Post Office Legislation - Statement

– in the House of Lords at 3:15 pm on 14 March 2024.

Alert me about debates like this

The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Wednesday 13 March.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a Statement about Post Office legislation and the Horizon redress schemes.

I am very pleased to be able to announce that today we are introducing a new Bill that will quash the convictions of postmasters in England and Wales affected by the Horizon scandal. As set out in my Written Statement last month, this legislation will quash all convictions that meet a clear set of conditions. Those in scope will have their convictions quashed on the day that the new legislation is brought into force. Subject to parliamentary passage, our aim is for Royal Assent to be received as soon as possible before the Summer Recess.

We accept, and have always been clear, that the legislation may overturn the convictions of some people who are guilty of genuine wrongdoing, but we believe this is a price worth paying to ensure that many innocent people are exonerated. However, the Government will seek to mitigate the risk of people receiving financial redress when they have not been wronged.

The Government also accept that this legislation is unprecedented. It is an exceptional response to a factually exceptional situation. I want to be clear that this does not set a precedent, and neither is it a criticism of the judiciary or the courts, which have dealt swiftly with matters brought before them. The fact remains, however, that three years after the first convictions were overturned, only around 100 have been quashed. Without government intervention, many of these convictions could not be overturned, either because all the evidence has long been lost or because, quite simply, postmasters have lost faith in the state and the criminal justice system, and will not come forward to seek justice.

The legislation will apply to England and Wales only. However, we are fully committed to working with the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive through regular, weekly official-level engagement to progress their own approaches. I have met my counterparts in the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive to offer support and address their concerns, and I will have further meetings. The financial redress scheme will be open to applicants throughout the UK, once convictions have been overturned.

I thank the Business and Trade Committee, which recently published a report that includes some recommendations for the Government regarding Horizon redress. We will respond to them in the usual way, but today I would like to address two of the committee’s recommendations. The first is that responsibility for redress should not lie with the Post Office, as it should be subject to independent oversight—something that has also been recommended to us by the Horizon Compensation Advisory Board. I can announce today that the Department for Business and Trade, rather than the Post Office, will be responsible for the delivery of redress for overturned convictions. Final decisions on redress will be made by independent panels or independent individuals.

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I shall return to the House at a later date to provide details on how we intend to deliver redress for those who have their convictions overturned by the Bill or via subsequent measures taken in Scotland and Northern Ireland. We are discussing the details with the advisory board. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury, my honourable friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), will introduce legislation to make any payments made via the new scheme exempt from tax.

Secondly, the Select Committee recommended that the Government introduce legally binding timeframes to deliver redress for sub-postmasters, with financial penalties for non-compliance. I strongly support the committee’s desire to speed up redress, but we feel that its proposed regime would have the opposite impact. It would potentially mean imposing penalties on forensic accountants or others who are helping postmasters to prepare their claims. Doing that would probably cause some of them to withdraw from this work, which would slow down the delivery of redress. Furthermore, we do not want to be in the position of rushing postmasters into major decisions about their claims and the offers they receive, which would possibly mean that some are timed out of redress altogether. The advisory board has said that its ‘strong view’ is that

‘this would be a backward step’,

which is why we passed legislation less than two months ago to remove the arbitrary deadline from the group litigation order scheme. We do not want to reverse that change.

However, the Government are acting to ensure that redress is delivered as quickly as possible. First, we are working with claimants’ lawyers to reduce the number of cases that require expert evidence—for example, from forensic accountants—or medical evidence, which delays claims. We will pilot that approach and, assuming that the pilot succeeds, we hope to expand it rapidly.

Secondly, the advisory board and I have asked for monthly reports on each scheme. They will come from schemes’ independent case managers, where such managers are in place. We will publish the reports, which will give us the best basis on which to assess measures for speeding up redress.

