Post Office Legislation - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 3:22 pm ar 14 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Johnson of Lainston Lord Johnson of Lainston Minister of State (Department for Business and Trade) 3:22, 14 Mawrth 2024

We will come to the noble Lord shortly, although it is right to be hasty.

I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, for their input and will try to answer their questions as we go through. On the noble Lord’s wise point about why the sentence in the Explanatory Notes trails off, I think there is a typo. If I remember rightly, it should say “extinguish criminal convictions” at the end of that sentence. I am grateful to him for pointing that out.

Perhaps I may cover collectively the broad themes raised. The noble Lord, Lord McNicol, asked how we prevent the misuse or abuse of this measure. I was interested to hear a noble Lord speak in a previous debate about the quashing of convictions of soldiers in the First World War. This was a group conviction-quashing measure that was considered unique and was specifically designed for special circumstances. There was great concern that the process might be misused at a later date—I cannot remember exactly when; it must have been 20 years ago or more—and, clearly, that has not been the case. I think we are all apprised of the need to make sure that such constitutional situations are handled with extreme sensitivity and delicacy. In this instance, the Government, like Peers on all sides of this House—indeed, those in both Houses of Parliament—believe sincerely that it is only through this measure that we can be sure that people’s convictions are quashed. To confirm: this is an active statement of quashing of convictions; people are not required to apply to have their convictions quashed.

The issue of trust in the Post Office and the independence of the system and of the court processes has been raised, and this is the most effective way to ensure that we do the right thing by people who we believe have been wrongly convicted using evidence that we feel is clearly unreliable.

I would like to just cover the point the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, made about the criteria in the Bill. The criteria governing who will qualify to have their convictions quashed are well laid out, and I am sure there will be a debate about the specifics when the Bill comes to this House. However, it is right that this applies between a set period of dates, that it relates to certain types of crimes linked to the Horizon computer system, that having used the Horizon system has to be part of the process of the conviction, and that, obviously, the person in question was working for the Post Office at the time. We are making, in my view, a series of pretty clear statements about what we are trying to achieve here. It is perfectly reasonable to raise the point about Capture. It was not felt appropriate to bring those cases into this process. However, Horizon trial periods, or the periods of beta testing for it, are included, as I understand it. If that is not the case, I will provide the House with a correction, but I believe that is right.

There has been a significant debate about the territorial scope of this Bill. The reality is that we operate different legal systems, and justice is devolved in Northern Ireland as it is in Scotland. This is not a question of the Government trying to get out of our responsibility or pass responsibility off. As the noble Baroness rightly said, the Government’s redress schemes cover the whole of the United Kingdom. There is no advantage to not having a system that covers the entirety of the United Kingdom. I am sure that many people believe that to be highly preferable, and it would make logical sense, but we have been especially careful to keep returning to the need to be sensitive to the constitutional realities of the unique action we are taking. It is right that, instead of looking at this stage for a complete UK-wide Bill, we allow this to be devolved to the common-law authorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland. I reassure the noble Lord and the noble Baroness that we are in regular contact. In fact, as we speak, a meeting is going on with the devolved nations about how to achieve this. Everyone has the same goal. I have not heard the comments made by the Scottish Justice Minister, but if anything, that continues to point to a high degree of collaboration.

We want justice to be done for these individuals as quickly as possible, across the whole United Kingdom. I have spoken to my colleague, Kevin Hollinrake, who has done a fantastic job in driving this process forward. We are all of the same opinion. Whatever measures are required to do this in the most appropriate and speediest way, we will certainly take. We will look into any way in which we can help the devolved authorities achieve their goals, in line with ours.

The principle of a target timeline for settlements, which was mentioned in the report cited earlier, was rightly raised. I feel strongly that it makes a lot of sense superficially, but the reality is that these are complex processes. We have already delayed having a cliff edge, which we did not think would be helpful. Some of these cases will take time to assess.

We agree on many things, but I am afraid that I do not agree with the idea that there is a huge amount of unpaid compensation, as if it is sitting in a bank waiting to be paid out. It does not work like that. In fact, over three quarters of the claims filed under the HSS scheme have been paid, a large proportion of those under the GLO scheme have been paid, and a large number of overturned convictions have been settled. We are working very fast. I can reassure this House that it is not in the interests of any member of this Government to delay in any way. We have made very good progress.

Importantly for noble Lords listening today, we have raised the fixed-rate payments so there is equality between GLO and HSS schemes, and I believe we have also raised the interim payment received. As soon as you submit a claim, you get £50,000 if you do not take the minimum £75,000 pay, and there is a £450,000 interim payment for overturned conviction compensation. That is important. We want to get money immediately into the pockets of people who need to be compensated. Clearly, there is a margin for discussion and debate, and it is absolutely right that that be done carefully. I hope that we can get the right outcomes. Of course, there is no limit to the compensation that can be paid.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, asked about the accounts of the Department for Business and Trade and how this is accounted for. I believe that it would be too soon for last year’s accounts, but our next year’s accounts close in April and will be filed in July or August. I assume some element of the accounting will appear there. In terms of the billion or so that has been set aside, I am told by the Treasury that it does not sit in a ring-fenced account; it is part of the reserves that have been estimated as required. Of course, we also expect contributions from other areas as well. I am very comfortable coming back to noble Lords who will clearly ask in more detail how the accounting process works. I would be delighted to report to Parliament on that and I am sure that there will be plenty of discussions and question around it.

I hope that I have covered the main points, but I would like to return to two final questions. In terms of postmasters who have passed away, the estate is entitled to the compensation. There are also issues where families who have lost joint homes, or where there are additional complications around that, can receive compensation as well.

The question of independent oversight is absolutely to be raised, particularly regarding how these schemes are run. I am delighted to report that the overturned convictions compensation scheme will be run by the Department for Business and Trade, which I think was demanded by the postmasters. It is very important that people feel a sense of independent oversight, so we have therefore appointed a number of senior judges to provide us with that.

I do not have an answer on whether a postmaster will be included, for example, on the oversight board. I think that is an extremely good idea and I am sure that my colleague Kevin Hollinrake would agree that it is an excellent idea. I cannot commit to that now, but these are all very reasonable policy points to make sure that the postmasters who have been affected feel a sense of confidence. It is not just a question of having their convictions overturned and receiving financial compensation; they need to feel respected by the system that treated them so badly.

It is very important that all sides of the House feel able to make contributions in terms of how we can make the system work more effectively to achieve these goals. I am grateful for the ability to have this debate. I think we have made extremely good progress under the leadership of my Secretary of State, and particularly Minister Kevin Hollinrake. Clearly, there is more work to be done and we cannot move too fast to give these people redress. I hope that I can count on the support of all Peers in this House to bring this legislation through so that we can have these convictions quashed in July.