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Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill – in the House of Commons at 8:30 pm on 29 April 2024.

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Amendments made: 23, line 1, after “Wales” insert “and Northern Ireland”.

This amendment is consequential on the extension of the Bill to Northern Ireland.

Amendment 24, line 4, after “Wales” insert “or Northern Ireland”.—(Kevin Hollinrake.)

This amendment is consequential on the extension of the Bill to Northern Ireland.

The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair.

Bill, as amended, reported.

Bill, as amended in the Committee, considered.

Third Reading

Photo of Kemi Badenoch Kemi Badenoch Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office), Minister for Women and Equalities, Secretary of State for Business and Trade, President of the Board of Trade, Minister for Women and Equalities 8:49, 29 April 2024

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Hon. Members will need no reminder of the significance of this Bill. This legislation will, I hope, bring some much-needed relief and closure to those caught up in one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation’s history. For the postmasters wrongfully accused of, and convicted and punished for, crimes they never committed, this Bill means hard-won exoneration, with their convictions wiped clean from the slate.

A wrong is finally being put right but, as hon. Members know, these postmasters will also receive the fair compensation they deserve through the Horizon conviction redress scheme; this will be delivered by my Department rather than the Post Office. While the scale of the Government’s response in this case is extraordinary, I am keen to remind hon. Members that it does not set a precedent for our involvement in other judicial matters. I know this sentiment has been echoed across this House during debates on the Bill. We have chosen this path because the sheer extent of the Post Office’s prosecutorial misconduct is an affront to justice in and of itself. It demanded an exceptional response from Government.

That is why I was glad to see this Bill being welcomed on both sides of the House on Second Reading. There is, I believe, a unanimous consensus that the provisions of this legislation are needed to bring justice to postmasters who have suffered too much for far too long.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight

I am sorry to intervene on Third Reading. The Secretary of State is talking about justice for postmasters and mistresses, which is completely right, but I want to ask one question about the policy aspect of this. I and other Members have had postmasters who have written to us who have not been prosecuted but found that the Horizon system was working badly and had to top up out of their own money when Horizon was reporting losses due to faults in the system. What is their redress route if they are now saying, “I was hundreds of pounds out of pocket because I was having to make up the difference”?

Photo of Kemi Badenoch Kemi Badenoch Minister of State (Housing, Communities and Local Government), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office), Minister for Women and Equalities, Secretary of State for Business and Trade, President of the Board of Trade, Minister for Women and Equalities

We have devised the Horizon shortfall scheme to deal with those specific situations and if my hon. Friend writes to the Department we can look at some of the cases brought to him as a constituency MP.

I know the debate to date has centred around calls to extend the Bill to Northern Ireland, and the Government have been supportive of them. So, in consultation with the Northern Ireland Executive, I was pleased to see the Government amendments in my name accepted by the Committee of the whole House. As a result of the House’s support, postmasters in Northern Ireland who suffered the same injustices as those in the rest of the UK will now also see their good names restored, with proper financial redress.

As has been noted during recent debates, the speed of that redress could not be more important. Because of the Horizon scandal, people lost more than just their jobs; they were pursued for non-existent losses, they racked up legal bills, and they suffered enormous financial and personal strain because of the Post Office’s actions. It is therefore entirely right that victims do not wait a second longer than necessary to have that money paid back to them—with interest—to reflect what they have lost. I am determined that this legislation complements the ongoing work to hasten redress across the existing schemes. Here we are already making good progress, with payments allowing postmasters to finally move on with their lives.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Opposition, especially Jonathan Reynolds for his constructive and supportive approach to working with the Government on this Bill, and so many Members across the House who have engaged with us over and again to deliver the right result for postmasters. I would also like to thank the officials of both my Department, Business and Trade, and the Ministry of Justice who have been working hard behind the scenes for some time to ensure that postmasters affected by the Horizon scandal are supported and compensated fairly. But most of all I thank my hon. Friend Kevin Hollinrake for his exemplary work as Post Office Minister and in taking through this Bill and dealing with the issue in a very sensitive manner and helping to create confidence in the scheme.

