|Paul Scully MP|
Sir Wyn Williams' power-pack upgrade to the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry was announced in parliament today by the Business Minister Paul Scully, who said it will now: "be able to compel organisations to provide documents and witnesses to give evidence, under oath if necessary."
He said many more things about it, and I have reprinted the speech Mr Scully gave, and the debate it engendered below. You can also read it here on Hansard.
There have also been changes to the scope of the inquiry, which are listed here. The most interesting sentence says it is the inquiry's job to:
"Understand and acknowledge what went wrong in relation to Horizon, leading to the civil proceedings in Bates and others v Post Office Limited and the quashing of criminal convictions"
"Clearly this is an improvement, but gaps remain. For example, the inquiry will obtain “all available relevant evidence from Post Office Ltd, Fujitsu, BEIS and UKGI” – but there is no mention of those who used to work for Post Office Ltd, Fujitsu, BEIS or UKGI.
A case in point is Susan Crichton, who used to be the Post Office’s legal counsel. Is she covered by this, and does she have a non-disclosure agreement with the Post Office which the Post Office could be obliged to waive? That is far from clear. What about Chris Aujard who replaced her, but who no longer works for the Post Office, or Angela van den Bogerd?
And the huge gap is that of compensation. The Minister may be right to say that an inquiry cannot of itself make legally binding recommendations about compensation, but he is wrong to say that therefore it has to go through the courts. If the government or a government-owned entity behaves badly (let alone as spectacularly badly as both have done in this case), it can and should compensate those whom it has wronged. It doesn’t have to wait to be sued.
Finally, Paul Scully said that he wants to get the Post Office onto a good footing for the future. Yes, we all want to see that, but he won’t achieve that while this burning injustice, and the absurd distinction between compensating those of the 555 litigants who have had convictions overturned but not compensating those who have not or who may not have been convicted, remains."
|Seema, Janet and Tracy|
Paul Scully acknowledged that it was because of the Court of Appeal's recent findings that the inquiry was being upgraded to a statutory footing. Seema Misra, Tracy Felstead and Janet Skinner were three appellants who led the way in requesting the Court of Appeal consider their prosecutions to be an affront to the public conscience, which the court duly did. Today their solicitors, Aria Grace, issued a statement, saying:
"Seema Misra, Janet Skinner and Tracy Felstead listened with interest to the announcement by Minister Paul Scully... and the numerous positive responses and comments of MPs from all parties to that announcement. Between them, our clients waited 44 years for their convictions to be overturned.
They are pleased that the inquiry under Sir Wyn William will now be a statutory inquiry with power to call witnesses. They feel strongly that no one has yet been held to account or even properly investigated for those massive miscarriage of justice which took place over two decades. They hope very much the Enquiry will remedy that
They are disappointed that the Horizon Group damages settlement itself is outside the inquiry’s scope, although note that events leading up to the settlement may be investigated.
Each of them looks forward to giving evidence to Sir Wyn’s enquiry and so helping to ensure nothing like this can ever happen again. The personal damage to each of them and hundreds of others is immense.”
|Sir Wyn Williams|
Sir Wyn Himself posted a very interesting response to the minister's announcement on the inquiry website which included the statement:
"There can be no denying that the judgment of the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) in R v Hamilton and others, understood in the context of the judgments of Mr Justice Fraser in the civil litigation between sub-postmasters and Post Office Ltd, has generated important lines of enquiry some of which were previously undisclosed. Against this background, the powers available to a statutory public inquiry are necessary to support a proper assessment of all the relevant facts."
"I also appreciated the apparent change of tone in the Minister's responses today. He seemed a lot more sympathetic towards affected Subpostmasters than in previous despatch box appearances and we have to give [the government] the benefit of doubt and see what they deliver. It is important we keep their feet to the fire as this should have all started last year and could be well on the way to conclusion already. The terms of reference still do not go far enough."
For MPs and campaigners, properly compensating everyone including those who were involved in Bates v Post Office is essential. Chris has a solution:
"The minister, after meeting Nick Read could have said that those 555 Sub Postmasters can enter into the scheme and be calculated as though they hadn't been part of the litigation and will receive the difference from what they have already been awarded - all equal and fair!
The other worry for me is Post Office is controlling this entire scheme without any independent or outside scrutiny and once those in it join and Post Office offers its findings they aren't able to take a legal route. We need an independent oversight by the likes of Second Sight or similar to ensure the Post Office is being fair and above board in its approach (not sure if it has that word in its vocabulary)."
There is an excellent photo of Chris in this Yahoo finance piece which also carries a statement from Paula Vennells welcoming the inquiry. She says:
"It is beyond doubt there are serious and unanswered questions as to the manner in which subpostmasters were wrongly prosecuted.
All those involved in any way have a duty to those subpostmasters and their families, who were innocent victims, to ensure that this can never happen again.”
I can imagine those words will stick in the craw of many people reading this. Current Post Office CEO, Nick Read said:
“There can only be closure for victims of the Horizon scandal by establishing a comprehensive picture of what went wrong.
