Post Office: Horizon Compensation - Private Notice Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:19 pm on 24th January 2022.

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Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom:

Asked by Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the £685m set aside for the Post Office Historical Matters Compensation scheme will cover those claimants involved in the litigation who were not convicted or prosecuted, as well as sub-postmasters whose convictions have been overturned.

Photo of Lord Callanan Lord Callanan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

My Lords, the Government have indeed set aside up to £685 million to support the Post Office in paying compensation to postmasters with quashed Horizon-related convictions. The Post Office reached a settlement to pay compensation of £42.75 million, plus costs, in 2019 with a further group of postmasters. The Post Office has separately set up a historical shortfall scheme to provide compensation to postmasters who suffered Horizon-related losses but were not convicted or prosecuted and were not part of the GLO.

Photo of Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom Chair, Risk Assessment and Risk Planning Committee, Chair, Risk Assessment and Risk Planning Committee

My Lords, Fujitsu knew that it could—and did—alter the accounts of sub-postmasters without their knowledge. It knew that the Government were denying that this could be done. It knew that the sub-postmasters were being prosecuted for those altered accounts. Is it not high time, and beyond, that Fujitsu began to become part of the solution rather than being part of the problem?

Photo of Lord Callanan Lord Callanan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

The noble Lord makes an important point, with which I know many in the House will have some sympathy, but it is important that we await the outcome of Sir Wyn Williams’s inquiry. We all have our suspicions about this and we all have our views, but the inquiry has been set up to provide us with definitive answers to questions such as the very good one that the noble Lord has posed.

Photo of Lord Fox Lord Fox Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

My Lords, fewer than a third of the 2,005 applications have been dealt with so far, and this is a pattern—we saw it with Windrush. First, there is a campaign, then there is a big political announcement. Money is apparently made available and then everything grinds to a halt. This is bureaucracy standing in the way of settling personal tragedies. Will the Minister go back to his department and get things moving?

Photo of Lord Callanan Lord Callanan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I think the noble Lord is being a little unfair. He referred to a third, but it depends which of the cases he is talking about. There are a number of different aspects to this. There are those who had their convictions overturned, most of whom have already received £100,000 in interim compensation. On top of that there is the historical shortfall scheme, which is proceeding as fast as we can. The reason we set this up is to precisely avoid long delays through litigation, and obviously the process itself is managed through the Post Office and its advisers. But I will certainly take his message back. Nobody wants to see this drag on for too long.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and International Trade)

My Lords, I would like to return to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot. It seems quite wrong that a company that knew what it was doing, knew that the kit was faulty, and knew that mistakes were being made has not been involved in this case. They should be making payments to the Government so that the Government can fully compensate all those who have being wrongfully imprisoned, charged within this scheme and have suffered years of life-destroying consequences. That company must be held responsible, and the Government should make sure that is the case.

Photo of Lord Callanan Lord Callanan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Both noble Lords who have raised this matter make an important point. I very much hope that those who were judged responsible will be held accountable, but it is important to wait for the outcome of the independent public inquiry that has been launched and is proceeding before we apportion blame.

Photo of Lord Laming Lord Laming Chair, Accommodation Steering Group Committee

My Lords, I want to follow up on those two questions. Is it not extraordinary that years have passed since this came to light, that people’s lives were completely ruined by what happened and that the Government are now having to put forward this huge sum of money, yet nobody from the Post Office has been held accountable for what happened?

Photo of Lord Callanan Lord Callanan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

It is beyond extraordinary, if I can disagree slightly with the noble Lord. The whole situation is tragic, appalling—there are numerous words we could use to describe the depth of the suffering of so many people. Financial compensation will never put right what went wrong. Again, we all think we know who was responsible and where the blame lies. The public inquiry has been established and is proceeding so that we can get a full account; we already have partial accounts through the various High Court cases that have proceeded. The importance of the inquiry is so that we can get a full account of exactly what happened over many years, through different regimes of government and people in leadership roles at the Post Office, and blame can be apportioned in the right way.

Photo of Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Non-affiliated

My Lords, some of these postmasters who live in Northern Ireland have had their lives and livelihoods destroyed by the actions of this internet scheme owned, I suppose, by Fujitsu. As my noble friend Lord Bassam and the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, have already asked, could the Minister ensure that Fujitsu is held responsible and accountable for its actions, which have left many lives destroyed and have financially destroyed people as well?

Photo of Lord Callanan Lord Callanan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Of course, it is not just Northern Ireland: throughout the whole United Kingdom people have been financially, emotionally and criminally destroyed by this case. No words that we could utter here could minimise the terrible suffering and distress that has gone on. Again, I am sorry to be practical and hard-headed about this, but we have to return to the central point: we all think we know where blame lies, but let us wait for the results of the inquiry. By all means, in the meantime get on with paying compensation to those who have suffered—but let us have a proper inquest at the end of the inquiry, when we have the full results, of exactly who was to blame.

Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann Conservative

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot and all involved on their persistence and tenacity in pursuing this egregious injustice. I am also delighted that the Government have set aside money to at least start to address these issues. Could my noble friend the Minister tell or reassure the House whether those who have been affected will be fully compensated, including for the legal costs they have incurred? Obviously no money can offset the emotional and psychological damage done, but I understand that there are concerns that some of those who have had to go through the courts may still end up financially worse off as a result.

Photo of Lord Callanan Lord Callanan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I certainly join my noble friend in paying tribute to the work of the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, both in this place and the other place, as well as—to be fair—a number of Members on all sides of the House who drew attention over a number of years to this slowly unfolding catastrophe. This issue is an excellent example of some great work done by parliamentarians. With regard to my noble friend’s question, the answer is yes: the legal costs are covered as part of the payments.

Photo of Lord Grade of Yarmouth Lord Grade of Yarmouth Chair, Gambling Industry Committee, Chair, Gambling Industry Committee

My Lords, I wonder if the Government would remove Fujitsu from their preferred suppliers tendering for government contracts, pending that inquiry’s result.

Photo of Lord Callanan Lord Callanan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I do not know whether Fujitsu is still on the tender lists or is the subject of any government contracts, but I will certainly find out and write to the noble Lord on that.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

My Lords, I have several times urged my noble friend to put a terminal date on this. He talked about the “slowly unfolding” tragedy, and he is right, but it is a slowly ending tragedy as well. Of course we must have the inquiry, but can we please set a date—I have suggested before the end of June—for when this will be resolved and people will get their due deserts?

Photo of Lord Callanan Lord Callanan Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I agree with my noble friend, because I would obviously like to see this all end as much as possible. When I said “slowly unfolding”, I meant that the revelations of the whole scandal came out over many years as a result of a number of different stages of parliamentary action, legal cases, et cetera. I assure him that we are keen to bring this to a resolution as quickly as possible in terms of compensation, but there are a number of different aspects to it, as I explained in my reply to the noble Lord, Lord Fox. Many postmasters are still in the process of having their convictions overturned. That process is ongoing, as is the progress of the historical shortfall scheme, which we have deliberately designed to try to avoid costly, long-drawn-out legal proceedings.