It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I congratulate Lucy Allan on securing this incredibly important debate, and thank her for the work that she has been doing to expose the Post Office’s utterly despicable behaviour in the entire proceedings, from the very outset when people were prosecuted.
Prior to my election to the House, I practised criminal law from my local chambers in Hull, prosecuting and defending. Prior to that, I worked for a firm of solicitors in Hull, the Max Gold Partnership. I think it was in 2006 that I met a sub-postmaster who was implicated in these proceedings. Janet Skinner was prosecuted by the Post Office for theft. During the short proceedings, the prosecution offered her the opportunity to plead guilty to false accounting, which she did. She was sentenced accordingly by Hull Crown court, and received a custodial sentence of nine months in prison.
Janet Skinner had a son, Matthew, who was 14 and clearly busy with his studies in preparation for various exams that were coming down the track. Her daughter, Toni, who was 17, was in the middle of examinations at the time. It was an incredible shock to Janet Skinner. I remember her instructions to me quite well. I have had the opportunity to speak with her subsequently; indeed, I spoke to her yesterday evening. When I think back, with the benefit of hindsight, I find it chilling and it makes my blood run cold. The prosecuting authority offered the opportunity to plead to a lesser offence, yet according to Janet’s instructions to me, she was effectively led to commit the offence of false accounting.
It is a bit like being locked in a burning building, speaking to the emergency services, being advised to smash a window to get out and then, weeks or months later, being prosecuted for the offence of criminal damage. It is utterly deplorable. Lawyers watching the debate will say that that is not a perfect analogy because there is an inbuilt defence to criminal damage, which is reasonable excuse. That does not exist for section 17 of the Theft Act 1968, which provides for the offence of false accounting. It really is utterly deplorable. Janet Skinner and others contacted the Post Office to say, “We have problems with the system. The books are not balancing. What’s going on?”. The Post Office should have investigated the IT system, rather than rushing to interview and investigate, and threatening to interview people whether they liked it or not.
The contract between the sub-postmaster and the Post Office was unbelievable. I did not know this then, but the contract said that sub-postmasters were not allowed legal representation in those initial proceedings. Therefore, their only possible representation was through the National Federation of SubPostmasters, which happens to be completely owned and financed by Post Office Ltd. That is almost like a solicitor representing a client in a police station regarding criminal proceedings for serious offences—there are more serious offences, but this is dishonesty; this is where reputational damage can be caused, and people cannot live with the consequences of the charges—while working for the Crown Prosecution Service. It is utterly deplorable, and I honestly do not think that I have heard of anything as bad for a very long time.