Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill - Second Reading

– in the House of Lords am 3:32 pm ar 13 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Lord Offord of Garvel:

Moved by Lord Offord of Garvel

That the Bill be now read a second time.

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

My Lords, I am pleased to present the Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill for Second Reading today. Noble Lords will have followed the passage of this historic Bill through the other place and will be well aware of its significance and the cross-party support it has received. This legislation will address one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation’s history. It will quash the convictions of those affected by the Post Office Horizon scandal in England and Wales, and, following government amendment in the other place, Northern Ireland. This will ensure that postmasters are not disadvantaged by the unique challenges of expediting legislation faced by the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Government will continue working closely with the Scottish Government to support their approach to addressing the scandal, ensuring that every postmaster who has been affected, irrespective of where they are in the United Kingdom, receives the justice they deserve. The financial redress scheme will be open to postmasters throughout the UK, regardless of where or how their conviction was quashed.

This Bill will clear the names of postmasters whose lives were destroyed because of the Horizon scandal—those who received wrongful convictions or cautions for offences, including false accounting, theft and fraud, because of the Post Office’s faulty IT system. The legislation cannot undo the damage caused by the Horizon scandal. However, it is a crucial step in restoring the good names of those affected and ensuring they can access fair and full redress.

This new legislation will quash all convictions which meet the following clear and objective conditions: that the case was prosecuted by the Post Office, the Crown Prosecution Service or Northern Ireland’s prosecuting authorities; that the alleged offence was committed between certain dates in 1996 and 2018; that the postmaster was convicted of theft, false accounting or similar offences listed in the Bill; that the convicted individual was working in a Post Office which was using the Horizon system; and that the alleged offence was carried out in connection with running the business of that Post Office or with the person’s work in that Post Office.

The Bill will not quash convictions that have already been considered by the Court of Appeal, as defined in the Bill. The safety of those convictions has been considered by judges in the senior appellate court. The Government’s view is that, given the constitutional sensitivities, extreme caution must be exercised over whether Parliament should interfere with these decisions. Convictions will be quashed automatically when the Bill receives Royal Assent, removing the need for people to apply to have their conviction overturned. This will ensure that those affected receive justice as soon as possible.

The Bill includes a duty on the Secretary of State—or in Northern Ireland, the Department of Justice—to take all reasonable steps to identify convictions that have been quashed. It also creates a duty to notify the original convicting court, so that records can be updated. Other records, such as police records, will be amended in response. Similarly, the Bill makes provision for records of cautions relating to this scandal to be deleted.

I am well aware that the approach we are taking in the Bill is novel. In the Bill, we are using legislation to fulfil a function that in normal circumstances is rightly reserved to the independent judiciary. I am equally aware that these are not normal circumstances. Given the number of postmasters involved, the passage of time since the original conviction, the loss of evidence over that time, and the loss of trust in the system—meaning that many affected simply will not come forward to appeal—it is right that the state provides an exceptional response. Postmasters have suffered for too long, and we must end their fight for justice as swiftly as possible.

However, it is vital to make two points clear to your Lordships’ House. First, the Government’s position is that it will be Parliament and not the Government that is overturning the convictions: there will be no intrusion by the Executive into the proper role of the judiciary. Secondly, we have been clear throughout the passage of the Bill that this legislation does not set any kind of precedent for the future. It is also important to be unambiguous that the passage of the Bill is in no way a reflection on the courts or the judiciary, which have dealt swiftly with the cases before them.

Upon Royal Assent, this legislation will quash all convictions in its scope with immediate effect, as a matter of law. This means that victims will not have to take any action to receive exoneration. It also means that this unprecedented provision expires once it has done its job on the day of Royal Assent. This supports the Government’s aim that the Bill should not be seen as a precedent for Parliament’s acting outside its usual constitutional role. The Government will take all reasonable steps to notify the relevant individuals and direct them to the route for applying for financial redress. Further details of this process will be set out in due course. Importantly, there will also be a process for anyone to come forward where they believe their convictions meet the criteria. If they meet the criteria in the Bill, their records will be amended to reflect the quashed conviction in the same way.

