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Post Office and Horizon Software — [Steve McCabe in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:28 pm on 5th March 2020.

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Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Labour, South Shields 2:28 pm, 5th March 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I thank Duncan Baker, whose personal experience is welcome in today’s debate. I thank Lucy Allan for securing the debate. She outlined the background and history to this long, complex and shameful episode, presided over by the Post Office and a Government who I believe have so far sidestepped responsibility for the hundreds of lives ruined by this scandal.

From the outset of the Post Office introducing the Horizon computer system, sub-postmasters were reporting problems. Instead of the Post Office listening to them, it took the draconian approach of terminating contracts, hounding sub-postmasters out of their businesses and pursuing prosecutions. As we have heard this afternoon, the results were charges of theft and fraud, reputational damage, loss of homes, bankruptcy, loss of life savings and, for some, the loss of their freedom. It took until December last year, when there was a judgment, for the Post Office to admit that it “made mistakes” and “got things wrong”. This was more than mistakes and getting things wrong; it ruined people’s lives.

It is an utter insult to tell my constituents who have suffered this injustice that it was simply a mistake. The Post Office’s mistakes cost Kevin Carter, who ran one of our local post offices with his wife, absolutely everything. His wife Julie noticed discrepancies in Horizon from the outset. She frequently reported concerns, but they fell on deaf ears. Being decent people, they began to use their own money to balance the books.

After continually raising concerns over several years, and with shortfalls increasing, Julie was invited to an informal disciplinary meeting. The Post Office demanded she pay back the unaccounted moneys and accused her of fraud. After remortgaging their home, Kevin and Julie were forced to pay the Post Office a total of £75,000. Julie suffers from multiple sclerosis, and the situation exacerbated her condition. She and Kevin had worked hard. They had a lovely home and employed 14 staff. Their lives have now completely changed for the worse. Kevin and Julie, like many others, never gave up. They joined the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, and an exhausted Kevin recently told me, “Quite simply, we’ve lost our family home. We’ve lost everything.” It literally cannot get worse than that.

Another constituent, Dionne Andre, bought two post offices in South Shields. After noticing discrepancies, and being a decent, honest person, she too started using her own money to try to put things right. Accused of fraud after the Post Office lost a recording of a disciplinary meeting with her, she was told, “Pay up, or we’re sending you to prison.” Dionne paid £70,000, but she was never told by the Post Office whether it had dropped the fraud case against her, so she continued to live in constant fear of being arrested. She was then told by the Post Office that she had to resign. She was forced to sell her business at a £50,000 loss and the Post Office prevented her from selling her second business, for which she had paid a quarter of a million pounds. She lost absolutely everything. Dionne is now in her 40s, but she had a promising future back in her early 30s. She told me that her working life has now gone, and it has taken years for her to try to build it back up.

Anyone who has ever had to fight for justice over a number of years, in order to clear their name when they are losing everything, will know that it can take its toll, physically and mentally. The reputational damage and utter shame, for something that they know they were not responsible for, will stay with them forever. I think we can all agree that mud always sticks, yet the people responsible are doing just fine. That is why nothing less than an independent, judge-led inquiry into this miscarriage of justice will do.

After legal costs, the damages payouts awarded will amount to only about £10 million for 550 people. In short, they are never going to get back the money they lost. For those wrongly convicted, their criminal record remains. Although some of these cases are being reviewed, they should all be reviewed. It is not good enough for successive Ministers to wash their hands and repeat the mantra that the Post Office operates as a commercial independent business and they have no day-to-day control over it. Given that it is a state-owned private company, the Government have a statutory duty to be involved in the Post Office—a duty that they have abdicated.

In the other place, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Lord Callanan, recently admitted that the Government were passive in their duties on the board of the Post Office. Why did they allow the Post Office to spend phenomenal sums of money on persecuting innocent people in the courts? Why did they not speak up for sub-postmasters? More importantly, who is the Government’s representative? Surely the Government should pay up for the legal costs incurred, or at least put pressure on the Post Office to do so.

The Post Office’s sheer obstinance and obfuscation has been left unchallenged by the Government. It has been left to former sub-postmasters in the depths of despair to organise and fight for justice, but justice is still being denied. Their financial recompense is pitiful, and the lack of accountability and action against those responsible is completely woeful. The Government need to take culpability and stop abdicating their responsibility for those who are being denied justice. Given that this is not a new issue, I sincerely hope that the Minister has come prepared and can furnish us with some hope and positivity—for a change.