Post Office Legislation - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:22 pm on 14 March 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) 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.