Turning to financial redress, this new legislation will be followed by a rapid route to financial redress, on a similar basis to the existing redress arrangements for those with overturned convictions currently administered by the Post Office. However, the Government, rather than the Post Office, will be responsible for the delivery of the scheme for those whose convictions are overturned by the Bill. Final decisions will be made by independent panels or individuals, where they cannot be agreed with the postmaster.

We do not need provisions in the Bill to deliver that scheme; the legal basis on which redress is made is already in place. We place great importance on ensuring that this redress is delivered promptly. Information about redress will be provided to each individual alongside the notification that their conviction has been overturned. Each exonerated postmaster will have the choice between accepting a fixed offer of £600,000, which will be paid rapidly, or having their claim individually assessed. This new scheme will join the three schemes already being run by the Post Office and my department. In total, over £200 million has already been paid to over 2,800 claimants. Some 72% of claims received have been settled, but the Government continue to strive to accelerate matters. Ministers are advised on these issues by the Horizon Compensation Advisory Board. We are very grateful to the board’s members, notably the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, in his usual place, who has done so much to drive the resolution of this scandal.

In summing up, this Bill amounts to an exceptional response to a scandal which is wholly exceptional in nature. It is a scandal that has shaken the nation’s faith in the core principles of fairness and equity that underpin our legal system. We recognise the constitutional sensitivity and unprecedented nature of this legislation, but we believe that it is essential for us to rise to the scale of the challenge. The hundreds of postmasters caught up in this scandal deserve nothing less. Of course, no amount of legislation can fully restore what the Post Office so cruelly took from them, but I hope this Bill at least begins to offer the closure and justice for which postmasters have so bravely campaigned over so many years. I hope that it affords them the ability to rebuild their lives. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Browne of Ladyton Lord Browne of Ladyton Llafur 3:41, 13 Mai 2024

My Lords, I thank the Minister for setting out the provisions of this very important legislation in such plain language. I think that most, if not all, of your Lordships understand what this Bill sets out to do. I feel honoured to be the first speaker from these Benches to welcome this Bill, particularly when I see who the next but one speaker in your Lordships’ debate is; my admiration for the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom, goes back to even before his work on Horizon. I admire him greatly for what he has done, and he is deserving of the recognition of that work that he and my right honourable friend Kevan Jones did for years in trying to get proper redress for this egregious miscarriage of justice.

There is no doubt that the Post Office Horizon scandal is, if not the worst, one of the worst miscarriages of justice in British history. I think I remember that, in January, when the Prime Minister made a public statement that this Bill would come before Parliament, he described it as the worst miscarriage of justice in British history. I am inclined to agree with him: I do not always, but in this case I think I do. As we know, it robbed many people of their good character, their livelihood, their liberty and, in some cases, their life. Because of the nature of the damage that was done to the sub-postmasters, it has been carried down and will be carried down in generations of their families; it has influenced very badly the families of these great public servants. It caused unimaginable pain and suffering, which can never be fully compensated or fully alleviated.

To make matters worse, the fight for justice for the sub-postmasters has become bogged down in a great many delays and barriers, and some of those affected, tragically, as I have already alluded to, have passed away before having the chance to see the justice they deserve. What we do know is that this Bill will free hundreds of innocent people of their wrongful convictions. It will not restore their character, because that can never properly be fully restored, but it will give them an opportunity to try to put it behind them. Importantly, it facilitates the opportunity to make much-needed progress in otherwise righting the wrongs. Those are the reasons given by my honourable friend Jonathan Reynolds in the other place, and they are why Labour will give this Bill our full support.

However, not only must the convictions be overturned but, thereafter, compensation must be delivered at pace. Justice and accountability must follow the conclusions and recommendations of the ongoing independent public inquiry.

