Post Office Governance and Horizon Compensation Schemes - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:35 pm on 21 February 2024.

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Photo of Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Shadow Spokesperson (Business and Trade), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland) 7:35, 21 February 2024

My Lords, the Horizon scandal is widely accepted as one of the worst miscarriages of justice in British history. Given the magnitude and duration of the scandal, it is quite astonishing that it seems that every day we get more and more revelations. We get further from the truth and further from true justice for all those who have been victims of it.

Sunday’s allegations could not have been more serious, and the same applies for everything that has emerged since then, not least the memo that was unearthed last night showing Henry Staunton’s recording of a meeting with the then Permanent Secretary at BEIS, Sarah Munby, on 5 January 2023. In that, he was allegedly told to “hobble” into the election; not to

“rip off the band aid” in terms of the Post Office’s finances; that

“politicians do not necessarily like to confront reality”; and, finally, that

“now was not the time for dealing with long-term issues”.

This new evidence appears to endorse Mr Staunton’s claim made at the weekend. It is of the utmost importance that both the public and Parliament know the truth. Do the Government continue to deny that any of those conversations took place, as was stated categorically on numerous occasions throughout this week? Given the new evidence, will the Department for Business and Trade now commit to a Cabinet Office investigation into the serious and continued allegations that Mr Staunton has made?

Earlier this week, it was welcome that the Government agreed to publish copies of the letter from Sarah Munby to Henry Staunton on his appointment as chair of the Post Office in December 2022, but that does not go far enough. Given the Secretary of State’s own willingness now to place part of the record in the House Library, I ask once again what I asked on Monday, when we debated this—unfortunately, before the Statement had been made. Given the new evidence that has come to light, will the Government publish all correspondence and minutes of meetings between the relevant departments, UKGI and the Post Office, and put them all in the parliamentary Library?

Earlier this week, it was also suggested by the BBC that the Government knew that there was a cover-up in the Post Office eight years ago—in 2016—with Ministers having been told that an investigation was happening into how often and why cash accounts on the Horizon system had been tampered with remotely. Will the Minister comment any further on those claims about when that was known by the Government? How will the Government investigate those claims? Following that, will this matter also be handed over to Wyn Williams for full investigation? I am sure that we all agree that the secrecy must end, and that the full sunlight of public scrutiny should be brought to bear.

On the compensation itself, has the £1 billion figure referred to in the Statement already been allocated, and is it therefore ready to be paid to those who will receive it? Subsequently, if that is not the case, will the payments be specifically itemised and timelined within the next Budget?

Although Monday’s Statement and today’s repeat are rightly about the Post Office, people’s faith in government has already been damaged by scandals such as Hillsborough, infected blood, Bloody Sunday and Windrush. Victims of other scandals—especially the contaminated blood scandal—feel that they need to ask whether they have been the victims of deliberate inaction as well. Will the Government provide assurances that no such obstacles have been put in the way of any payments of this kind; and if so, how exactly do they explain the delays in so many cases?

The Post Office miscarriages of justice alone have shown the devastation that can occur when institutions are allowed to operate without oversight or are shrouded in secrecy, and I know the Minister shares everyone’s view on this. Throughout all this, we must not lose sight of the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses themselves, so I make no apology for returning to the issue of convictions and the overturning of them. Can the Minister update your Lordships’ House on the progress in this area? Have His Majesty’s Government set a timescale for delivering the legislation needed to quash the convictions?

Finally, the Minister often talks about compensation packages and money being paid in thousands, tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of pounds to wrongly convicted—I would describe them as not just wrongly but malignly convicted—sub-postmasters and postmistresses. However, is he aware that the vast majority of Post Office payments for the specific issue of “damage to reputation and stress” are still generally only around the £5,000 mark?

Finally, again—I feel a bit like Columbo—there is a discrepancy between the Secretary of State’s speech in Hansard and the Statement. Would the Minister like to comment on it, and if not, will he write to me and place a letter in the Library? There is no mention in the Department of Business and Trade Statement of bullying by Mr Staunton, yet the Secretary of State says:

“I should also inform the House that while Mr Staunton was in post, a formal investigation was launched into allegations made regarding his conduct”— we know that, but she goes further—

“including serious matters such as bullying”.—[Official Report, Commons, 19/2/24; col. 474.]

I am just a bit confused as to why it was in the Statement delivered in Parliament but not in the departmental Written Statement.