should be considered for appropriate compensation? Finally, does the Minister agree that actions should have consequences, and that it is therefore essential that there is a thorough criminal investigation into any potential wrongdoing?

In recent weeks, we have heard about the special access and power that millionaires and billionaires have with the Government, Ministers and the Prime Minister personally. Compare and contrast that with how the postmasters have been treated. They did not have the Prime Minister’s personal phone number. They did not have a former Prime Minister lobbying for them. They were not millionaires looking for tax breaks. They were ordinary working people. This speaks to a broader question of whose voice the Government hear and whose justice they deliver. On behalf of the working people who have had their lives ruined, I urge the Minister to apologise, own the Government’s mistakes and commit to a real public inquiry so that justice, for far too long delayed, can finally be delivered.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

The hon. Lady makes some important points about the length of time and the egregious nature of the situation that the former postmasters have had to suffer. She talks about the time it takes to get justice, and that is one of the core reasons why we set up the inquiry under Sir Wyn Williams. The average length of a statutory inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005 is nearly three and a half years, which is a long time. We want to get answers now for the postmasters so that we are able to answer questions about who knew what, who did what and at what point, and learn lessons.

The hon. Lady asked about the Government’s role in this. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is working well with Sir Wyn Williams, and we are participating fully in the inquiry, as are the Post Office and Fujitsu. Sir Wyn Williams clearly feels that he is getting the support, answers and participation that he needs from the relevant organisations. If that changes, clearly we can review that.

The hon. Lady talks about Fujitsu. As well as the inquiry, there are ongoing investigations with the police into wider aspects of the case. She talks about Paula Vennells. People will talk about Paula Vennells’ positions and awards—there is an independent forfeiture committee to consider awards—but I am particularly pleased that, having stepped back from her other roles, she has committed to participate fully in this inquiry. It is to be welcomed that the former chief executive of the Post Office is doing that.

Finally, the hon. Lady talks about the Prime Minister not being on speed dial, or however she described it, for the group of litigants and the other postmasters. I can confirm that the Prime Minister is incredibly interested in and exercised about the situation, as we all are. He wants to make sure we work with the sub-postmasters to get them the justice they want and compensation for the prosecutions, through discussion and dialogue and by working with them and the Post Office in the first instance.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Father of the House of Commons

Knowing who did what will matter, but it is clear why it happened. In 1999, the Government withdrew from the contract and it became one of the worst private finance initiatives ever.

To know what happened, people should pay attention to the investigative journalists and what Lord Arbuthnot said. Computerworld in 2015, Computer Weekly in 2009 and Private Eye in 2015 laid out what the problems were. Second Sight, in its report, showed 12,000 communications failures a year between the terminals and the centre. There was a suggestion that some of the machines’ recordings of tax disc income, cash machines and other things were not coming through. I want to know whether Ministers and senior people in business, whether suppliers or customers, will pay attention not to glossy reviews saying how good things are, but to investigative journalists who say how bad things might be for the innocent. Until those innocent people, who were forced to plead guilty when they were not, are reimbursed the money they had not taken, we cannot sit quietly here in this House.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

I thank the Father of the House for his comments. There is no sense that this inquiry is glossy in any sense. Sir Wyn will get the technical support that he needs to understand exactly the points that my hon. Friend makes, including the testimony in the court cases. In the call for evidence, there is an opportunity to listen to the magazines that he referred to, including Computer Weekly, and other journalists who have covered this.

Photo of Marion Fellows Marion Fellows SNP Whip, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Disabilities)

I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement. He will hear from both sides of the House, and we are all going to be beating the same drum, but I do not apologise for repetition in this important statement.

The Minister stated that the chair of Post Office Ltd has apologised, but I note with regret that there is no direct apology from this Government. Yet again, this Government are acting as though the Post Office has absolutely nothing to do with them. I remind the Minister that the Government are the single shareholder in Post Office Ltd and civil servants sit on the board, and therefore the Government must apologise—in fact, the Prime Minister should apologise.

The Court of Appeal’s decision shows that there has been a devastating failure by Post Office Ltd during Paula Vennells’ leadership. She should be stripped of any titles and any additional compensation received as a result of her inexplicable decision to continue legal proceedings in spite of what was known about Horizon at the time. However, I agree with Chi Onwurah that it is much more important that a statutory, judge-led inquiry is launched, so that all who failed sub-postmasters are held to account. That would be meaningful progress in the pursuit of justice, rather than a token gesture. Sir Wyn Williams will do his best and will bring forward many things that need to be looked at, but we need a statutory inquiry. Will the Minister agree to that?