I was struck by the words of Sir Robert Buckland at Second Reading in the other place. On more than one occasion in debates and questions on these issues, he has hit the nail on the head. In his first intervention, he said that

“it is important that we emphasise the wholly exceptional nature of this legislation, but we are dealing with wholly exceptional circumstances”— which were described very clearly by the Minister. I also agree with his emphasis that we have to look again at our evidential

“presumptions about machines and what they produce when it comes to criminal litigation

This is unfinished work that should be done in lockstep with the work that is being done to try to resolve the challenges of Horizon.

I wish to pause for a moment from talking about the Bill itself to recognise the work of the many people who have brought us to this landmark occasion. The postmasters themselves demand a great deal of credit for that. I cannot imagine what it must have been like for people who had been so badly damaged to pick themselves up and fight over tens of years, as some of them have, to get justice not just for themselves but for their colleagues. They deserve the greatest amount of credit.

I have already referred to the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, but the Horizon Compensation Advisory Board also requires a great deal of credit for getting us here. As I understand the chronology of how we got here in the last stages, its letter of December last year to the Minister explained in some detail just how difficult it was for anybody to get redress in the Court of Appeal. I think the statistics when the letter was written to the Lord Chancellor showed that there had been 900 prosecutions, but only 93 people had had their convictions overturned at that stage. I cannot work out what that meant and how long it was going to take, but I recently overheard somebody say that, at the pace that those convictions were being overturned, it was going to take the Appeal Court process 50 years.

For the reasons set out in the letter, the board told the Lord Chancellor that the only viable approach was to overturn all the Post Office-driven convictions. Remarkably, within a matter of days, Kevin Hollinrake, the Minister with responsibility for this, said he was taking legal advice on what could be done. By 10 January, the Prime Minister announced publicly that this Bill would be brought before Parliament. Anything would be fast compared with the alternative that was going through, but that was remarkably quick for a Government, because of the number of people who have to be satisfied, and I congratulate and thank all persons involved in getting us to where we are.

In many ways, this is a very unusual piece of legislation, but it is also unusual in this sense: I do not think anybody can make a speech saying that it has come to this House without having had the attention that it deserved in the House of Commons. I know the other place did it all in one day, but it did go over the Bill very carefully and Members deserve some credit for that. There is not much in it that we will need to look at carefully, although I did get an email from the Law Society—as I am sure did all Members who are on the speaking list—which goes on for about four pages. I have not had a chance to consider it, but the Law Society recommends some probing amendments to reinforce the idea that this is not a precedent. I do not think it needs to be reinforced, to be honest; I think enough Ministers have said enough about that at the Dispatch Box for people to establish that it is not a precedent.

However, I am a recovering lawyer, and I must say that, although this is not my Law Society, I am a bit disappointed that there was not a word in it about the number of lawyers involved in getting us to where we are. I will be in correspondence with it and will raise that point. I will ask it whether at some point it might want to say something about the number of lawyers who must have been involved in helping to create this system that has got us to where we are.

Noble Lords will be pleased to hear that I do not intend to speak for much longer, but I want to make two points, which I think we should consider. First, I fear that the issue of extending the Bill to cover Scotland will come up again somewhere in our debates. The Justice Minister in the Scottish Government, the former First Minister Humza Yousaf, and any number of SNP Members in the other House have used some quite critical language about the Government and this Parliament for not extending the Bill to Scotland. The simple answer to that is to remind them that justice is a devolved matter in Scotland. They usually defend devolved matters quite strongly.