As I have said previously, Post Office will support and co-operate with any inquiry the Government sees fit to convene, and I welcome the announcement that Sir Wyn Williams’ inquiry will now move to a statutory footing. Post Office will continue to co-operate fully with Sir Wyn and his team.”
"The Department of Business repeatedly rejected my calls for a statutory inquiry until I threatened a judicial review."
"Merely announcing a statutory inquiry is not enough. I and hundreds of other sub-postmasters will not tolerate a toothless and hamstrung inquiry. We will be demanding an inquiry with adequate terms of reference that will allow it to get to the truth and to examine all of the injustices suffered by sub-postmasters and their families."
“I welcome the Government’s announcement that the Post Office Inquiry will now be placed on a statutory footing.However, the terms of reference and scope of the inquiry must be expanded to include the following: Post Office Ltd’s prosecution function, matters of criminal law, the Horizon group damages settlement, the conduct of current or future litigation relating to Horizon and/or the engagement or findings of any other supervisory or complaints mechanisms. Only then does he have a chance of bringing all relevant parties into this review.Moreover, as BEIS owns and directs the activities of Post Office Limited and may be found culpable in many respects, including the conduct of its Ministers who were supposed to be providing oversight, it is it not vital for public confidence that the owner of the Post Office is not also the owner of this Inquiry. It therefore must be passed over to the Ministry of Justice.”
"the language is not overtly explicit about accountability but Sir Wyn has enough to work with within these term of reference, I believe, to establish who the guilty parties are and who knew what and when. I see no reason why he could not make some recommendations to the CPS, as Justice Fraser did, based on some of the things he will extract from his revamped inquiry if he suspects a criminal act has taken place.I think this gives the campaigners what they have been calling for and I hope they all now fully engage with Sir Wyn."
I am very much looking forward to seeing Alice Perkins, Paula Vennells, Mark Davies, Susan Crichton, Alwen Lyons, John Scott, Jarnail Singh, Simon Clarke, Brian Altman et al give evidence, if that comes to pass. I would also like to see some people further down the food chain being cross-examined, too - eg the Post Office investigators who told Subpostmasters they were the only ones having problems with Horizon.
Today's full parliamentary statement and debate follows:
Post Office Update
With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to update the House on changes to the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry. Over a 20-year period, the Post Office Horizon computerised accounting system recorded shortfalls in cash, which were allegedly caused by sub-postmasters, leading to dismissals, recovery of losses and, in some instances, criminal prosecutions. I know that Members across the House are aware of the terrible impact that this has had on affected postmasters and their families. The life-altering implications of these accounting errors cannot be overstated.
The Post Office Horizon IT inquiry, led by Sir Wyn Williams, was launched in September 2020 as a major step towards righting the wrongs of the past. The inquiry was established on a non-statutory basis to enable the chair to work quickly to establish a clear account of the implementation and failings of the Horizon computer system over its lifetime.
On 27 April, I made an oral statement to the House following the decision by the Court of Appeal on 23 April to quash the convictions of 39 postmasters who had been convicted for Horizon-related shortfalls. As I said then, the Government recognise the gravity of the court’s judgment and the scale of the miscarriage of justice that it makes clear.
Sir Wyn and I are both of the view that the context for the inquiry has changed in the light of the judgment by the Court of Appeal and that now is the right moment to convert the inquiry to a statutory footing. Therefore, I can now inform the House that, with the agreement of the Prime Minister, I will convert the inquiry to a statutory footing on 1 June 2021. I have also agreed that Sir Wyn will now have more time to undertake his work. The inquiry is now expected to report in autumn 2022, rather than summer 2021.
Together, these changes will give Sir Wyn the powers and the time that he needs to conduct an in-depth analysis of the decision-making processes that led to the Horizon scandal. He will be able to compel organisations to provide documents and witnesses to give evidence, under oath if necessary. It is now for Sir Wyn to consider his next steps, and I expect that he will provide more information on his proposed approach soon. In the short term, the inquiry will complete its planned engagements through May, but public hearings that had been expected to take place in June will be delayed.
I have always said that the inquiry should proceed quickly to get the answers that postmasters and their families are seeking. Sir Wyn has gathered a lot of evidence from key parties and engaged with many affected postmasters; I have therefore asked that he provide a progress update to his original timeline of summer 2021, to make public the progress to date and any initial findings. I hope that still more affected postmasters will choose to engage with Sir Wyn as he continues his work on a statutory footing.
The inquiry’s overarching aims—to ensure that the right lessons have been learned and to establish what must change—will remain. However, there will be some changes to the terms of reference in the light of the Court of Appeal judgment. I have today notified the House of the updated terms of reference in a written ministerial statement.
I thank Sir Wyn for his quick progress on the inquiry to date and for taking the time with me in recent weeks to consider the next steps for it. I am pleased to confirm that he has agreed to remain as chair of the inquiry for the next phase.