Horizon has united Members across the Chamber. Will the Minister therefore agree to meet the all-party parliamentary group on post offices, which I chair, to discuss in detail and agree a way forward that will ensure justice for sub-postmasters?

Finally, sub-postmasters deserve to be fully compensated for having their lives devastated by Horizon and the injustices that followed, without detriment to the current post office network. The Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance needs to be compensated. It has not been properly compensated yet, as its legal costs swallowed up any compensation that it received at the time. Will the Minister agree to cover the legal costs of the 555 sub-postmasters involved in civil action against Post Office Ltd and all costs accrued by Post Office Ltd in payment of compensation?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

The Department is indeed the single shareholder in the Post Office. This has been going on for so long that we have gone through various models of ownership of the Post Office and various names of the Department, but throughout, we have worked with Post Office management, who have reported back about how Horizon was believed to have been working. We will continue to make sure that these questions come out of the independent inquiry, led by Sir Wyn Williams.

In terms of a statutory inquiry, I have covered some of these areas, but it is important to make sure that we are driven by the outcomes for the sub-postmasters, although we differ in some ways on the process to get there. I will happily discuss this further with the APPG.

On compensation, the group litigants have had that money in the final settlement. It is incredibly frustrating and difficult for them that they have been pushed from both sides, with the extremely high costs of their litigation and the drive from the Post Office, but we will continue to work with the Post Office to make sure that postmasters have adequate justice and see their compensation discussed in full.

Photo of Andrew Bridgen Andrew Bridgen Conservative, North West Leicestershire

Unfortunately, in part due to the serial failure to act by successive Ministers, I and Mr Jones, and others, have been forced to campaign for sub-postmasters, including my constituents Mr and Mrs Rudkin, for the past 10 years. Given the huge miscarriage of justice now fully exposed, including the 10-year attempted cover-up by the Post Office, will the Minister concede that only a full public inquiry and independent compensation panel for victims will now suffice finally to lance this boil?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

As I said, an independent inquiry is looking into the actions of the Post Office and the responsibility of the Government within that, and everybody is participating fully. To ensure that we “lance the boil”, the Post Office has launched a historic shortfall scheme, which has started to make payments, and those whose convictions were rightly quashed last Friday will be considering compensation. We will ensure that the Post Office addresses that in quick order.

Photo of Karl Turner Karl Turner Shadow Minister (Justice)

I was present in the Court of Appeal on Friday for their lordships’ judgement and the formal exoneration of those innocent former sub-postmasters. Millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money has been wasted on pursuing unnecessary and unjust prosecutions. When will the Government order Post Office Ltd to call off its lawyers, who have been instructed to search desperately for a defence to the indefensible?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

The hon. Gentleman has represented his constituent, Janet Skinner, as both a constituency MP and a former solicitor, so he has a lot of experience of this. We will work to ensure that the Post Office does not defend anything that is indefensible, and that we get answers. That is exactly what Sir Wyn is there to do, and he will produce his report by summer so that we get answers this year.

Photo of Lucy Allan Lucy Allan Conservative, Telford

The Minister is a decent, able man who I know will do his best to put right these terrible wrongs. Some 555 sub-postmasters showed tremendous courage and dignity in the group litigation against the Post Office, which concluded in 2019. Will the Minister ask his officials whether his Department authorised the Post Office to use millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to fight the sub-postmasters in that litigation, waging a war of attrition on them, purely to disguise the Horizon failings? Will he ask whether his predecessor, the Minister responsible for post offices in 2018-19, was aware of that, and if not, why not?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

The litigation was taken on entirely by Post Office Ltd, and my hon. Friend does not need me to ask those questions, as they are exactly the kinds of questions that Sir Wyn Williams will be asking throughout his independent inquiry, which will report back in summer this year.

Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Treasury)

I appreciate the Minister’s comments about the inquiry and compensation, but will he assure me that the Government will commit to seeing former sub-postmasters as individuals, and to treating each case with importance for all those who have faced more than a decade of accusations and had their life burdened with legal difficulties due to the Post Office’s mismanagement? Many have lost their homes and been refused insurance. Will they each be treated individually and not simply as one overarching scandal?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

The hon. Lady makes a crucial point: each and every single one of these people, whether they were prosecuted or “just” suffered a shortfall, is a human being. I see the anger on social media and the tears in some of the interviews following the quashing of the convictions; we cannot fail to realise that these people have suffered so tragically and terribly over so long a period. The Government and I will absolutely treat everybody as individuals. This has come at human cost.

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland

The group litigation of 2019 performed an enormous public service by bringing this miscarriage of justice to light, but although successful, those involved paid an enormous price for that public service, because most of their compensation was diverted away into legal fees, leaving just £15,000 per victim. That is grossly unfair. The Minister has referred a couple of times to the full and final settlement that has been reached for them, and it is true that that is the contractual position, but it is open to the Government to look behind the contractual position and actively compensate these people in full. Is that something that the Minister will consider?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

Before we look at wider compensation, I want first to understand and make sure that we can learn the lessons and find out exactly what happened and when. This happened over a 20-year period and we need to unwind those 20 years, but we want to do that as quickly as possible so that we can get a timely response and justice for those people, rather than waiting for the three, four or five years that a statutory inquiry might take.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

The Minister said that this was a landmark judgment; I just wonder what it is going to take for the Government actually to take action. People’s lives were ruined. People went to prison. People took their own lives. Surely the way forward now is, first, for the Government to put in place a compensation for all those who lost something. Jerome Mayhew just made a good point: it was the Government and the Post Office that spent £100 million of taxpayers’ money basically to bankrupt people so that they had to settle.

What is actually needed is a judicial inquiry, because the toothless inquiry that the Minister has set up will not have any powers to force people to give evidence. Without that, we are not going to get to the truth, because the guilty people need to be exposed. I know that the Minister has said he is trying but, alas, I have dealt with numerous Ministers over the past 10 years and I think his name is going to be added to the board of useless Ministers we have seen dealing with this issue over the past few years. We need action now, Minister, not more words.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

The right hon. Gentleman talks about unpicking something that happened over 20 years and describes a landmark judgment, then expects it to be dealt with within three days. That belies the complexity and depth of the situation. The decisions on Post Office Ltd’s litigation strategy were taken by the Post Office. The Government were not party to the litigation; they monitored the situation and challenged the approach taken by the Post Office.

The right hon. Gentleman also talks about the fact that the non-statutory inquiry led by Sir Wyn Williams cannot compel people to give evidence, but at the moment everybody is participating in that inquiry. If that changes, obviously our view will change.

Photo of Jacob Young Jacob Young Conservative, Redcar

I welcome this decision and thank and congratulate the postmasters who led the campaign to right this wrong. What more can be done to prevent a similar miscarriage of justice from occurring in future? Will the Minister join me in thanking the postal workers in Redcar and Cleveland for their hard work throughout the pandemic?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

My hon. Friend works tirelessly for his constituents in Redcar and Cleveland. It is right that he highlights the future prospects of the Post Office and its role and social value moving forward. That is why we need to get the answers now, so that we can not only give the former sub-postmasters justice but draw a line to prove and demonstrate that lessons have been learned and that this can never happen again.

Photo of Zarah Sultana Zarah Sultana Labour, Coventry South

The wrongful conviction of the sub-postmasters is one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in British legal history. Post Office bosses aggressively prosecuted workers in spite of full knowledge that the Horizon data system was unreliable and that many convictions were unsafe. People’s lives were ruined, with some tragically passing away before their names were cleared. To get the answers that workers deserve and hold to account those who were responsible for this injustice, will the Government heed the Communication Workers Union’s call for a proper public inquiry into what happened, put it on a statutory footing and give it the necessary powers to compel witnesses and require them to give evidence under oath?

Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Justice Committee

The Post Office wholly failed in its duties and obligations as a private prosecutor. It did so to such a degree that it constituted a gross abuse of that role. In consequence, the Justice Committee carried out an inquiry into the role of private prosecutors within our system. Many behave responsibly and properly but, to learn lessons, will the Minister take away our report from October, sit down with ministerial colleagues from the Law Officers Department and the Ministry of Justice and look at further recommendations—for example, a binding code of conduct for prosecutors, including disclosure obligations; a register of prosecutors; notification to all defendants who are subject to a private prosecution that they have the right to a review by the independent Crown Prosecution Service; and extending the role of the inspectorate of prosecutors to large-scale Crown prosecutors? Those helpful measures could prevent such a disgraceful injustice from ever happening again.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

I thank my hon. Friend for his work in this area. There are clearly wider lessons to be learned from this, as well as the direct lessons about who knew what in the Post Office. It is about justice and how private prosecutions work, although there has not been a private prosecution in this area for a few years now. We also heard stories about people pleading guilty to lesser charges to try to avoid prison. That is not justice as we see it. There are clearly wider lessons to be learned that I am sure the Government will look at.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

Following on from that point, the reality is that the Post Office remains the only body in the UK to run its own prosecutions and it starts from an assumption of guilt when it comes to disputes. Here, for Horizon, it acted as judge, jury and executioner, operated at standards way below the CPS and blocked the forensic account in Second Sight’s Horizon review. When is the Post Office going to be stripped of these prosecution powers? When will a fair dispute resolution process be put in place?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

As I said earlier, there have been no private prosecutions in this area for a number of years, but clearly there are lessons that need to be learned. That will be addressed in the inquiry.

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Conservative, Sutton Coldfield

My hon. Friend is a very good Minister and the Government have, of course, inherited this problem, but, as a House, we have to recognise that this is a grotesque breach of the human rights and civil liberties of up to 555 litigants—our fellow citizens. It is right up there with the acts that we quite rightly complain about in some foreign countries. There may well be inadequate Post Office management, but a Government permanent secretary is the accounting officer and the Government urgently need to do the right thing. In respect of the inquiry that is already commissioned, will the Minister ensure that the evidence, advice and words of Lord Arbuthnot from the other place, who has consistently championed this issue and has been proven right, are loudly heard?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

I should have congratulated earlier Lord Arbuthnot on the work he has done in this area. I know Sir Wyn Williams will note my right hon. Friend’s words, to make sure that Lord Arbuthnot’s words, deeds and campaign are heard within the inquiry, because there are many pertinent points that need to be included in the considerations.

Photo of Kate Osborne Kate Osborne Labour, Jarrow

Earlier this year, I asked the Minister about the 555 sub-postmasters who took the Post Office to court and won the original litigation. Many of them, such as my constituent, Christopher Head, were left with nothing after court costs. How can the Minister possibly not agree with me and the current CEO of the Post Office that if proper justice is to be served for every single victim of this scandal, they must have their claim validated under the historical shortfall scheme, to prevent two tiers of justice? It seems to me that it is only this Minister and this Government who believe that that is okay.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her work. Christopher Head, one of the youngest sub-postmasters involved in this situation, has been through years of distress, so I can understand that anger. We will continue to work with the Post Office and with all parties to make sure that we not only get justice, but provide that reassurance that we are listening and that we are addressing the cause of all people affected by this scandal.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Labour, Kingston upon Hull North

The Horizon scandal, as we know, has destroyed the lives of many people, including that of my constituent, Janet Skinner. The behaviour of the Post Office is best summed up by what the Right Reverend James Jones said in the Hillsborough inquiry about the

“patronising disposition of unaccountable power”,

the denials and the cover-up. To get to the truth, I hope the Minister will reconsider the need for a full statutory public inquiry with the powers to compel evidence and witnesses. This short, quick inquiry that the Minister has referred to without these powers will surely fail.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

I thank the right hon. Lady for her question and ask her to forgive me for ascribing Janet Skinner to be the constituent of Karl Turner. None the less, I know that her voice has been heard via many Members in this House. On the non-statutory inquiry, at this stage, Sir Wyn Williams is getting full support from each of the parties that he is investigating. If that changes, our advice will change, too. At the moment, things are working well, and he is getting the co-operation that is required.

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Conservative, Newbury

The sub-postmasters suffered a grave miscarriage of justice, but the circumstances that gave rise to it—defective technology twinned with a recalcitrant and inflexible employer—could easily happen again, particularly as technology and artificial intelligence are being rolled out in workplaces across the country. Does my hon. Friend think that there is a place in the forthcoming employment Bill for new provisions to protect against this?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

My hon. Friend raises some interesting points, and we certainly need to reflect on the wider implications of the situation. Clearly, the independent inquiry is addressing the direct implications on those sub-postmasters and as they affect Post Office Ltd moving forward, but there are also other implications that the Government need to consider.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Labour, South Shields