My second point is regarding the Lord Advocate—a woman I know well and who is a very good lawyer. For those noble Lords who do not know what the Lord Advocate does—this is important in terms of their requests that the Bill be extended to Scotland—she is, among many other things, the principal legal adviser to the Scottish Government. She is also the head of the system for investigation and prosecution of crime in Scotland. Essentially, she is a public prosecutor, and she spoke to the Scottish Parliament at length about the Horizon cases. She made a statement there on 16 January 2024. I will not read it all to your Lordships because it is four to five pages long, but the important part of it is that, as the Scottish Government’s legal adviser and head of the prosecution service, and having spelled out the circumstances of the Horizon cases as far as they apply to Scotland, she said:

“It is important to recognise that in Scotland, there is an established route of appeal in circumstances such as this. That route involves the SCCRC”— the equivalent of the committee in England and Wales that looks at cases before sending them back to the Appeal Court—

“considering cases in the first instance prior to referring appropriate cases to the Court of Appeal. This is an important process because not every case involving Horizon evidence will be a miscarriage of justice and each case must be considered carefully and with regard to the law. It is also important to recognise the important and established constitutional role of our Appeal Court in Scotland and that due process must be followed”.

That is the Scottish Government’s lawyer’s position. She is part of the Government. That is how it should be done.

There is another way it could be done in Scotland. The Lord Advocate could, as a prosecutor, say to the procurators fiscal and to the Crown Office, “Look at these cases, tell us whether they can be sustained on appeal and, if they can’t, just take them to the Appeal Court and say that you no longer stand by these convictions”. There is a very simple way—in my view, and this is a view held by many lawyers in Scotland—for the devolved Administration in Scotland to get these cases dealt with through the existing prosecutorial system.

I have a final point I would like to put to the Minister. Why do we persist in excluding from this Bill those who have had their convictions held up on appeal? There is no doubt that the public inquiry has revealed considerable further evidence since those appeals were refused. There is no question that if any of those cases involve Horizon-generated evidence, they should be given the same consideration as the cases that have been prosecuted to conviction but not appealed. Every single witness who gave evidence to the Justice Committee in the other place when it was considering the Bill said that that should be the case. I urge the Government to reconsider that issue.

I have nothing further to say. I will participate in further debates but will continue to support the Bill.

Photo of Lord Burnett of Maldon Lord Burnett of Maldon Non-affiliated 3:55, 13 Mai 2024

My Lords, the wrongful conviction of sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses as a result of prosecutorial misbehaviour has caused personal harm—indeed, tragedy—and a national scandal. Wrongful convictions must be quashed, and a bespoke process is necessary to accelerate justice. But the legislative solution His Majesty’s Government have chosen was described in a Written Statement in February by the Minister, Kevin Hollinrake, as raising “constitutional sensitivity” and being “unprecedented” in nature. The constitutional sensitivity arises from the fact that Parliament does not quash convictions; that is a matter for the courts. What the Bill proposes is indeed unprecedented since the constitutional settlement that followed the Glorious Revolution at the end of the 17th century.

The Lord Chancellor, in his recent appearance before the Constitution Committee, said:

“Anybody who cares about the system has misgivings”.

Indeed they do. In the House of Commons, Sir Robert Neill said:

“Frankly, it is most undesirable that we should ever go down that route”.—[Official Report, Commons, 13/3/24; col. 317.]

The Minister responded by saying:

“We agree that this is unprecedented and undesirable, but we believe it is the least worst option”.—[Official Report, Commons, 13/3/24; col. 317.]

I endorse the Government’s sentiment that this legislative proposal is undesirable, but not that it is the least worst option. An alternative scheme, which would have kept within the well-understood constitutional boundaries that separate the roles of Executive, Parliament and the judiciary, was considered but rejected by the Government. I declare an interest in having sketched out such a scheme in early February; I will identify its key features in a few moments.

First, it might be useful to bring together some of the facts. The Bill seeks to capture 950 or more convictions over a period of a little more than 20 years. The helpful Library briefing note tells us that the Post Office has identified 730 individuals it prosecuted where evidence from Horizon may have been used. The balance was prosecuted by the prosecuting authorities in England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. I shall focus on England and Wales, which accounts for most of that total. Those cases were pursued in the magistrates’ court as summary offences, and in the Crown Court on indictment—about half in each court. In answer to a question on Radio 4 on 26 March, the Lady Chief Justice explained that in over 90% of cases the defendants had pleaded guilty.