Finally, I note that converting the inquiry to a statutory footing and proceeding over a longer period will, of course, have cost implications, but I assure colleagues across the House that they are being fully considered with my colleagues in HM Treasury.
The Horizon saga has wrecked lives and livelihoods. We cannot undo the damage that has been done, but we can establish what went wrong at the Post Office and ensure that nothing like it is ever allowed to happen again. The events surrounding the dispute have long been shrouded in darkness, and this Government are determined to bring them into the light. The landmark Court of Appeal judgment changed the context for the inquiry. Following it, the Government did not hesitate to act to give the inquiry more teeth and equip Sir Wyn with more powers. To affected postmasters and their families, my message is that we are listening and we will get to the bottom of this appalling affair. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) is not able to attend today but, like me, she welcomes today’s statement, including the much belated conversion of the inquiry to a statutory footing and the extension of its scope, although we believe that it does not yet go far enough.
This is indeed the largest legal miscarriage of justice in our history. It is estimated that there have been 900 false prosecutions in total—each one its own story of persecution, of fear, of despair, of families destroyed, of reputations smashed, of lives lost and of innocent people bankrupted and imprisoned. I thank and congratulate everybody who has campaigned over so many years—for more than a decade—to reveal the truth, including the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance and the Communication Workers Union. I also congratulate right hon. and hon. Members across the House who have fought for justice for their constituents; I mention in particular my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who has worked tirelessly on the issue.
The campaign for justice has been long fought, and there is still a long way to go. The Minister’s announcement is a step in the right direction. The Labour party and the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance have always said that the inquiry must be statutory, but less than a month ago in this Chamber, four days after the Court of Appeal’s decision, the Minister rejected calls for a statutory inquiry on the grounds that it would take “three, four or five years”—[Official Report, 27 April 2021; Vol. 693, c. 254.]
Can he tell us what has happened to change his mind?
The horrific miscarriage of justice did not happen overnight. For a decade, we have known that there were serious problems with the Horizon system, but the Post Office denied all wrongdoing, pursuing the victims and imposing huge lawyers’ fees on the claimants. Even after the High Court ruling vindicated postmasters in 2019, the Government refused to act. The next step has been delayed and victims’ lives have been disrupted by this Government.
It is important to remember that having a statutory inquiry is not, of itself, justice. There remain a number of urgent questions for the Minister that he did not answer a few weeks ago. The Government are the Post Office’s only shareholder, yet time and again, the Post Office was allowed to abuse its power over postmasters. That was the finding of the Court, and it is a really important point. Will the Minister acknowledge the Government’s failure of oversight and due diligence with regard to public money? Will he apologise to the victims and their families today? The postmasters were criminalised for a culture that assumed technology is infallible and workers dishonest. How will the Minister change that, and what are the implications for the management of human teams relying on AI or computer algorithms?
We welcome any new powers for Sir Wyn and the review. It was reported—and this seemed to be in the statement—that Sir Wyn will have the power to summon witnesses to give testimony under oath and to force the Post Office to hand over documents. Can the Minister confirm that, and will that power apply to any other entity or organisation from which evidence is sought? While the terms of reference have been updated, they do not seem to reflect the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central previously. For example, compensation still appears to be out of scope of the inquiry—why? Who has been consulted on the revised terms of reference?
Fujitsu was the one that provided faulty software. An independent investigator, Second Sight, drew attention to that as far back as 2013, yet the Government do not appear to be doing anything to hold Fujitsu to account. Instead, the Horizon software has been renewed, rewarding Fujitsu with a new £42 million contract. Will ongoing Government contracts with Fujitsu be reviewed? Paula Vennells led the Post Office during this time and was honoured with a CBE, along with a long list of others. Is it right that she and others continue to be honoured?
The Minister has referred to a “full and final settlement” for some postmasters with the Post Office. However, he will know that of the £58 million settlement approved in the High Court case, only £12 million will go to the victims, with the rest taken up in legal fees. Does the Minister agree that they should be considered for appropriate compensation?
The JFSA and Labour want there to be a public consultation to guarantee that the inquiry will deliver for all the victims and provide conclusive answers. The Post Office is a Government-owned company that has been found to be at fault. It is vital that the Government act to improve the corporate structure of the Post Office, to prevent this kind of thing from ever happening again. It should never have been allowed to develop into this scandal, but all we can do now is ensure that we get to the truth, that those wrongly convicted get justice and that lessons are learnt.
Securing this statutory inquiry is a big victory for sub-postmasters, trade unions and justice, but despite the Government’s U-turn, this is only the start. The Government have failed to live up to their responsibility to prevent this scandal from occurring, and they have, until today, stood in the way of justice. I urge the Minister to apologise, to own the Government’s mistakes and to start work to ensure that justice is served and that a scandal of this magnitude can never happen again.