This Bill is a major step forward in that mission. After years of campaigning and fighting to clear their names, postmasters are now receiving the justice they deserve. No Bill can fully undo the damage that has been done or remove the scars the Horizon scandal has left on its victims, but through this legislation we are doing our best to right the wrongs of the past so that every postmaster caught up in this scandal can begin to rebuild their lives. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Rushanara Ali Rushanara Ali Shadow Minister (Investment and Small Business) 8:54, 29 April 2024

I thank the Minister and the Secretary of State for their remarks. Today’s Bill, as has been acknowledged, provides an important step forward in bringing justice for sub-postmasters. They have suffered more than we can imagine, as the Secretary of State has pointed out. That has included unjust prison sentences, bankruptcy, ostracisation from communities, family breakdown and homelessness. Tragically, the scandal has led to some sub-postmasters taking their own lives. Today by no means makes amends for what they have been through and the suffering their families have endured, but it is an important positive step.

We welcome, as I have said previously, the fact that today’s Bill will bring particular relief for the 27 Northern Ireland cases and ensure that they receive exoneration. The many stories we have heard of those affected, whether in this debate or in previous statements and debates, are just snapshots of the scale of suffering that the Horizon scandal has caused. It has been a scandal defined by the abuse of power, secrecy and delay. As others have acknowledged, we have seen the inquiry revealing yet more challenges and yet more issues, whether those relate to the cases referred to today, non-disclosure agreements, the speed with which action is taken, the particular abuses that we have seen or much else. While this Bill has a particular focus, it will not be enough.

As I said earlier, I welcome the actions the Minister is taking to address the concerns on Capture. I welcome the clarification he has made on Pathway and the assurances he has given to Members on both sides of the House on the speed of providing the necessary compensation and on ensuring that this Bill remains a unique provision, given the unique and extraordinary situation that sub-postmasters have experienced and the injustice they have faced.

We look forward to seeing progress on the action that will be taken to deliver the compensation that sub-postmasters desperately need. We look forward to working with the Government to make sure that the Post Office is fit for purpose, because frankly what we have seen from this scandal and what has been uncovered over the period that the Post Office has presided over it and its implications has exposed major failings that we urgently need to address. We must ensure that the institution is fit for purpose, that further scandals do not hit that institution and that more people do not suffer. What we have seen does not inspire confidence, and action must be taken. I look forward to working with Ministers to help achieve that.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice) 8:58, 29 April 2024

I am pleased to give this Bill my support and that of my party on Third Reading. It shows what is possible when the House comes together and works collegiately, as we have done. It must surely remain a concern to us all that it is necessary in the first place.

I pay warm tribute to the Minister for how he has handled this matter, not just as a Minister but in his time before he came into office, as well as to Mr Jones and Marion Fellows, although she is not in her place at the moment. I would say only that I hope that the Scottish Government can bring to the Scottish Parliament the legislation that has been prepared so that we can all come to the same place at the same time, because the important thing here—we have to come back to this time and again—is the outcome for the sub-postmasters themselves. For the Post Office as an institution, this is an important step in restoring its trust and its standing in the communities that we all represent.

I leave the House with this final thought. There is a temptation to think that when the Bill passes and its provisions are implemented, somehow or other that is it—job done. I caution the House against that. We are here tonight because of a head of steam that was built up because of the nature of the Post Office as an institution, the standing of sub-postmasters in our communities, the sheer number of cases and the remarkable way in which the ITV programme caught the mood of the nation.

What happened to sub-postmasters is different from what happens to people all the time only in one respect: the sheer scale of it. In my time as a Member of Parliament, I have come across so many examples of people with good, reasonable cases who were squeezed out of what they are entitled to because of the inequality of arms. Public bodies have deep pockets—the taxpayer is behind them every step of the way—to pay for the best legal representation and to stonewall in cases where people would otherwise have good justice.

I will be back in Westminster Hall on Wednesday morning to deal with a case about the accountability of the Financial Conduct Authority, where it acted in respect of claims made by constituents of mine who had been the victims of a Ponzi scheme only because it was eventually forced into doing so by people who, as with the Post Office, were brave enough to take their case to court. Ultimately, they lost, but in the process of taking their case to court, they put the FCA in a position where there was no alternative but to pay out to all the victims through the financial services compensation scheme.