The High Court judgments in civil proceedings before Mr Justice Fraser in Bates v Post Office at the end of 2019 exposed the flaws in the Horizon system; the first tranche of appeals in the Court of Appeal Criminal Division in 2021 revealed more. The evidence heard by the public inquiry has raised further questions about non-disclosure, the suppression of evidence and worse, and so the original grounds of appeal to the Court of Appeal are now much expanded.

More than 100 appeals have been allowed in England and Wales—about three-quarters in the Court of Appeal on appeal from the Crown Court and about one-quarter in appeals from the magistrates’ court to the Crown Court sitting in its appellate capacity. Some have involved appeals brought out of time by the convicted defendants themselves; others are references by the Criminal Cases Review Commission. A few appeals have been dismissed by the Court of Appeal because the court concluded that the conviction was safe. That is the statutory test. An appeal to the Court of Appeal will be allowed only if the conviction is unsafe. By contrast, an appeal from the magistrates’ court is a complete rehearing. If the prosecution does not call evidence, the appeal will be allowed. No appeal to the Crown Court from the magistrates’ court has been contested by the prosecution.

Both the Post Office and the Criminal Cases Review Commission have contacted all those they can identify to help get their cases back to the appeal courts. The response has been disappointingly poor. Many may just have had enough. That has raised the question of what to do. The Government’s answer is this Bill, but what of the alternative? The outline was simple: legislate to confer power on the Secretary of State to refer cases to the relevant appeal court if she considers that the conviction may be unsafe—that could include cases that have already gone through the courts—and give the Court of Appeal Criminal Division the powers of the Crown Court sitting in its appellate capacity, so all appeals could be dealt with in one place.

The burden on an appellant from the Crown Court to the Court of Appeal is to demonstrate that the conviction is unsafe. The reality is that if an appeal of this sort were not contested in the Court of Appeal, the appeal would be allowed. But any doubt about that could be resolved by reversing that burden with a statutory presumption that the conviction is unsafe. The prosecution would have to rebut it positively to sustain the conviction. The appellants would need to do no more than identify the grounds on which they rely, which are now almost pro forma. To cater for the cases where a defendant has died or lacks capacity, the Attorney-General could be given a representative role. In this scenario, the Secretary of State would be able to inform all those whose cases she intended to refer. Representation could be lined up. The cases would go thought the courts en bloc and be dealt with swiftly.

What, then, of the objections? At their heart is the proposition that many of those affected will not initiate proceedings. The outline scheme caters for that. Next, it is suggested in the Explanatory Notes that an appeal

“relies on there being sufficient evidence that the conviction is unsafe and in many cases that evidence no longer exists”.

The reversal of the burden in the Court of Appeal caters for that and, in any event, the point does not run for appeals from the magistrates’ court. I have also heard it suggested that the courts could not deal with these cases quickly. That has been flatly contradicted in public by the Lady Chief Justice and is confounded by the speed at which appeals are being dealt with at the moment.

All schemes have rough edges but, for the sake of conforming to accepted constitutional norms, a scheme of the nature I have outlined would—with respect to the Minister—be preferable. It would avoid the Executive inviting Parliament to do something about which Ministers themselves have said they have “misgivings” on constitutional grounds and have described as “undesirable”.

It would also avoid one of the anomalies of the Bill: that there is no scope to exclude convictions which are sound. As Sir Robert Neill has pointed out, the Bill sets out to quash convictions

“even if Horizon evidence did not form part of the prosecution”.

That is right. Condition E is simply

“that, at the time of the alleged offence, the Horizon system was being used for the purposes of the post office business”— not that it was being used by the defendant, nor that it was material to the conviction, but simply that it was there. There may be no Horizon evidence at all in many cases that this Bill would quash. This Bill would quash convictions not affected by the Horizon scandal. It might be thought that that matters not only for constitutional reasons, but because of the Government’s plan, which the Minister explained, to give anyone whose conviction is quashed by this legislation at least £600,000.