I did not want to interrupt the hon. Lady, but Mr Speaker would be annoyed with me if I did not point out that she has taken a minute longer than she ought to have had, and that is a minute that will not be taken later today by some other Member who wishes to speak.
I send my best wishes to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah); I understand why she cannot be here. I appreciate the response from the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), and I will try to answer some of her questions.
The hon. Lady talked about Ministers’ role in this. Clearly, the role of our Department, Government and Ministers will be included in the inquiry. We do want to learn the lessons, and that will be the case, but as we have seen from the judgment, the Post Office consistently maintained that Horizon was robust and was misguided in its approach to the issue, leading to the decision to prosecute these postmasters. We pressed management on issues regarding complaints brought by postmasters about Horizon and received repeated assurances that the system was reliable. As I say, the inquiry will look into that.
In terms of the Government’s response, we clearly recognise the impact that convictions have had on individual postmasters and their families. That is why the Prime Minister and I met with a small group of them last month, to hear directly from them. They had some incredibly tragic and terrible stories, and I can understand why they find it difficult to trust anybody in this regard after many, many years of difficulty and the impossible situation that they and their families have been in.
On Horizon itself, the Post Office is looking into that. It cannot, unfortunately, just switch off a system and change midstream, but clearly it will be looking to work on the successor CRM—customer relationship management—system. Yes, the terms of reference and the statutory footing allow Sir Wyn to compel people to give evidence and documents, and there are sanctions on them if they should fail to do so, under the Inquiries Act 2005. One of the reasons for that, as we move to the second stage and, I hope, engage more sub-postmasters to give their stories, is that we want to give them the confidence that people will be giving their evidence. I must say that, to date still, everybody involved in this whom Sir Wyn has asked to do so has given their full undertaking and worked on it. Nobody has resiled from the inquiry, but it is important that we do this.
On the terms of reference in relation to compensation, an inquiry, whether statutory or not, cannot determine liability in itself—that still has to be done through the courts—but sub-postmasters clearly can raise, and I would fully expect them to raise, the issue of the losses and difficulties as they outline the difficulties they have had. On Fujitsu, as I have said, clearly the Post Office will be looking at what it does in further compensation, and that will include Fujitsu. There are criminal investigations going ahead, so that is outside the scope of the inquiry, but the GLO—group litigation order—settlement was a full and final settlement. The Government did not have a part in the litigation. It is not part of the inquiry itself, but none the less, this is one part—an important part, but one part—of making sure that we get to the bottom of this and get sufficient justice for the postmasters so badly affected.
I warmly congratulate the Minister on his statement, and I think it is fantastic news for sub-postmasters. I would like to thank the Prime Minister for meeting sub-postmasters, including my constituent Tracy Felstead, and for understanding the terrible injustice that they have suffered for so long. Can the Minister assure me that compensation will be paid to all those affected, including those who were party to the horrendous struggle that was the group litigation? Does he agree that these sub-postmasters should not be penalised for shining a light on the conduct of the Post Office, and they should not be required to fund the pivotal judgment of Mr Justice Fraser, without which no convictions would have been overturned? Can he please agree with me that compensation must be fair to all sub-postmasters?
I thank my hon. Friend, who has been really dogged in her championing of Tracy Felstead and many others who have been affected. I was pleased to meet Tracy—who gave such tragic testimony—alongside the Prime Minister. On compensation, the Post Office is engaging in the compensation process. I will, in my regular meetings with the Post Office, make sure that we keep on top of that, because we want to ensure justice and fair compensation for all who have been affected.
It is a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan), who is a member of the all-party parliamentary group on post offices. I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement, and I welcome the statement that the inquiry into the Post Office’s Horizon scandal is to be put on a statutory footing—something for which MPs across the Chamber have been calling for months. However, if this is the case, it should have been set out properly by the UK Government in Parliament, not briefed beforehand to the press.
The Horizon scandal has been a serious miscarriage of justice, potentially carried out knowingly. It is a grave injustice that some, sadly, have taken their own lives and others have been imprisoned. The SNP has repeatedly called for a judge-led statutory inquiry, and the Minister and I have had discussions on this previously. Entire lives have been ruined, and it is critical—critical—that no stone is left unturned in securing real justice for those affected. The UK Government must agree to meet all costs as a result of any compensation due, so that the post office network is not impacted. We must not lose sight of that. We absolutely welcome the statutory inquiry, as I have said, but we must also make certain that those responsible are held to account. This is really important.
I want to thank the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, the Communication Workers Union and the long-standing members of the APPG, who have fought tirelessly for this outcome. I look forward to seeing the Minister next week in my capacity as chair of the APPG, when he comes to talk to us further.
I always welcome meeting the hon. Lady, and I congratulate her on her work for the all-party group. I appreciate her support for this change and I absolutely agree with her that we have to make sure that in getting justice and righting the wrongs of the past we do not jeopardise the future of the Post Office, with the social value it gives, as well as the economic value, for so many people across this country. We must make sure that we restore confidence for not only future postmasters within the network but its customers, so that it is there for many years to come.