Finally, we are introducing optional fixed-sum awards. In January, the Government announced that they would offer an optional fixed-sum award of £75,000 to those in the group litigation order scheme. As of 5 March, 110 offers have been accepted, and over 100 people have taken the £75,000 fixed payment. Of those who have accepted the fixed payment, three-quarters are new claimants, so the fixed offer has already meant that over 100 claims have been resolved promptly. In some cases, those people will have got more than they would have asked for. The fixed offer has also had a helpful effect on other claims, because it substantially reduces work on small claims by claimants’ lawyers, making more resource available to progress larger claims more quickly.

I am pleased to announce today that the £75,000 fixed-sum award offer will now be extended to the Horizon shortfall scheme, to ensure that everyone is treated fairly across all the schemes. Those who have already settled their claim below £75,000 will be offered a top-up to bring their total redress to that amount; over 2,000 postmasters will benefit quickly from this announcement.

We are mindful that claims are not being submitted to the GLO scheme as swiftly as we would like. We have already announced the optional fixed-sum award of £75,000 but, to ensure that we get help to claimants more quickly, I can announce today that anyone who chooses not to take that offer, and instead submits a full claim for individual assessment, will have their interim payment topped up to £50,000 straightaway.

Many postmasters’ lives have been ruined by the Horizon scandal, and we are working hard to deliver redress. We have set up the Williams inquiry, which will discover the truth. We will provide fair financial redress as promptly as we can, and we will exonerate those who were so unjustly convicted of crimes that they did not commit. I commend this Statement to the House.”

Photo of Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Shadow Spokesperson (Business and Trade), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland) 3:22, 14 March 2024

My Lords, as we have said many times before, the Fujitsu/Horizon scandal is truly shocking and one of the most egregious miscarriages of justice in British history. The scandal has brought blight and devastation to the lives of thousands of falsely convicted sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses. Over 20 years on, they and their families still suffer from the consequences and trauma of all they have been through. I pay tribute to them for their determination in pursuing justice, especially those who took the very courageous and difficult step of challenging the Post Office. Without their bravery and perseverance, the campaign would not be where it is today.

We of course welcome the legislation that has been laid before Parliament. Before giving a full verdict on it, we will need to properly scrutinise the detail and analyse its potential impacts. In the first instance, the legislation still leaves a series of outstanding issues, including the question of when justice and compensation will be delivered and to whom.

I ask the Minister: what steps have he and Ministers in the other place taken to prevent this rightly exceptional piece of legislation being used by government in a nefarious way in future? How are we protecting against the abuse of this legislation further down the track? The flip side of that is that there are many other scandals that courts, reviews and government are working through. Could the principle of this legislation be used by them?

As I have said before, I seek assurances on the territorial scope of the legislation, which currently applies only to England and Wales even though the Post Office is not devolved and the Fujitsu Horizon system and the impacts of the scandal are UK-wide. Approximately 30 cases need overturning in Scotland and Northern Ireland but a series of outstanding questions remain as to when sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses in Scotland and Northern Ireland in particular will receive their justice. I welcome the Minister’s assurances that there will be regular dialogue with the devolved Administrations, given the different legal processes, but I will be a bit more specific: can the Minister update your Lordships’ House on what conversations his department has had with colleagues in Northern Ireland, who have expressly requested that the cases there be included in the scope of this legislation?

This is probably harder to deal with but can the Minister also update your Lordships’ House on what conversations the department has had with colleagues in Scotland about the progress on exonerating sub-postmasters there? As we know, 80% of the redress budget is yet to be paid out and considerable uncertainty remains about when sub-postmasters will receive their full compensation. We all agree, I am sure, that they have waited long enough and that the delays are causing only further financial distress and suffering.

The Commons Business and Trade Committee recommends that there be a “legally binding timeframe” for the period between an offer first being tabled and a settlement being reached. Would the Minister care to comment on that recommendation? If those legally binding targets are not adopted, what assurances can the Minister give that Minister Hollinrake will meet his target of ensuring that all compensation is out of the door by the end of the year? I know that the Minister here and the Minister in the other place are committed to ensuring that there are no further delays but sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses will want to know when this will actually happen.