It may be that this Bill can be improved by amendment, but its flaws are fundamental. It seeks to achieve a desirable outcome by a novel and unconstitutional route when a satisfactory alternative is available. It will provide food for academic debate and will long feature in university courses on the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and the separation of powers. The repeated suggestions from the Government and the Opposition that it provides no precedent are perhaps the clearest indication that its proponents know that it is wrong in principle to ask Parliament to quash convictions. However, it does provide a precedent, as no future Parliament can be bound by what is said in connection with this Bill. Whether any politicians in the future will try to use it as a precedent, we shall have to wait to see.

Photo of Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom Ceidwadwyr 4:07, 13 Mai 2024

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Horizon Compensation Advisory Board, although I think it has now been renamed the Horizon redress advisory board. It is a genuine honour to be able to follow a speech such as that from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett. I am grateful for what he said and for the immense amount of work that he has put into this most terrible of problems. I want to comment on some of the points that he made during his remarks, but I am grateful to him.

In the face of one of the most widespread injustices in this country—we all know the background—we needed to do something. This Bill is the Government’s answer, and I welcome it. I am extremely grateful to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, my noble friend the Minister in this House and the Post Office Minister in another place, Kevin Hollinrake, for their astonishingly fast appreciation of the need for urgent, dramatic action and for following it through in this way. I am also grateful to my right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor for having some really difficult discussions, as we have just heard, with the judges about this.

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett, has told us, the Bill could have gone two ways: it could have gone his way, or the way that it has. The argument in favour of involving the judges, based on the separation of powers, has been carefully set out by the noble and learned Lord. It is an uncomfortable thing—some would put it much stronger—to have the legislature overturning decisions made by the judiciary, because that could form a constitutional precedent, and I accept that it does form a constitutional precedent, which would take us in the direction of totalitarianism.

I will not express a preference between the suggestion of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett, and the Government’s suggestion in this legislation, because this is the Bill that we have, and I am thankful for it. I understand—of course I do—the constitutional difficulty of Parliament overturning judicial decisions: I practised as a barrister, my wife is a judge and I value the separation of powers. But I also value timely justice and the early reversal of some of the greatest unfairnesses that this country has ever seen. I want to set out the arguments against involving the judges, if only for the record. I accept that the points made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett, deal with many of the points that I will make, but, as I said—and as I know he accepts—we have the Bill that we have.

The Fraser judgments in Alan Bates’s group litigation came out in 2019. The clear consequence of those judgments was that many hundreds of convictions were unsafe. We do not know exactly how many—which is odd—but it was in the region of 1,000. Yet, by the beginning of this year, only a few more than 100 sub-postmasters had even applied to have their convictions overturned. There were several reasons for this. The first and the most important was that too many sub-postmasters wanted nothing whatever to do with a court system that had, in their view, treated them so badly. They had been utterly traumatised and wanted to put the whole ghastly experience behind them. They were simply not applying to have their convictions overturned. They wanted no contact with officials, lawyers, politicians, journalists or anybody else at all, for understandable reasons. Yet appeals rely on the appellant applying, and the current system has no procedure for mass appeals brought by the state itself. I did not quite get to the bottom of what the noble and learned Lord suggested to redress that, but it would have probably been workable. Nevertheless, we have the Bill that we have.

The second reason for not involving the courts was that, in many cases, there is no evidence. In some cases, the Post Office will have taken the evidence away from the sub-postmasters and destroyed it; in other cases, the sub-postmaster himself or herself will have given up and destroyed it; and in yet more cases, the sub-postmaster will have died. To overturn a conviction on the basis that it is unsafe, you need to establish with evidence that it is unsafe. I approve of the suggestion of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett, of a presumption of unsafety, but we have the Bill that we have.