I am delighted that the Minister has announced that we will get the full public inquiry that we have needed for so long, to finally draw a line under this tragic fiasco and get to the truth. Following his and the Prime Minister’s recent meeting with a few of the sub-postmasters caught up in this debacle, including my constituents Mr and Mrs Rudkin, does my hon. Friend agree that the sub-postmasters are ordinary, honest and credible people, who have been caught up in incredible events that were not of their making and not their responsibility, but which have had a massive detrimental effect on their lives and the lives of their families?
Let me again thank my hon. Friend for his work in raising the case of Mr and Mrs Rudkin and other postmasters, and he is right. Mr Rudkin was one of the leading witnesses who blew a hole in the evidence and this led to success for those postmasters in various stages of the court case and, unfortunately, Mrs Rudkin was left to carry the can in her experience as postmaster. She is very typical of many postmasters who have been affected: ordinary people who are stalwarts of their villages, towns, communities. That is why we must redouble our efforts to seek justice and fair compensation for them.
I thank the Minister for an advance copy of the statement. My Select Committee and I called for this inquiry to be on a statutory footing from the beginning and so we welcome the statement today. However, if I have understood it correctly, the terms of reference are still being decided by Ministers and not by the independent chair, Sir Wyn Williams—why?
No, that is incorrect; this is being done in collaboration with Sir Wyn. I spoke to Sir Wyn shortly after the Court of Appeal’s judgment and comments. He asked for more powers—not just statutory ones but to be able to look further back—and that is why we made changes. Although the inquiry would not explore matters of substantive criminal law, which of course should be decided by the criminal courts, he felt that he could look at this better, first, within the statutory footing and, secondly, with some of the changes to the terms of reference that we have expanded today. That was done in collaboration with Sir Wyn.
Just a few weeks ago, I asked about this at Prime Minister’s questions, so I thank the Government for listening and I welcome the statutory footing. Justice and peace of mind is one thing, but adequate compensation for the victims is another. Fujitsu must not be let off the hook. What assessment has the Minister made to ensure that Fujitsu contributes to the fund to ensure that people who are still hugely at loss are properly compensated?
I thank my hon. Friend, a former postmaster himself, for that. He absolutely understands the situation and has been a dogged champion. We did say that if things should change, we would change. Things have clearly changed as a result of the Court of Appeal judgment. He raises a pertinent point about Fujitsu. It is for Post Office Ltd to work out the terms of compensation around this issue, but I am sure it will hear what he said and raise that incredibly pertinent point as redress is sought.
I thank the Minister for his statement. I also give him credit: in the 10-plus years that I, the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) and Lord Arbuthnot have been campaigning on this issue, this is the first time that a Minister has admitted that when things go wrong he will change them.
It is right that we get full disclosure of the facts and justice for those who have been wronged. May I ask the Minister about disclosure? Will that include the ministerial submissions from the Post Office throughout this scandal and the role of the Government shareholder on the board of the Post Office? That is key to the reasons why things were not questioned. Also remember that in 2019 the Post Office spent £100 million of taxpayers’ money defending a civil case that was, frankly, completely indefensible.
I stress one last thing to the Minister. I know that Ministers like to hide behind the Post Office, saying that this is its fault. It is not: it is a wholly owned company of the Government. The Government have to take responsibility for some of this; they cannot just blame the Post Office.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman, who has rightly been pushing on behalf of postmasters in general for a number of years.
Yes, nothing is off the table. We want to get justice and answers for people, and that clearly includes the role of the Government and shareholders. The fact is that, yes, we are the single shareholder through UK Government Investments, but that allows Post Office Ltd to work operationally independently of the Government—otherwise, there would be no point in splitting it that way. None the less, as I say, our representatives on the board have been asking that question. We were assured that Horizon was robust in all these areas. None the less, within the inquiry those questions will no doubt be asked and I expect them to be answered.
I warmly welcome my hon. Friend’s statement and the work being undertaken by Sir Wyn in what is now a statutory inquiry. It is right that the inquiry should look at how on earth this was allowed to happen in the first place—most pertinently, why the Post Office and Fujitsu completely ignored the red flags being waved by trusted sub-postmasters across the network.
Compensation will be key. Sub-postmistress Isabella Wall from Barrow lost her home and business and was left with nothing. Can my hon. Friend guarantee that fair compensation for those who have been completely wronged through this process will be the focus of the Government?
Through you, Madam Deputy Speaker, I pass my best wishes to Isabella Wall; I can only imagine what she and her family have been through. We will continue to talk about these issues over the next year, as the inquiry goes through.
Yes, the inquiry looks at what went wrong and goes back historically to give confidence to those affected and in the future network. But clearly we want to make sure that postmasters get fair compensation as well as justice.
