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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:34 pm on 5th March 2020.

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Photo of Marion Fellows Marion Fellows SNP Whip, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Disabilities) 2:34 pm, 5th March 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe, and I congratulate Lucy Allan on securing this important debate. I want to make it clear that the CCRC applies only to England and Wales, and the Scottish equivalent, the Scottish CCRC, has not received any applications for review but does not rule out the possibility. I will not mention all the speakers who have taken part in the debate. I will try to get through my speech as quickly as I can, so that we can give the Opposition spokesperson and the Minister more time.

The Scottish National party has called for a full independent inquiry into the Horizon system, because justice must be done. I have lost count of the number of times I have taken part in Westminster Hall debates on various aspects of the Post Office, including how Horizon has affected sub-postmasters and post office staff. The Post Office and the National Federation of SubPostmasters have not acquitted themselves well over the issue of the Horizon accounting system—I do not normally use sarcasm in this place, but that is a sarcastic remark.

I wonder whether the Minister has listened to “File on 4” on BBC Radio 4. The harrowing effect on victims of the now discredited Horizon system, and the evidence of the Second Sight forensic accountants, is truly appalling. Post Office Ltd knew there was remote access to the system but denied that that was the case. Second Sight told Post Office Ltd of its concerns, but they were ignored. It is no wonder that the whole situation spiralled out of control. The honourable Justice Fraser, who presided at the recent trial, clarified that the Government own the Post Office:

“I would also add that Post Office Ltd, the corporate Defendant in these proceedings, is ultimately owned by the Government, admittedly through a corporate chain and a Government Department. It therefore either is, or shares a large number of features with, a public body. That is not to say that its decisions are subject (for example) to judicial review (and that point was not argued at all, so I am not expressing any view) but it cannot be seen as entirely private and wholly commercial.”

At every turn, successive Tory Governments have refused to deal with concerns about Post Office Ltd. In one debate, the then Minister told me—I am paraphrasing—that everything was fine because Post Office Ltd was now making a profit. As the hon. Member for Telford mentioned, the Prime Minister appeared to commit to a full independent inquiry at Prime Minister’s questions last week. On Monday, however, Computer Weekly contacted No. 10 to ask explicitly whether the Prime Minister had committed to a full public inquiry and whether it would be judge-led. No. 10’s response makes it clear that a decision has not been made:

“We take the Post Office’s relationship with its postmasters very seriously and closely monitored the situation during the legal proceedings. The Post Office, under its new CEO, has since accepted it got things wrong, apologised and has said it aims to re-establish a positive relationship with postmasters. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is working actively with the Post Office on this matter and will hold them to account on their progress. We are also looking into what more needs to be done.”

That does not appear to be what the Prime Minister said in the Chamber, and I would like the Minister to address that.

Post Office Ltd has spent millions trying to defend itself in the Horizon cases and caused untold damage to many innocent people, who paid up to prevent prosecution. Some 56 cases are in the hands of the CCRC, which will start to consider them this month. It is likely that the appeals will be successful, which could allow applicants to recover damages.

The hands-off approach taken by Tory Governments to Post Office Ltd could end up costing taxpayers even more millions of pounds. Indeed it should, because the Government should look to support the victims of the scandal, who should not be out of pocket for the financial harm they have suffered.