Horizon Scandal: Psychological Support Services - Question

– in the House of Lords am 3:02 pm ar 4 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Dobbs Lord Dobbs Ceidwadwyr 3:02, 4 Mawrth 2024

To ask His Majesty’s Government what programmes are in place or are planned to ensure the families of sub-postmasters affected by the Horizon scandal have access to appropriate psychological support services.

Photo of Lord Offord of Garvel Lord Offord of Garvel Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade)

Support for postmasters and postmistresses is provided when needed as part of the compensation offer; for example, money to fund cognitive behavioural therapy. There are no programmes in place for the families of sub-postmasters affected by the Horizon scandal. Claimants can claim for the wide-ranging impacts on their lives. This can be larger due to witnessing the wider impact on their family members. We recognise that seeing family members suffer, as many of these families have done, has been traumatic.

Photo of Lord Dobbs Lord Dobbs Ceidwadwyr

I thank my noble friend for his Answer and pay tribute to the very hard work that he and his colleagues are putting into this issue.

Going back to the issue of family, particularly children, is my noble friend aware of the story of Millie-Jo Castleton, who wrote to the public inquiry detailing the extraordinary, terrible time that she has had during this terrible saga? She has been abused, marginalised, isolated, spat at in the street and told that she comes from a family of liars and criminals. Inevitably, her health has suffered tremendously. She was eight when this terrible saga started. She is now in her late 20s. I understand the accounting principles behind my noble friend’s Answer but it is accounting principles that got us here in the first place. Is it still not possible to weave into those accounting principles some compassion and common sense, and hold out some additional psychological and emotional support to those poor people such as Millie-Jo Castleton?

Photo of Lord Offord of Garvel Lord Offord of Garvel Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade)

I thank my noble friend for highlighting the case of Lee Castleton, which was well presented in the drama and is one of the most egregious of the cases before us. Like my noble friend, I have read Millie-Jo’s submission. It is harrowing and difficult to read, on any level, not just because of the personal abuse and distress for her, but because of the amount of time that this has taken and how it has completely impacted her life.

Where we are with the compensation scheme is that 78% of claims have now been met. That is 2,249 postmasters out of 2,988. We are now dealing with the most difficult and egregious cases, of which Lee Castleton’s is one. They need time to put their claims together, with the help of their therapists and healthcare workers, to assess the full damage to their family. We will work through that with them, case by case.

Photo of Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Non-affiliated

My Lords, sub-postmasters in Northern Ireland are, so far, not eligible for the legislation that would exonerate them. What discussions have taken place with the Northern Ireland Executive to bring forward legislation to ensure that sub-postmasters will be eligible for that exoneration legislation at a very early opportunity? I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, that many sub-postmasters in Northern Ireland have suffered in the most egregious way. They need relief at a very early opportunity.

Photo of Lord Offord of Garvel Lord Offord of Garvel Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade)

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. Obviously, Northern Ireland has a separate legal system, as does Scotland. The legislation coming before the House is immediately pertinent to England and Wales, and covers around 770 of the 983 convictions. There are live and active discussions with the legal systems in both Northern Ireland and Scotland, which are being helped considerably by the Executive sitting again in Northern Ireland. Both those jurisdictions need to be respected and we will work at speed to get the right treatment across the United Kingdom while respecting the different legal jurisdictions.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol

My Lords, with the Budget this coming Wednesday, I repeat the question that I asked the Minister last week and asked the noble Earl, Lord Howe, in the debate on the Victims and Prisoners Bill. Where in the Green Book would I find details of the £1 billion compensation? Is it in the Treasury or another department? I cannot find it anywhere at all. If the Minister does not have the answer at his fingertips, please will he write to me urgently with it?

Photo of Lord Offord of Garvel Lord Offord of Garvel Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade)

I thank the noble Baroness for her question, which we have discussed in this House. It may not be in the Green Book specifically, but it is clearly in the Treasury’s books. The money is there to be paid in compensation. The Government have given assurances on that; there will be no wriggling back. I am very happy to write with any further details required, but I say from the Dispatch Box that, as far as the Government are concerned, all commitments will be made to the postmistresses and postmasters.