The brave 95 people who took the legal action in the first place are left £2 million out of pocket. Everybody gets something because they were brave enough to stand up, but they are left to pay at the end of it. That might be the law, Madam Deputy Speaker, but you will never persuade me that it is justice.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence) 9:01, 29 April 2024

Like others who have spoken, I indicate the Democratic Unionist party’s full support for the Bill at Third Reading. The Secretary of State was kind enough to thank the Minister. As she was not present to hear all our tributes to him throughout the course of the evening, I want to repeat them for her benefit.

The Minister has thoughtfully and doggedly worked through the issues on the inclusion of Northern Ireland. We are incredibly grateful to him. He used to sidle up to me weekly and suggest something else that I needed to do to allow him to advance the case for inclusion, and every time I satisfied what he had asked of me, he presented another challenge, and then another. He requested that I speak with people who are really uncontactable for politicians because they are too impartial for such work. But my colleagues and I genuinely appreciate the way in which he has engaged with us.

Tribute was paid to the Northern Ireland Executive and the way in which they have engaged in this issue, but as the party leader it would be remiss of me not to put on record my appreciation for the work of my right hon. Friend Sammy Wilson, who took an interest in the issue long before the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive. He has recognised the deep injustice that has been at the heart of the Horizon scandal and doggedly pursued resolution and justice for those affected in Northern Ireland.

Our friend, Mr Jones, has always been a champion for Northern Ireland’s inclusion in the legislation. We are grateful not just for his interest in us, but for his commitment to the issue over many years and the thoughtful way in which he has engaged in it.

It serves to prove the impact that Back Benchers can have in the parliamentary process that there is no frailty to the pursuit that we have. Though we may not have sufficiency of numbers to provide the opposition in and of ourselves, we have been able through effective relationships to ensure positive progress in the Bill. However, that can work only if there is reciprocation. For that, throughout the course of the last weeks and months, and longer relationships on other issues, we are grateful.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham 9:04, 29 April 2024

This is a historic, unique and very controversial Bill. It is another small step in the justice for sub-postmasters campaign, which has been going on for decades. I pay tribute to Alan Bates and all his campaigners. They said no to the people who were telling them to go away. They kept at it, and they are the heroes in all this.

I pay tribute to the fellow members of the advisory board, Professor Chris Hodges, Richard Moorhead and James Arbuthnot. We proposed this solution for overturning convictions, but did we expect it to be accepted? No, we did not. That is down to the Minister’s work. I also want to put on record my thanks to the Attorney General and Justice Secretary, both of whom not only engaged with the arguments but saw the logic of this controversial way of doing it—the only way of doing it. Without their help, it could not have been done.

Let me put on record my thanks to the Minister’s long-suffering officials. They have to put up with not just him but me and the other advisory board members. They worked tremendously hard on this, as did the officials in the Ministry of Justice. We are into civil service bashing again this week, but I must say that without them, we could not have achieved what we have in this Bill. I heard what the Minister said on the issues around Capture. Hopefully, given the constructive way in which he has approached the issue, we can get justice for those affected.

Finally, our thoughts should be with all those people who are no longer with us, such as Tom Brown, my constituent who originally got me involved in this scandal. June Tooby’s forensic cataloguing of the Capture case will hopefully lead to some justice for those victims, too. This is an important step forward. Let us hope that it gives families some comfort to know that their loved ones will be exonerated as part of this process.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit) 9:07, 29 April 2024

Let me also put on record my thanks to the Minister for his work on this issue. I first came across it when I witnessed the anger, frustration and despair of people who knew that they had done no wrong, yet had their reputations sullied, lost their business and faced the suspicion of their friends and even their family. They felt that they were beating their heads against a brick wall of bureaucracy—they were against people who had standing, and who were believed, regardless of the evidence that mounted against the case that they were making. The Minister has done a great thing by giving hope and exoneration to people, many of whom felt that they would never get justice. Now they have found it.