Given the recent chaos in the Post Office’s leadership, we welcome the decision to take it out of the redress process. In fact, last week, the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, and I called for this. Redress must have independent oversight; I thank the Government Ministers and their teams for implementing this. Financial redress alone cannot come close to repaying sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses for their suffering, although it is important that we get it right. As we have previously discussed, some of those impacted by the scandal have sadly passed away; they did not live to see this legislation and their innocence proven, nor to receive the compensation that they rightly deserved. Can the Minister clarify the process for those who have passed away so that their families can receive closure?

On the families, especially children and partners, we see today in the news that a number of children of sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses are looking to take legal claims against the Post Office. Can the Minister inform your Lordships’ House of the Government’s attitude towards this? It is vital that the Government act with the urgency and speed that are needed to correct this injustice. We on these Benches stand ready to work with the Government to ensure the speedy implementation of this Bill.

I have just one question regarding the Explanatory Notes. On page 7, paragraph 41, the sentence just trails off. It starts:

Clause 2 gives the meaning of ‘relevant offence’ with reference to several conditions set out in the subclauses”.

That is fine, but it continues:

“All of the conditions must be satisfied for an alleged offence to”.

It just stops. Can the Explanatory Notes be updated? I understand that this was rushed through, and that is absolutely fine, but it would be helpful if we could have just a bit of clarity of what the end of the sentence is meant to be.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the Liberal Democrat Benches echo the comments of the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, about the consistent and determined efforts of the wronged postmasters who still are fighting for the redress that they deserve. I thank the Minister for the Statement. We on these Benches are pleased to see that legislation will start to correct the fundamental wrongs done to most of the postmasters convicted as a result of the Horizon scandal.

However, the Statement says that

“this legislation will quash all convictions that meet a clear set of conditions”.

These are defined in paragraph 11, on pages 3 and 4 of the Explanatory Notes for the Bill, which was introduced yesterday in another place; the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, referred to those Explanatory Notes just now. Can the Minister explain how these criteria were decided upon? How many of the convicted postmasters are excluded from this redress scheme as a result, and why? I appreciate that all this has been done in a hurry, but even if my questions cannot be answered now, please can the answers be clearly articulated to those who will speak on this Statement so that we can understand why? At the moment, it is not clear who is and is not included as a result of Clause 2 of the Bill.

As I mentioned in a number of previous interventions on this issue, we know that software issues were reported in the predecessor systems to Horizon. Indeed, in 1997, when the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, was Paymaster-General, there was a steady stream of complaints during the pilot rollout. The i newspaper has also revealed the problems with the Capture scheme, under which a number of postmasters were also convicted. It said yesterday:

“Steve Marston … was using Capture, an IT system rolled out by the Post Office in the early 90s when he suffered unexplained shortfalls of around £79,000. He insists he never stole ‘a penny’ from his branch at Heap Bridge, Greater Manchester, but felt pressured into pleading guilty in 1998 in order to avoid a prison sentence, a tactic the Post Office has admitted was widely used by investigators to secure convictions”.

Can the Minister explain why this group of postmasters, who were using Capture when there were complaints, are also excluded from this Bill?

The Minister says in the Statement that the Bill only covers England and Wales; the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, has already covered this. It specifically excludes Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Statement says:

“However, we are fully committed to working with the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive through regular, weekly official-level engagement to progress their own approaches”.

If that is the case, why has the Justice Minister in the Scottish Parliament, Angela Constance, expressed her real concern that Scotland is not included? She said:

“We, along with the Northern Ireland Executive, urged the UK Government to introduce UK-wide legislation as the best way to ensure there is a quick, fair and equal solution for all the affected sub-postmasters, particularly as the Post Office is reserved to Westminster, so this announcement is extremely disappointing”.

Given that, in that same paragraph, the Statement goes on to say

“The financial redress scheme will be open to applicants throughout the UK, once convictions have been overturned”, why on earth has the decision been made by the Westminster Government to exclude Scotland and Northern Ireland, when neither of those devolved Governments want that?