The third reason was that appealing against convictions must be done through several different stages. Appeals go to the Post Office, then to the Criminal Cases Review Commission and then to the court at different levels, with the application of different tests, sometimes leading to different outcomes, which is strange in itself. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett, touched on that.

The fourth reason was that the Court of Appeal overturned only those convictions for which Horizon computer evidence was essential to the prosecution. That was an arguable limitation—although, in my personal view, wrong and unfair—in the earlier stages of the process. However, as the public inquiry has uncovered new facts about the behaviour of the Post Office, I suggest that it is a limitation that is no longer tenable. I tread carefully here because the inquiry has yet to report, but it seems that the Post Office investigators, incentivised as they were to recover money rather than to achieve justice, and the Post Office lawyers, intent on concealing evidence, tainted all the evidence produced by the Post Office in any trial.

The deaths of many of the sub-postmasters makes me remind your Lordships that this is urgent. We have to get on with it, and this Bill does that. The Bill quashes certain convictions and, by doing so, it gives rise to redress being paid to hundreds of sub-postmasters. The Bill does not itself deal with that redress. When people say that only a small proportion of sub-postmasters have received redress, they are right, but that will rapidly change with the passage of this Bill. It is an essential step to getting us to where the country wants us to be.

The question of which convictions are to be quashed is a difficult one, but nothing about this saga is easy. The Bill quashes convictions in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but not in Scotland. I listened with interest to the suggestion from the noble Lord, Lord Browne, as to how the procurator fiscal could operate in Scotland. The Scottish Government are legislating to achieve something similar; I hope that that can be looked at carefully in Committee.

The quashed convictions under this Bill have to have been prosecuted by the Post Office or the CPS, or by the Northern Ireland authorities, but those prosecuted by the Department for Work and Pensions, for example, are not included. This too will need careful consideration in Committee. Certainly, the DWP will need to give very careful thought to the extent to which it relied on Post Office evidence and investigations, and to consider whether the convictions that it secured were any more safe than those secured by the Post Office and the CPS. Should we consider perhaps in Committee widening the scope of the Bill, so that those convictions too are overturned? I have to say that I do not know. I should very much like to hear why the Government consider that DWP convictions are safe when CPS convictions are not. I should also like to hear what the DWP is doing to re-examine its convictions to ensure that it has not relied upon tainted Post Office evidence and investigations.

Another category of convictions not quashed by this Bill is those that have already been considered by the Court of Appeal. I listened carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Browne, said about this, and I agree with what he said. There are 13 of these cases. I am very uncomfortable indeed about this, for the following reason. The Bill overturns many hundreds of convictions. The Government accept, as they should, that some of the convictions overturned will in fact have been of sub-postmasters who were guilty of a crime. That is the price that we pay for the exoneration of the innocent. Those who have been in front of the Court of Appeal, in exactly the same way as those sub-postmasters who have been in front of other courts, may or may not be guilty. I do not think it is acceptable to tell them that they can go back to the Court of Appeal if there is new evidence, because other sub-postmasters are not being required to provide individual evidence of their innocence—a reversal of the burden of proof. These 13 sub-postmasters are being punished for their efficiency and courage in being early in taking their convictions to the Court of Appeal.

There is, of course, one new bit of evidence which the Court of Appeal did not consider in relation to these 13 cases: that all the sub-postmasters, other than these 13, are about to be exonerated. It stretches credulity to believe that the Court of Appeal would say that, out of all the hundreds of convicted sub-postmasters, it would choose for these 13 to remain convicted. Can it be fair that they should be the only sub-postmasters in the country to be left with convictions? I cannot see that the Court of Appeal would welcome a new application from them, because how could it consider anything other than the facts of these individual cases? We shall need to consider this very carefully in Committee.

The Government are to be congratulated on their speed and courage in bringing the Bill to us, but I first became involved in this matter in 2009 and Alan Bates did so in 2003. “Speed” is obviously a relative term. Let us get on with it.