The Minister knew about the scandal before he took his position, and he made it clear at the very start that he intended to see this through. He has used his position to do a good thing. It is important to recognise that this place has been the vehicle by which justice has been delivered. A committed Minister was determined to use his position to do the right thing for individuals.

When the issue of Northern Ireland was first raised with the Minister, there was a reluctance; there is no doubt about it. When I put questions to him on the Floor of the House. and in my conversations with him, there were always reasons why legislation should be introduced in Northern Ireland. Here is a good thing: the arguments were listened to, over time.

As my right hon. Friend Gavin Robinson said, the Minister did not just roll over. He expected us to do something as well, and make the case—that is the job. I am thankful for the fact that he listened, and that Northern Ireland was included.

I thank the Clerk for his advice. Many of us are not really aware of all the parliamentary procedures, even though we have been here for I do not know how long. We do not always know the best of way of going about things. The advice and the support that was given was very important in getting this over the line.

Unfortunately, even though people will be exonerated as a result of this legislation, there are many who died with this shadow on them, and with the shame of what was done to them by people who, as the inquiry now shows, were cynical, manipulative and calculating in how they pursued them through the courts. This is not for debate today, but I hope that once the inquiry is over, there will be accountability for those who knowingly put sub-postmasters through this, quite apart from the embarrassment some have had during the inquiry, when they have forgotten matters, shown arrogance, or claimed that they were just doing their job. As I say, some sub-postmasters died without their name ever being cleared. We can do nothing about that, but I hope that their families will at least feel some reassurance as a result of this legislation.

Once the Bill passes into law, sub-postmasters will be exonerated from a legal point of view, but I hope that the compensation that they are due will be paid out quickly. The Minister outlined some of the ways he intends to ensure that compensation claims are dealt with quickly; I hope that they are.

I hope that other Ministers learn from this experience. Do not forget that even when the evidence was piling up, and the issues had been pointed out, and suddenly sub-postmasters and sub-mistresses across the country were common thieves, Ministers turned a blind eye, or accepted the explanation given by their officials. As I mentioned at the very start, the frustration that people feel when the state denies them justice, or tells them that they have done something that they have not, causes them to have no confidence at all in Government and its institutions. We could go through a number of issues. I look at the evidence that is building up on the loan charge. I ask myself whether, in five years’ time, we will find the same kind of issue there, with programmes put in place, and Ministers embarrassed and unable to explain why they did not take action when all the evidence was there. I hope Ministers take heed of this sorry tale, in which they believed people in power, rather than the victims of those in power.

Photo of Jonathan Lord Jonathan Lord Conservative, Woking

I was elected in 2010, and was an MP of just a few months’ standing when my constituent Seema Misra approached me, saying that she had just been sentenced to jail. She was pregnant and her sentence came down on her son’s 10th birthday. With the help of James Arbuthnot, now in the other place, within a few days I realised that there were other colleagues who had similar cases, and it all pointed to the Horizon system. I wrote to the Post Office Minister at the time and I was rebuffed. There must have been other colleagues who did the same thing. A Back Bencher of just a few months’ standing was able to see right to the heart of the problem with the help of the internet and a couple of fantastic colleagues, yet a Minister of the Crown was not. Now, Ministers in our system have surgeries—

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons), Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons), Chair, Parliamentary Works Estimates Commission, Chair, Parliamentary Works Estimates Commission

Order. This is not a Second Reading speech. We are at the very end of the Bill and the hon. Gentleman should be making an intervention, but that was very much a speech. We all have sympathy with the point he is making, but this is not the time in the proceedings when such points are made. I believe that the right hon. Member for East Antrim was just about to conclude the entire debate on the entire Bill.

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

I was indeed, but the intervention shows that Ministers need to listen. I pay tribute to Mr Jones for giving us great support for the case of Northern Ireland, and to others who persisted in raising this issue. I know that a lot has been said about the TV programme, but even before it aired there was a realisation, because of the persistence of Members, that something had to be done. I am glad it has been done, and I hope that this will be a great relief to many people who have lived under the shadow and the cloud of the things that happened to them over a number of years.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.