The Statement made it clear, at last, that the Post Office will no longer have responsibility for redress and should be subject to independent oversight. My noble friend Lord Fox and I, and others from these Benches, have also raised this as a fundamental problem of trust for many postmasters, so its removal is welcome. However, I ask whether the Department for Business and Trade is truly independent of the process, not least because of the debate about the speed of processing of claims that happened in January following the differing statements from the Prime Minister, Kevin Hollinrake MP and the Secretary of State, Kemi Badenoch. The Government are responsible for the payments—I shall come on to that later—but this gives them some skin in the game and one thing has to happen now, which is to give postmasters confidence that oversight is truly independent. Can the Minister therefore describe how independent the independent panels or independent individuals will be? Who will appoint them? Will there be a departmental official on the panel? Will departmental staff clerk the panels? Will the independent panels include a postmaster?

The Statement says that there will be legislation to make sure that the payments are exempt from taxation. A regulation on taxation exemption under the compensation arrangements for both the Horizon and infected blood schemes was presented to Parliament in December 2023. Is this a further simple amendment to that regulation, or is it further, separate secondary legislation, or is it a new Bill? How will it differ? Can the Minister explain?

The final section of the Statement refers to the Select Committee’s recommendation of a legally binding timeframe for redress—here, I echo the questions from the noble Lord, Lord McNicol—but I think there is some sympathy for ensuring speed wherever possible. However, the Statement said that it would be impossible without imposing penalties on forensic accounts. That seems to be an extremely narrow focus. There is a balance to be struck between ensuring as swift as possible processing of payment and debate between postmasters and forensic accountants about what is due to postmasters. The critical reason for independence is to ensure that postmasters are afforded a truly fair debate, which many say has been denied them in the initial offers received from the scheme when it was run by the Post Office.

Finally, I have been going through the central government supply estimates for 2023-24 and obviously looked at the Budget papers. I am still struggling to find the compensation payments—in total, approaching about £1 billion—in either the department or Treasury tables. Can the Minister help? I have raised this matter now with, I think, three Ministers and would be grateful if the Minister could write to me and point me in the right direction for the figures. I know that Liam Byrne has also raised these points in the Select Committee he chairs.

Photo of Lord Johnson of Lainston Lord Johnson of Lainston Minister of State (Department for Business and Trade)

We will come to the noble Lord shortly, although it is right to be hasty.

I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, for their input and will try to answer their questions as we go through. On the noble Lord’s wise point about why the sentence in the Explanatory Notes trails off, I think there is a typo. If I remember rightly, it should say “extinguish criminal convictions” at the end of that sentence. I am grateful to him for pointing that out.

Perhaps I may cover collectively the broad themes raised. The noble Lord, Lord McNicol, asked how we prevent the misuse or abuse of this measure. I was interested to hear a noble Lord speak in a previous debate about the quashing of convictions of soldiers in the First World War. This was a group conviction-quashing measure that was considered unique and was specifically designed for special circumstances. There was great concern that the process might be misused at a later date—I cannot remember exactly when; it must have been 20 years ago or more—and, clearly, that has not been the case. I think we are all apprised of the need to make sure that such constitutional situations are handled with extreme sensitivity and delicacy. In this instance, the Government, like Peers on all sides of this House—indeed, those in both Houses of Parliament—believe sincerely that it is only through this measure that we can be sure that people’s convictions are quashed. To confirm: this is an active statement of quashing of convictions; people are not required to apply to have their convictions quashed.

The issue of trust in the Post Office and the independence of the system and of the court processes has been raised, and this is the most effective way to ensure that we do the right thing by people who we believe have been wrongly convicted using evidence that we feel is clearly unreliable.

I would like to just cover the point the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, made about the criteria in the Bill. The criteria governing who will qualify to have their convictions quashed are well laid out, and I am sure there will be a debate about the specifics when the Bill comes to this House. However, it is right that this applies between a set period of dates, that it relates to certain types of crimes linked to the Horizon computer system, that having used the Horizon system has to be part of the process of the conviction, and that, obviously, the person in question was working for the Post Office at the time. We are making, in my view, a series of pretty clear statements about what we are trying to achieve here. It is perfectly reasonable to raise the point about Capture. It was not felt appropriate to bring those cases into this process. However, Horizon trial periods, or the periods of beta testing for it, are included, as I understand it. If that is not the case, I will provide the House with a correction, but I believe that is right.