I thank the Minister for finally recognising the need to make this a statutory inquiry. As he knows full well, at every turn the Post Office has done everything it can possibly do to defend the indefensible. The inequality of arms in terms of legal representation has enabled these persecutions of innocent hard-working men and women. What discussions has he had with the Treasury for funds to be put aside to ensure that these innocent victims get fair and equal representation in this now statutory inquiry?
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who has been persistent in standing up for postmasters.
The situation has been going on for 20 years—a long, long time—and it is so important that we get to the bottom of it. Clearly, we have already been speaking to the Treasury, which has supported the Post Office in a historical shortfall scheme, and we will continue to do so. It is so important that people get fair redress and compensation and that we put the Post Office on a good footing for the future. Although this issue has been going for 20 years, I should say that Post Office Ltd now, under chief executive Nick Read, is determined to look positively to the future while standing up and supporting us in getting the answers about those last two decades.
I was a member of the Select Committee that in March last year heard really distressing accounts from Post Office staff, including constituents of my hon. Friends who were wrongly convicted of discrepancies, and we heard about the devastating effect on their lives. I am really pleased that the Minister, the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have heard about that for themselves, and I really welcome today’s action. I also heard from Binley Wood’s sub-postmaster, Shailesh Patel, who tells me that he has increasing amounts of hours’ work for reducing commissions. What steps can Minister take to ensure that the Post Office properly looks after its staff who perform such a valuable role in our local communities?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend about the role that post offices play in communities, which is all based on postmasters. I speak regularly to the chief executive and other people in Post Office Ltd and fair remuneration for postmasters is absolutely at the heart of our discussions to ensure that they keep adding social value.
You know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I am not the sort of man to stand here and say, “I told you so,” but on 20 June last year I told the Minister that this was exactly what was going to happen. I hope that the work Sir Wyn Williams has done thus far will not be wasted and will not have to be repeated. The Minister also knows that of the £58 million settlement given to sub-postmasters by the Post Office, £46 million went in the payment of legal fees. Those legal fees were only necessary because the Post Office sought to defend a case that it should not have been defending. If the Minister really wants to reset the relationship between the Government, the Post Office and sub-postmasters, he could do no better than to give an undertaking today to give that money back to the postmasters.
First, I can say that the work of Sir Wyn to date will not be wasted. That is exactly why we are converting the inquiry into a statutory inquiry rather than stopping and starting again—to allow him to continue his work until we get to phase two. On the group litigation settlement, I have talked about the fact that it was a full and final settlement, but I understand exactly where the right hon. Gentleman is coming from. That is not within the scope of the inquiry, but we will continue to look at what we can do to give a fair settlement of compensation for postmasters in the different tranches of the stages of the civil and criminal cases.
I thank my hon. Friend for his statement. I welcome the changes to the Horizon scandal inquiry, and I think it will help those seeking justice and compensation. I think it will also help boost trust in the inquiry. Trust is central to a thriving Post Office and trust is necessary for people to take on the role of sub-postmaster or sub-postmistress with any certainty or security. If people do not take on a Post Office licence, then post offices will disappear from our high streets and the critical role they play in our communities will be lost. How will my hon. Friend work with the Post Office to rebuild that trust to ensure our post office network serves our communities long into the future?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. My uncle was a postmaster. I remember him retiring and putting his savings into a post office in Leicestershire many years ago, pre-dating the knowledge of the Horizon situation. I wonder whether he would have done that again years later. That is why it is so important that we get these answers and get that settlement to give former postmasters justice. It is also really important—I know this is happening—that Post Office Ltd recalibrates its relationship with postmasters to ensure they feel a valued part of the company as well as the community, rather than distant stakeholders.
The last time the Minister came to the House, I asked him if full legal costs would be compensated. He said then that he would lean in on that and ensure everyone was adequately compensated. It may be that his idea of adequate may not be same as those affected, so I ask him again: will full legal costs be included in compensation packages?
As I say, compensation packages are a matter for Post Office Ltd and we will continue to work with it on that. Post Office Ltd is working with wronged postmasters to determine how that compensation package should look.
I know my hon. Friend understands the financial and emotional suffering that this process has caused many postmasters and their families, including some of my constituents, and I welcome this statement today. Is he able to reassure the House that the Government will do everything within their power to encourage affected postmasters to come forward and engage with the inquiry so that their voices can be heard?
Absolutely. It is incumbent on us all, and I really hope that we can give confidence to sub-postmasters—not just those who have had their convictions quashed, but wider members of the group litigation. All postmasters should feel some confidence that they can come forward, tell their stories and know that we hat we are determined to get them answers.
The Post Office scandal is one of the gravest miscarriages of justice in this century. It destroyed many lives and families, and justice must be given to these families in full. While I welcome the premise of a statutory inquiry, will the Government address the limited remit of the inquiry, which does not cover compensation or the accountability of managers in this scandal?
To be fair, the accountability of managers will absolutely be in the inquiry, because that is part of the expansion of it. Sir Wyn can now look right the way out to the settlement of the group litigation and ensure that it is not just about the wrongs of the 20 years, but the lead-up to that civil case as well. I have answered the question about compensation in as much as an inquiry, statutory or not, cannot determine liability in itself. That needs to go through the courts, but I dare say that postmasters giving evidence will share their experiences of their financial losses, as well as the emotional impact on them and their families.