Convicted, jailed, persecuted, taken their own lives, made bankrupt, reputational damage and mental and physical anguish for years, yet still no one at all at the Post Office or Fujitsu has been held to account for this horrendous injustice. There are also those in Government who became acutely aware of this scandal, yet remained completely passive in their duties on the board of the Post Office. Is it the Post Office, Fujitsu, or some Government Members that the Minister is protecting by resisting a statutory public inquiry?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

No, indeed. We want to make sure that we can get these answers quickly for sub-postmasters who have already waited up to 20 years for a sense of justice. As I have said, statutory inquiries can take more than three years to get these answers. I want a report on my desk this summer to report back to postmasters, and Sir Wyn is getting the co-operation that he needs to get answers.

Photo of Joy Morrissey Joy Morrissey Conservative, Beaconsfield

Does my hon. Friend agree that postmasters provide the backbone of the Post Office and will he join me in thanking Jay Patel, the Patel family and Jaspal Singh who provide vital services to communities across Beaconsfield, Hedgerley and Burnham? Will he continue to fight for justice and compensation for those who have been exonerated and take on board the excellent suggestion of my hon. Friend Laura Farris of looking at how we prevent these type of scandals from happening in the future?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. I know that she is a champion for community services in her area. That is what the Post Office does—not only is it a business, but it adds social value, as Jay Patel and his family continue to do. That is why we need to get answers. That is why we need to get justice. It is to give existing and future postmasters the confidence that they can work in a great organisation that is offering that social value and supporting their communities.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

Hundreds of postmasters running their local community businesses have had their lives and livelihoods turned upside down, and their reputations and their finances trashed. Will the Minister assure me, further to the question asked by my hon. Friend Marion Fellows, that full legal costs will be included in the compensation package to postmasters?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

We are working with the Post Office in order for it to come forward with thoughts and plans for the compensation scheme. We will make sure that we are leaning into that to ensure that everybody is adequately compensated moving forward.

Photo of Jason McCartney Jason McCartney Conservative, Colne Valley

I have constituents who are among the hundreds of victims of this appalling scandal. One has been telling me this morning that she could not even be in London last week to hear the outcome of this judgment because she could not afford the cost of travel. What mechanism is going to be in place to compensate these victims swiftly and fairly?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

My hon. Friend is right to champion this. The Post Office, first, needs to engage with all the appellants to make sure that they are compensated fairly. It is that fair compensation that we as a Government will be pushing for to make sure that the Post Office acts quickly.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

For over a decade now, hundreds of postmasters have lived with the ruination of their reputations, the loss of their businesses and homes, criminal convictions, in some cases imprisonment, and untold mental misery. In contrast, those who lied about the failures of the Horizon system, covered up its defects and withheld information from the courts have been rewarded with public honours, promotion and lucrative Government contracts. The postmasters who refused to give into the institutional power of the Post Office, which used its financial might to silence them, deserve to be congratulated. But more than that, Minister, they deserve full and fair compensation and an inquiry that will properly hold to account those who the judge said were responsible for appalling

“failures of investigation and disclosure”,

which had made the prosecution of these honest people

“an affront to the conscience of the court.”

The real test will be: is that what the Minister will give them?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

This inquiry is getting the co-operation of all those people participating and involved. If that changes, clearly, our advice and view will change, because I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is so important that we make sure that nobody can hide from this, so that we do get those answers and that those postmasters get justice.

Photo of Virginia Crosbie Virginia Crosbie Conservative, Ynys Môn

Margery Lorraine Williams and Noel Thomas, both from my Ynys Môn constituency, were among those who had their lives turned upside down by this appalling miscarriage of justice. Does the Minister agree that postmasters such as Ian Ashworth, who runs the post office in the Chocolate Box, next to my office in Holyhead, provide vital services to our communities across the UK? Does he further commit that the UK Government will act to ensure that this can never happen again?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

My hon. Friend is right. We have the likes of Ian Ashworth across the country offering social value. People will be interested and want to act as postmasters only if they are confident that they have the backing of the Post Office that something like this—as happened to Noel Thomas and Margery Lorraine Williams—can never happen again. We need to get those answers and, through this inquiry, we need to ensure that this can never happen again, as my hon. Friend said.

Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Transport)

Once again, the likes of me are here questioning a Government Minister and demanding justice for those devastated by the Post Office Horizon scandal, but the Government have dithered and delayed for years over providing a full statutory inquiry, thereby prolonging the agony of the victims, who are still waiting for an inquiry wherein the judge can compel evidence. Rather than the toothless inquiry set up by the Government, why is the Minister not committing to providing the victims with the proper statutory inquiry that they rightly deserve?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

Because the evidence is coming forward. There is no point in compelling something that is already coming forward. Having said that, if that changes, our advice and our thoughts will change, but at the moment, everybody is participating in the inquiry. Sir Wyn Williams is happy and content that he is getting the information and co-operation that he requires to get answers.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

Will the Minister understand that there has to be compensation, and urgently, and this compensation has to cover not just the Horizon losses but the legal costs and the loss of business and income that people suffered from the damage to their reputation?

Many MPs, including myself, told past Ministers that this was an accounting scandal—it was not a sudden outbreak of mass criminal activity by good public servants. They deserve better, and this Government must now apologise by making sure they get proper compensation.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

Indeed, it is important that the Post Office engages with all the appellants who have had their convictions quashed. As we are getting those answers, we will work to ensure that we can get fair compensation.

Photo of Mick Whitley Mick Whitley Labour, Birkenhead

This gross miscarriage of justice has taken a terrible toll not only on the wrongly convicted sub-postmasters who have endured so much suffering and struggled for so long to see justice, but on the local communities that rely on post offices as precious community resources. In the wake of this scandal, can the Minister tell us what steps the Government are taking to ensure that every community has easy access to a post office?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

There are universal access provisions for the Post Office. Although, yes, we are giving them a network waiver because of the effect of covid at the moment, we will make sure that we are up to 11,500 post offices across the country, with access criteria to ensure that the most vulnerable are closest to a post office and have those services that add such social value to their communities.

Photo of Greg Smith Greg Smith Conservative, Buckingham

Postmasters are coming under increasing pressure and workload as many banks turn their backs on the high streets, not least in the towns of Winslow, Princes Risborough and Buckingham in my constituency. Given that increased pressure and increased workload, will my hon. Friend recommit to holding the Post Office fully to account—not just to give justice to those affected by the Horizon debacle, but to fully support postmasters and win back trust?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

Winslow, Princes Risborough and Buckingham are just like many villages and towns across the country, where banks are starting to reduce their branch numbers. I have talked about social value; it is important that the Post Office fills that gap, and provides access to cash and services for the most vulnerable. That is why we need to get the answers to ensure that sub-postmasters coming forward have the confidence and really want to come and work for a forward-looking organisation, not one that has had such an egregious recent past.

Photo of Chris Elmore Chris Elmore Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Scotland)

I pay tribute to my constituent, Mr John Bowman, who lost his home as well as his business, like the constituents of so many other Members across the House. One of the things that hurt him most, which he has talked about to me extensively, is the way in which the Post Office behaved; it simply looked to the criminal proceedings of those sub-postmasters, who, in the end, we now know had done nothing wrong. Will the Minister confirm that the current inquiry is expressly forbidden from looking at the Post Office’s prosecutorial function? Given this, will the Minister reconsider setting up a fully judicial inquiry into the scandal so that postmasters such as Mr Bowman get the justice they actually deserve?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

What I can confirm is that the inquiry will look into the Post Office’s approach and the “who did what” in its approach to the sub-postmasters, because clearly that heavy-handed approach early doors did lead to prosecutions. As I have said, there are wider considerations for the legal process, including private prosecutions, and we will need to learn from this.

Photo of Kevin Hollinrake Kevin Hollinrake Conservative, Thirsk and Malton

I have used this quote already in the Chamber today; Warren Buffett often says:

“What we learn from history is that people don’t learn from history.”

When we finally discovered the 10-year cover-up of a fraud at Lloyds, we inexplicably let Lloyds run its own compensation scheme, which three years later was determined to be not fair or reasonable, and we had to do it all again. Will my hon. Friend at least put in place independent oversight of this compensation scheme to ensure that all those who have suffered get fair, reasonable and consistent compensation, whether they have been through litigation or not?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Minister of State (London)

My hon. Friend has been consistent in his campaigning in this area, and what I can say is that we will be ensuring that the Post Office provides fair, consistent and speedy compensation within the structures, as will be outlined over the next few weeks and months.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I thank the Minister for his statement. We will have a three-minute suspension to prepare for the next business.

Sitting suspended.