There has been a significant debate about the territorial scope of this Bill. The reality is that we operate different legal systems, and justice is devolved in Northern Ireland as it is in Scotland. This is not a question of the Government trying to get out of our responsibility or pass responsibility off. As the noble Baroness rightly said, the Government’s redress schemes cover the whole of the United Kingdom. There is no advantage to not having a system that covers the entirety of the United Kingdom. I am sure that many people believe that to be highly preferable, and it would make logical sense, but we have been especially careful to keep returning to the need to be sensitive to the constitutional realities of the unique action we are taking. It is right that, instead of looking at this stage for a complete UK-wide Bill, we allow this to be devolved to the common-law authorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland. I reassure the noble Lord and the noble Baroness that we are in regular contact. In fact, as we speak, a meeting is going on with the devolved nations about how to achieve this. Everyone has the same goal. I have not heard the comments made by the Scottish Justice Minister, but if anything, that continues to point to a high degree of collaboration.

We want justice to be done for these individuals as quickly as possible, across the whole United Kingdom. I have spoken to my colleague, Kevin Hollinrake, who has done a fantastic job in driving this process forward. We are all of the same opinion. Whatever measures are required to do this in the most appropriate and speediest way, we will certainly take. We will look into any way in which we can help the devolved authorities achieve their goals, in line with ours.

The principle of a target timeline for settlements, which was mentioned in the report cited earlier, was rightly raised. I feel strongly that it makes a lot of sense superficially, but the reality is that these are complex processes. We have already delayed having a cliff edge, which we did not think would be helpful. Some of these cases will take time to assess.

We agree on many things, but I am afraid that I do not agree with the idea that there is a huge amount of unpaid compensation, as if it is sitting in a bank waiting to be paid out. It does not work like that. In fact, over three quarters of the claims filed under the HSS scheme have been paid, a large proportion of those under the GLO scheme have been paid, and a large number of overturned convictions have been settled. We are working very fast. I can reassure this House that it is not in the interests of any member of this Government to delay in any way. We have made very good progress.

Importantly for noble Lords listening today, we have raised the fixed-rate payments so there is equality between GLO and HSS schemes, and I believe we have also raised the interim payment received. As soon as you submit a claim, you get £50,000 if you do not take the minimum £75,000 pay, and there is a £450,000 interim payment for overturned conviction compensation. That is important. We want to get money immediately into the pockets of people who need to be compensated. Clearly, there is a margin for discussion and debate, and it is absolutely right that that be done carefully. I hope that we can get the right outcomes. Of course, there is no limit to the compensation that can be paid.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, asked about the accounts of the Department for Business and Trade and how this is accounted for. I believe that it would be too soon for last year’s accounts, but our next year’s accounts close in April and will be filed in July or August. I assume some element of the accounting will appear there. In terms of the billion or so that has been set aside, I am told by the Treasury that it does not sit in a ring-fenced account; it is part of the reserves that have been estimated as required. Of course, we also expect contributions from other areas as well. I am very comfortable coming back to noble Lords who will clearly ask in more detail how the accounting process works. I would be delighted to report to Parliament on that and I am sure that there will be plenty of discussions and question around it.

I hope that I have covered the main points, but I would like to return to two final questions. In terms of postmasters who have passed away, the estate is entitled to the compensation. There are also issues where families who have lost joint homes, or where there are additional complications around that, can receive compensation as well.

The question of independent oversight is absolutely to be raised, particularly regarding how these schemes are run. I am delighted to report that the overturned convictions compensation scheme will be run by the Department for Business and Trade, which I think was demanded by the postmasters. It is very important that people feel a sense of independent oversight, so we have therefore appointed a number of senior judges to provide us with that.

I do not have an answer on whether a postmaster will be included, for example, on the oversight board. I think that is an extremely good idea and I am sure that my colleague Kevin Hollinrake would agree that it is an excellent idea. I cannot commit to that now, but these are all very reasonable policy points to make sure that the postmasters who have been affected feel a sense of confidence. It is not just a question of having their convictions overturned and receiving financial compensation; they need to feel respected by the system that treated them so badly.