The behaviour of the Post Office and the failures of Fujitsu have destroyed the lives of many hard-working and innocent postmasters. The Minister is clearly right to put this inquiry on a statutory footing, but what will he be able to do to ensure that, whatever the inquiry concludes, the Post Office acts on those recommendations and the report is not simply allowed to gather dust in a drawer?
Part of the inquiry is to measure whether the Post Office has put into place the things that it has promised to do as a result of the civil litigation and the many, many pages of evidence and comment by Mr Justice Fraser. There are many areas there that should put the Post Office on a firm footing for the future relationship with its postmasters. This part of the inquiry is testing whether they have done so already.
Last week, we received news that Barclays was closing its last branch in Ammanford, the main town in my constituency, leaving only one remaining bank—a fate shared by all the market towns in my constituency, some of which have been left with none. That leaves the Post Office the last remaining financial provider of everyday vital services for our communities. That fate is, I would imagine, shared across the whole of Wales and the rest of the UK. Is it not time to give sub-postmasters the option of being recognised as employed workers, as opposed to independent contractors, so that they are remunerated properly for the vital role they play in our communities and as a means of righting the wrongs served upon them by the Horizon scandal?
The Post Office speaks regularly to the unions and to postmasters in general. Two postmasters have been elected to serve on the board, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to talk about access to cash. The Post Office has good plans to pilot new ways of access to cash to replace the last bank in town, an issue that he rightly articulates.
As a former chair of the all-party group on post offices, I welcome the Minister’s announcement that this inquiry into the absolute disaster of the Post Office-Horizon IT issue will be put on a statutory footing. This issue has already damaged the lives of many people and shaken confidence not just in our ability to have effective public sector software contracts, but indirectly in our justice system which, because of wrong information, delivered wrong verdicts. The opportunity to provide redress for many of those involved is surely vital for us all. Will the Minister confirm that all possible technical advice will be provided to the inquiry so that some of the technical issues, such as the data library and so on, will be exposed—and, above all, who knew what? Will he also confirm that the role of the National Federation of SubPostmasters will be looked at closely to see what alarm bells it sounded and what communication there was between it and Post Office Ltd?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Sir Wyn will look at both those things—he will look at those alarm bells—because that is so important to learn those lessons. We cannot learn them any other way, so he is right to do that. Clearly, with this being a computer software issue over two decades, Sir Wyn is getting the technical advice that he needs, and he will always have that support from us. We will make sure that he gets whatever he is asking for in terms of technical support.
Serious concerns have been expressed about the conduct of many of the private prosecutions that led up to the 900 or so wrongful convictions of innocent sub-postmasters, including some of my constituents, so why have the Government declined to accept the Justice Committee’s recommendation to introduce a binding and enforceable code of standards for private prosecutors and an inspection regime that would have identified these abuses at a much earlier stage? Will the Minister now accept that recommendation?
The private prosecutions themselves, and the use of private prosecutions, are not within the scope of the inquiry, but clearly the way that the Post Office investigated this absolutely is. The Post Office has not used a private prosecution since, I think, 2013 and has pledged not to use them, but we will always look into the systems of prosecutions. As I said in my last statement, there are clearly wider lessons to be learned for the justice system in general.
I thank the Minister for his statement. On behalf of my constituents on Anglesey, I welcome the news that those wrongly accused will not face prosecution. I have many happy memories of spending time as a child at my great-grandfather’s post office, and I have seen at first hand how vital the role is that postmasters play in the community. Will the Minister confirm that the recommendations from the inquiry will be used to be ensure that this travesty, which has torn apart lives, including those of people such as Margery Williams and Noel Thomas, both of Ynys Môn, will never happen again?
Yes, I assure my hon. Friend, regarding Noel Thomas and Margery Williams, that we must right the wrongs for these people and for many, many others. I just want to correct her on one thing because, yes, the Post Office will not be prosecuting any more, but we clearly have to get through the judicial process for the many, many people who have been prosecuted and to see exactly how many of them have been prosecuted with Horizon being a significant factor in the prosecution. The Court of Appeal has a lot of work to do following this statement.
I welcome the Minister’s change of heart. It will provide much-needed reassurance, as he mentioned, to sub-postmasters, including my constituent, John Bowman, whom I mentioned to the Minister previously. What will happen now for the sub-postmasters who have lost everything so that they have the financial confidence to get evidence to Sir Wyn’s inquiry? If they cannot afford to give that evidence, if they require legal support, what work is the Minister doing with the Treasury to ensure that those postmasters who have lost everything, including, in some cases, their homes, have the funding available to take part in this now statutory inquiry?
