Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:20 pm on 7th December 2022.
I welcome today’s statement and apology, which represent an important step forward in the delivery of justice following what may well be the largest miscarriage of justice in our country’s history. There have been 900 prosecutions. All the postmasters involved have their own stories of dreams crushed, careers ruined, families destroyed, reputations smashed, and lives lost. Innocent people have been bankrupted and imprisoned.
Let me start by paying tribute to the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, the campaigning group, and to the hundreds of sub-postmasters whom no monetary amount can compensate for the injustice that they have suffered. This has been a long walk towards justice, and Members in all parts of the House have stood and spoken out in solidarity with the postmasters. I want to recognise, in particular, my right hon. Friend Mr Jones and Lord Arbuthnot, who are rightly to be members of the independent advisory board.
I also pay tribute to the Minister who was previously formerly responsible for the Post Office, Paul Scully. I do not do so lightly, but after successive Conservative Governments had sat on the scandal, he was the first to take hold of it and eventually—following much campaigning by Members of Parliament and members of the Labour party—to establish a statutory inquiry. Finally, I want to thank the journalist Nick Wallis, whose BBC Radio 4 series “The Great Post Office Trial” did much to bring this scandal to general attention.
While I am pleased that some kind of acceptable outcome for the postmasters seems finally to be in sight, I have some questions to ask. The press release refers to a compensation scheme for postmasters who helped to expose the scandal, but I remind the Secretary of State that it was his Government who spent years aiding and abetting the Post Office in targeting those self-same postmasters who were looking for justice. Nearly £100 million was spent by the Post Office to defend the indefensible as part of a campaign of intimidation and deceit. The Government are the only shareholder in the Post Office, so it is right for the Secretary of State to take responsibility.
At the core of this unforgivable scandal is the belief that workers were dishonest and technology infallible. Perhaps that is not surprising, given the Government’s track record on defending the rights of working people. Decent, honest people have had their lives torn apart, have been put in prison, and have been made to wait years for justice. Will the Secretary of State tell us how long he expects it will take for this scheme, and the other schemes, to pay the appropriate compensation, and whether the aim of these schemes is to return people to what would have been their original position had it not been for their involvement in Horizon? Will he also tell us which legal firm will be involved in the administration of this scheme, and whether that firm has previously advised either the Government or the Post Office on this matter?
Value for taxpayers’ money is a key consideration on this side of the House, even if the Government like to waste it. Having wasted tens of millions of pounds on persecuting postmasters, can the Secretary of State tell us where the money for the scheme will come from as we face a cost of living crisis made in Downing Street? Will post office services suffer, or will other budgets be cut? The press release does not mention the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance or Alan Bates, who led its efforts. Does the scheme have their full support?
I hope the Secretary of State agrees that those who were involved in this injustice should not benefit from their involvement. Will he tell us how he intends to hold Fujitsu to account, and whether it is still being given Government contracts? Will he also tell us whether he supports the continued retention of the CBE that was awarded to Paula Vennells—who oversaw the Horizon scandal—for services to the Post Office?
The Post Office is a national institution. It is part of so many of our lives. Its reputation has been hugely tarnished by this scandal, and I hope the Secretary of State will tell us how he intends to ensure that this never happens again and that the sub-postmasters receive justice as soon as possible.