It is very important that all sides of the House feel able to make contributions in terms of how we can make the system work more effectively to achieve these goals. I am grateful for the ability to have this debate. I think we have made extremely good progress under the leadership of my Secretary of State, and particularly Minister Kevin Hollinrake. Clearly, there is more work to be done and we cannot move too fast to give these people redress. I hope that I can count on the support of all Peers in this House to bring this legislation through so that we can have these convictions quashed in July.

Photo of Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom Conservative 3:46, 14 March 2024

My Lords, I declare my interest as a member of the Horizon Compensation Advisory Board. I pay tribute to my noble friend the Minister; to Kevin Hollinrake, the Minister in another place; to his impressive team of civil servants; to the Government in general; to Alan Bates; to ITV; and especially to Alex Jennings, of course. But, before this turns into an Oscars speech, we must acknowledge that there is much to be done.

I just want to raise one matter: those excluded from this legislation. I understand that the Government do not want to go head to head with the Court of Appeal, but some people have been excluded through the accident of fate—they have been refused permission to appeal or have had their convictions not turned down by the Court of Appeal. Will the Government encourage and, if necessary, resource and facilitate, those people who are expressly excluded for those reasons from this legislation? Will the Government encourage them to go back to the Court of Appeal for their convictions to be reconsidered? It would be quite wrong if these sub-postmasters were, through that accident of fate, the only sub-postmasters in the country to continue to have convictions against their name.

Photo of Lord Johnson of Lainston Lord Johnson of Lainston Minister of State (Department for Business and Trade)

The noble Lord will have his moment; he will definitely be next, I am sure of it.

My thanks go to my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot. As we all know, a huge amount of thanks should go to him for his tireless efforts over many years. It is a huge lesson for all of us who want to make a difference in public life to see someone like him battle away at the forces of the machine. He has given me personally a great deal of inspiration and I am grateful to him also for the way that he has handled debates such as this and for the sensitive and thoughtful way that he has approached these complex subjects.

On the matter of claimants who have had their appeals refused or who, not being part of this scheme, have been unable to go forward to appeal, I have listened to that comment and will have further conversations with my colleagues about what we can do to ensure that the right level of information is given to those people to enable them to assess their position in the process. Noble Lords must forgive me, I am not a lawyer and there may be some specific issues around this, but I am told that those who have not been able to go through to appeal are not prevented from appealing again. It would strike me that, given the situation around this whole process, the system would certainly bear this in mind. I cannot speak on behalf of the courts; it is essential that they retain their independence on that front.

I was interested to hear my noble friend’s suggestion of support for those individuals, in terms of legal advice, or whatever it may be. I will certainly take that back to the department and I would have thought it would receive a very sympathetic hearing. My noble friend is absolutely right that it would be very unfair if there was a small section of individuals who lost out on this process simply because they had tried to appeal before their peers had done so. That would not be right and it is worth looking into in some considerable detail.

Photo of Lord Young of Norwood Green Lord Young of Norwood Green Labour

Third time lucky, my Lords.

First, I concur with everything that my noble friend Lord McNicol said from the Front Bench. I am not going to repeat all those points; he covered the waterfront. I share some of the concerns expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. I also need to declare an interest because I was a junior Minister at the time. I was not dealing with this issue; I was dealing with what seemed a bigger issue at the time—the privatisation of Royal Mail, which never actually took place then.

Before I go on with my contribution, I pay tribute to somebody who I know wanted to be here today, but ill health prevented him: my noble friend Lord Clarke of Hampstead, whose track record on involvement with the Post Office and Royal Mail is second to none. I saw him last week and he was hoping he would manage to make it, but, clearly, he could not—that is for the record.

I come to paragraph 33 in the Statement, which says that

“we will exonerate those who were so unjustly convicted of crimes that they did not commit”.

Of course, I welcome that, but the people I want to focus on are those who did commit crimes; what are the Government going to do about them?