We absolutely want sub-postmasters to give evidence. There is obviously a cost implication in extending the inquiry and making it statutory. I am working through that process with my colleagues in the Treasury, and we want to make sure that everybody and anybody who has been affected can come forward to give that evidence with confidence, no matter what their financial situation is.
My sympathy goes to everyone affected by this appalling scandal. Looking to the future, does the Minister agree that one of the best ways that we can support sub-postmasters and the post office network, which means so much to our constituents, is by using it to deliver more Government services? Up to now that been made difficult by EU procurement rules, which we can now change?
Those are exactly the things that each Government Department that has traditionally used the Post Office will continue to explore. None the less, the Post Office does not necessarily just need to be limited to Government services. There are plenty more things that it can do to modernise and ensure that it better reflects customer demand. I push the chief executive Nick Read on this point, although he does not need pushing on it because he is very front-footed on the situation himself.
I welcome the move to a statutory inquiry, but also note the extension of the timescale for the inquiry; it has been extended, I think, by some nine months or so. John and Pat Moir had a post office in Winlaton Mill in my constituency and were caught up in the Horizon scandal. They are now constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), who had hoped to ask a question herself. Mr and Mrs Moir have spent more than a decade fighting this case and fighting to clear their name. Clearly they welcome this inquiry, but what assurances can they have that it will work to the timescales, so that they and others can see the outcome before more time passes?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to ask that question. One of the key reasons why I originally set it up as a non-statutory inquiry was to ensure that we were not overly burdened with bureaucracy and the need to “lawyer up”, which tends to extend statutory inquiries to three years and beyond. I have said to Sir Wyn that I do want an interim report to the original timescale, so that we can show the public progress, but we are going to have an extra year to ensure that extra evidence is considered. We will hold him to time as best we can, but we do want to ensure that we get the answers.
The importance of the Post Office has increased in every community across this country, especially as high street banks continue to close, as is the case in Radcliffe in my constituency, where there are now no banks. Does my hon. Friend agree that postmasters truly are the backbone of the Post Office, that it is those postmasters who have delivered such vital services up and down the country, particularly in towns such as Radcliffe, Whitefield and Prestwich, and that we need to strengthen that relationship? Does he therefore share my concern about the way in which many have been treated by the Post Office through this scandal?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is what is so galling for the postmasters who had those roles in the past. They were the stalwarts and the backbone of their community; the stigma of being accused of false accounting or fraud must have been so unbearable, as we know from the incredibly tragic testament that we have heard. As well as getting answers on that, we want to reset the relationship with postmasters so that they can go back to being the centre of their community, adding such social value, and bringing and keeping communities together.
I am sure that the whole House will join me in welcoming the fantastic news that the sub-postmasters wrongly accused across the UK will no longer face prosecution, meaning that this hugely difficult time for them is finally at an end. I shall always stand by Rother Valley’s hard-working sub-postmasters and postmasters. It is incredibly important that full and timely justice is served. Will my hon. Friend therefore commit to holding the Post Office’s feet to the fire, ensuring that it studies carefully whatever recommendations may arise from the inquiry to ensure that this can never ever happen again?
This is the end of the beginning. Clearly, there is a long way to go to ensure that we get the answers, but in holding the Post Office’s feet to the fire, I do not want to add stigma to the Post Office moving forward; for the reasons that we have heard today, post offices are right at the heart of all our communities, so it is important that we have that day zero to reset the Post Office’s future relationship with postmasters and its communities while getting answers, justice and fair compensation for those who have been wronged over the last two decades.
I do welcome the statement, but it has taken far too long for it to happen. My constituent was held responsible for missing funds, charged, convicted and sentenced to 13 months in prison. It cost her not only her home, which she had to sell to meet these debts, but her marriage. She was left penniless and had to move out of the area, and is understandably concerned that nearly 40% of the compensation awarded is just swallowed up by legal costs. As others have said, that has to be addressed. My constituent has lost everything. What does appropriate compensation look like for people like her?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman’s constituent will feel confident in coming forward and outlining her case and those financial losses, exactly as he has described, so that Sir Wyn can take a holistic view. On compensation, as I say, the Post Office now needs to ensure that it works with the postmasters and addresses issues such as Fujitsu, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) talked about earlier, and that it compensates all these wronged postmasters in a fair way.
My hon. Friend will be well aware that the overwhelming majority of men and women who run our post offices are small business owners who work extremely long hours and have to deal with extremely complex and different sets not only of accounts but of transactions. Given the circumstances that have arisen under the Horizon scandal, what actions will he take to ensure that the position is rebalanced between those small business owners and the vast monolith of the Post Office, so that we get justice for everyone running these businesses?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That process is already taking place under the leadership of Nick Read, who comes from an independent supermarket background, where he managed to grow a culture very similar to the relationship that he describes wanting to see in the Post Office. That is why I am confident that, if we can get these answers and get recompense, justice and fair compensation for those who have been wronged, we can recalibrate the relationship between Post Office Ltd and the sub-postmasters—those small business people in their communities that my hon. Friend mentions.
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