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 Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Liberal Democrat 3:22, 14 March 2024

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.