We heard recently that Fujitsu, unbelievably, was still being involved in government contracts, although it has given back some of the money. There are other people who ought to be held responsible for what turned out to be crimes: deliberate attempts to conceal a system that they knew was faulty. That includes Fujitsu itself. So I would welcome the Minister making some statement about when this particular aspect is going to be dealt with.

I understand that there will be some aspects of this that might be considered sub judice or whatever, but I would welcome an initial comment on when and how the Government are going to deal with this situation. The idea that Fujitsu should continue to be seen as a reliable contractor, working with the Government, is in my view somewhat doubtful. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

Photo of Lord Johnson of Lainston Lord Johnson of Lainston Minister of State (Department for Business and Trade)

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Young, for his comments. I wholeheartedly agree with him about how the order has come out. Our first priority is to make sure that the victims are compensated and justice is speedily done.

The second part—which, I am afraid, will take longer—is a thorough analysis of what actually happened and why, over many years, there was a persistent type of activity and a culture in an organisation that was classified as an arm’s-length government body: who should have done what, and at what time. Of great importance is the role of the “state”—and I say that in inverted commas, because I am not trying to play party politics here. I am afraid that many people in this House over many years had positions of responsibility that should have enabled a higher degree of inquiry than clearly took place.

How do we make sure that these organisations function properly, and how can we make sure that government officials, Ministers, and so-called independent directors and other directors of these organisations behave in the right way to ensure that they are run properly, and we do not see a repeat of these activities? It is very important that we have a broad and wide debate. That is why it is always very important that we regard the untrammelled power of the “state” with great suspicion.

I refer briefly to the noble Lord’s comments in relation to Fujitsu. As I understand it, we are looking to work with Fujitsu on how it can assist in compensating victims. I think that conversation is ongoing, but at the end of the day, it is the inquiry that will allow us to decide what to do next. It is absolutely without question that there are people who need to be held to account for these actions over the past 15 or so years. I am grateful for this prompt; this will continue to be a part of the process.

Photo of Baroness Buscombe Baroness Buscombe Chair, Joint Committee on the Draft Mental Health Bill, Chair, Joint Committee on the Draft Mental Health Bill

My Lords, I join my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot in paying tribute to my noble friend the Minister and other Ministers in another place, along with all those in government who have got us to where we are so far. It has been a hard and difficult road, and it has been too long. The Minister is quite right that whatever happens, we must see that justice is done, and we must do all that we can in our power to ensure that this kind of abuse never happens again.

However, I am curious. I am probably being a little premature, but I do not understand why there has been no question, so far, about the role of the board directors who came and went through this appalling scandal: Tim Parker, Adam Crozier, Ken McCall, Carla Stent, Zarin Patel, Allan Leighton, Alice Perkins, and Susannah Storey—who I gather is now the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. What role did these people play? Is this being looked at thoroughly in the inquiry?

We do have something in our power: corporate manslaughter. That might sound extreme, but four people committed suicide because of what was done to them over a period of years, while this stellar list of, as Private Eye would call them, “City slickers” came and went, well paid as directors of the Post Office. Do they get off scot free? Is the inquiry going to take so long that it gets thrown into the long grass? Does my noble friend agree that we should at least consider how these people should perhaps be charged with corporate manslaughter, so that they can prove their innocence at their own expense?

Photo of Lord Johnson of Lainston Lord Johnson of Lainston Minister of State (Department for Business and Trade)

I thank my noble friend for raising the salience of these very important issues. It genuinely would not be helpful or appropriate for me to make a comment on any specific case. The inquiry itself is, in my view, extremely well led and very detailed. We are going to draw a number of conclusions from the extremely forensic amount of investigation that is being undertaken at the moment.

On a broader point, my noble friend is absolutely right: the principle around the leadership of these organisations, how they function, how they report to their boards, the independence of various directors on those boards and how those boards interact with government departments and Ministers, is absolutely something that I believe everyone in this House wants to look more closely at. The principle of arm’s-length still being within the reach of Ministers and responsible entities is also extremely important. I hope that while that may not be the specific outcome of the review relating directly to the Post Office, it will be the next stage in the investigation by Ministers and Parliament.