Photo of Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Shadow Spokesperson (Business and Trade), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland)

My Lords, these are the words of the department in 2022:

“While seeking evidence from relevant witnesses, the inquiry is keen that such participation should not intensify or create psychological distress”.

Does the Minister not agree that the whole sorry fiasco has done nothing but intensify or create psychological distress, due to the complexity of the different compensation schemes; the continued obsession of Post Office Ltd with defending many of its practices; the time taken to get us here, near to quashing convictions; and the fact that no Post Office board member or senior manager has been held to account? I encourage the Minister to do everything necessary to speed up, first, the remaining compensation payments and, secondly, the legislation to quash all convictions. We stand ready to support and work with the Minister on that.

Photo of Lord Offord of Garvel Lord Offord of Garvel Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade)

I thank the noble Lord for that. As far as parliamentary business is concerned, it is planned to have the legislation go through both Houses and have it all done by the Summer Recess. That is in process, and there are more announcements to follow shortly. In relation to the claims, as I have said before, 78% of claims are now settled, and compensation has been paid to 93% of postmasters, some on an interim basis. As I said in the Chamber last week, we can go only as quickly as we receive the claims. We are at the most difficult end of the claims now. For example, with the GLO 477, we have had 58 claims, of which we have settled 41. We can go only as quickly as the claims come in, and we have guaranteed that we will work to get 90% cleared within 40 working days.

Photo of Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, I declare my interest as a member of the Horizon Compensation Advisory Board. I am troubled by the Answer my noble friend has given, because how can a family member, as opposed to the sub-postmaster themselves, claim for compensation or psychological help? Many of these families have broken up. Does my noble friend agree that the mere fact that there may be a lot of family members entitled to help or compensation should not of itself be a reason for denying them that help or compensation?

Photo of Lord Offord of Garvel Lord Offord of Garvel Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade)

I thank my noble friend. I once again pay tribute to his continual scrutiny of this matter, and his vital role on the advisory committee. Currently, the compensation is directed to each claimant—a postmaster or postmistress—but the whole point of having the advisory committee is to have live discussions on this. I encourage him, in that capacity, to keep those discussions going.

Photo of Lord Sikka Lord Sikka Llafur

My Lords, last week I met several wronged sub-postmasters, most of whom were earning barely the minimum wage. They have been wronged by Ministers, senior civil servants, lawyers, Post Office directors and investigators, and executives at Fujitsu. Can the Minister explain what legal advice and financial help the Government have so far given, or will give, the wronged sub-postmasters to enable them to bring the culprits to justice?

Photo of Lord Offord of Garvel Lord Offord of Garvel Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade)

I thank the noble Lord for that question. As I have said before from the Dispatch Box, there is help available as part of the compensation schemes for the claimants, to put their claims together and get access to lawyers and healthcare. As I said, 78% of claims have been settled. We are now dealing with the most difficult claims. In the meantime, there is a statutory inquiry going ahead, which will get to the bottom of this, and we will understand the full extent of how this sorry saga came about.

Photo of Lord Sahota Lord Sahota Llafur

My Lords, I am sorry to hear the Minister say that there is no help available for mental health issues. These are the facts on the ground; I have spoken to quite a few Asian sub-postmasters, and they all said they have had some form of mental health issue—either them or their families. The reason they do not come out is because mental health has a stigma attached to it; this is why they are not talking about it. I humbly ask the Government to look into this issue, especially among Asian sub-postmasters, who do not want even to talk about it—yet they do have a problem, and quite a few of them admitted it to me.

Photo of Lord Offord of Garvel Lord Offord of Garvel Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade)

I thank the noble Lord. He has detailed knowledge of his community, who serve us all so well, and who have suffered, in some cases, some terrible racism as well. The point we have to make is a communication issue. There is absolutely no stigma to this whatever; people who have been through this trauma have undoubtedly been harmed, and we must encourage everyone in our communities, wherever they are, to come forward with a claim.