Post Office Legislation - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 3:15 pm ar 14 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Wednesday 13 March.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a Statement about Post Office legislation and the Horizon redress schemes.

I am very pleased to be able to announce that today we are introducing a new Bill that will quash the convictions of postmasters in England and Wales affected by the Horizon scandal. As set out in my Written Statement last month, this legislation will quash all convictions that meet a clear set of conditions. Those in scope will have their convictions quashed on the day that the new legislation is brought into force. Subject to parliamentary passage, our aim is for Royal Assent to be received as soon as possible before the Summer Recess.

We accept, and have always been clear, that the legislation may overturn the convictions of some people who are guilty of genuine wrongdoing, but we believe this is a price worth paying to ensure that many innocent people are exonerated. However, the Government will seek to mitigate the risk of people receiving financial redress when they have not been wronged.

The Government also accept that this legislation is unprecedented. It is an exceptional response to a factually exceptional situation. I want to be clear that this does not set a precedent, and neither is it a criticism of the judiciary or the courts, which have dealt swiftly with matters brought before them. The fact remains, however, that three years after the first convictions were overturned, only around 100 have been quashed. Without government intervention, many of these convictions could not be overturned, either because all the evidence has long been lost or because, quite simply, postmasters have lost faith in the state and the criminal justice system, and will not come forward to seek justice.

The legislation will apply to England and Wales only. However, we are fully committed to working with the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive through regular, weekly official-level engagement to progress their own approaches. I have met my counterparts in the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive to offer support and address their concerns, and I will have further meetings. The financial redress scheme will be open to applicants throughout the UK, once convictions have been overturned.

I thank the Business and Trade Committee, which recently published a report that includes some recommendations for the Government regarding Horizon redress. We will respond to them in the usual way, but today I would like to address two of the committee’s recommendations. The first is that responsibility for redress should not lie with the Post Office, as it should be subject to independent oversight—something that has also been recommended to us by the Horizon Compensation Advisory Board. I can announce today that the Department for Business and Trade, rather than the Post Office, will be responsible for the delivery of redress for overturned convictions. Final decisions on redress will be made by independent panels or independent individuals.

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I shall return to the House at a later date to provide details on how we intend to deliver redress for those who have their convictions overturned by the Bill or via subsequent measures taken in Scotland and Northern Ireland. We are discussing the details with the advisory board. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury, my honourable friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), will introduce legislation to make any payments made via the new scheme exempt from tax.

Secondly, the Select Committee recommended that the Government introduce legally binding timeframes to deliver redress for sub-postmasters, with financial penalties for non-compliance. I strongly support the committee’s desire to speed up redress, but we feel that its proposed regime would have the opposite impact. It would potentially mean imposing penalties on forensic accountants or others who are helping postmasters to prepare their claims. Doing that would probably cause some of them to withdraw from this work, which would slow down the delivery of redress. Furthermore, we do not want to be in the position of rushing postmasters into major decisions about their claims and the offers they receive, which would possibly mean that some are timed out of redress altogether. The advisory board has said that its ‘strong view’ is that

‘this would be a backward step’,

which is why we passed legislation less than two months ago to remove the arbitrary deadline from the group litigation order scheme. We do not want to reverse that change.

However, the Government are acting to ensure that redress is delivered as quickly as possible. First, we are working with claimants’ lawyers to reduce the number of cases that require expert evidence—for example, from forensic accountants—or medical evidence, which delays claims. We will pilot that approach and, assuming that the pilot succeeds, we hope to expand it rapidly.

Secondly, the advisory board and I have asked for monthly reports on each scheme. They will come from schemes’ independent case managers, where such managers are in place. We will publish the reports, which will give us the best basis on which to assess measures for speeding up redress.

Finally, we are introducing optional fixed-sum awards. In January, the Government announced that they would offer an optional fixed-sum award of £75,000 to those in the group litigation order scheme. As of 5 March, 110 offers have been accepted, and over 100 people have taken the £75,000 fixed payment. Of those who have accepted the fixed payment, three-quarters are new claimants, so the fixed offer has already meant that over 100 claims have been resolved promptly. In some cases, those people will have got more than they would have asked for. The fixed offer has also had a helpful effect on other claims, because it substantially reduces work on small claims by claimants’ lawyers, making more resource available to progress larger claims more quickly.

I am pleased to announce today that the £75,000 fixed-sum award offer will now be extended to the Horizon shortfall scheme, to ensure that everyone is treated fairly across all the schemes. Those who have already settled their claim below £75,000 will be offered a top-up to bring their total redress to that amount; over 2,000 postmasters will benefit quickly from this announcement.

We are mindful that claims are not being submitted to the GLO scheme as swiftly as we would like. We have already announced the optional fixed-sum award of £75,000 but, to ensure that we get help to claimants more quickly, I can announce today that anyone who chooses not to take that offer, and instead submits a full claim for individual assessment, will have their interim payment topped up to £50,000 straightaway.

Many postmasters’ lives have been ruined by the Horizon scandal, and we are working hard to deliver redress. We have set up the Williams inquiry, which will discover the truth. We will provide fair financial redress as promptly as we can, and we will exonerate those who were so unjustly convicted of crimes that they did not commit. I commend this Statement to the House.”