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Llafur 4:21, 13 Mai 2024

My Lords, the heroes of this story are Alan Bates and the sub-postmasters. Having been wrongly convicted, and in order to establish their innocence, they brought a piece of incredibly expensive civil litigation. This was fought all the way by the Post Office. As Sir Wyn Williams will tell us, there are signs that it deliberately suppressed evidence even then. Alan Bates won in front of a judge in the civil courts. That began the exoneration process.

As everyone else in the House has done, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom, and Mr Kevan Jones. They pursued a terribly unfashionable cause for literally decades, and never gave up on it when the whole establishment was against them, including all the senior Post Office executives and its board, senior civil servants, and Ministers who did not pay enough attention. There was absolutely nothing in it for them, but they persisted. They make one admire politicians and they shame most of the rest of us.

I welcome and support the Bill. I actively support the solution adopted by the Government. I do not support the solution proposed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett of Maldon. I say that with enormous trepidation because he is someone whom I greatly admire. His judgment is good. He took the courts through the pandemic, making good legal and wider judgments throughout. With the greatest respect to him, I think he is wrong in relation to this case.

The miscarriages of justice span a period of 22 years. The number of people wrongly convicted of serious offences and who had their lives comprehensively ruined is not known. Maybe it was 700, maybe 900. The number of people who went to jail is not known. Maybe it was 230, maybe more. The period of time in which the miscarriages lasted, the number of people affected and the lack of reliable information is quite unprecedented. The destruction of the lives and livelihoods of the sub-postmasters and their families is unspeakable. The responsibility for this lies first and foremost with the Post Office, which pursued and prosecuted them on a false basis, and Fujitsu, which knew the truth and colluded in its suppression.

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett of Maldon, has said, a significant number—I do not know how many; I am not sure about that figure of 90%—of the convictions were on guilty pleas, often to a charge of false accounting.. Do not be comforted by that. No doubt those guilty pleas were obtained by a combination of what lawyers would have advised the defendants was the irrefutable evidence of the Horizon system. It was irrefutable not because of some principle of law but because there was simply no evidence to undermine that system—because the Post Office had suppressed such evidence. There was also the prospect of the Post Office not pursuing more serious charges if they pleaded guilty to the lesser charge—as it was presented—of false accounting.

The Bill addresses only one aspect of the scandal: how to extinguish the wrongful convictions. In many of the cases, as everyone who has spoken in this debate has identified, much of the underlying written and other material has been lost, partly because the Post Office has destroyed it and partly because the defendants want nothing more to do with what was a terrible period in their lives.

As far as the process of appealing successfully against the convictions is concerned, there have been an unspecified number of appeals against conviction in magistrates’ courts, which have generally been heard in Southwark Crown Court. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett of Maldon, has said, in all those appeals the Post Office called no evidence and in consequence the appeals, being by way of rehearing, were automatically allowed.

In relation to the appeals from the Crown Court, up to the end of January 106 appeals were completed in the Court of Appeal, of which 70 were allowed, 26 were withdrawn by the appellant sub-postmaster upon sight of the Post Office’s response, and seven were dismissed. I appreciate that that leaves three cases unaccounted for, which I cannot explain but which is symptomatic of the lack of reliable information about the scale and extent of the problem. The Court of Appeal, as the noble and learned Lord said, accepted the unreliability of the Horizon system. Other reasons have come to light, as he said, that should justify appeals, including and in particular the withholding of exonerating material by the Post Office in the prosecutions.

As the noble and learned Lord said, there are already well-established processes for setting aside wrongful convictions in our system. His proposal is that we would let the existing processes take their course with modifications, some of them no doubt required by primary legislation. In my view, that has a number of problems. First, it would not be possible to identify all the cases, simply because there are not the records. Many innocent sub-postmasters would not connect with the process, whether or not they wanted to, and as a result would not be exonerated.

Secondly, it would take a long time. Some 50% at least of the English cases would have to be dealt with in the Court of Appeal. I have absolutely no doubt that the Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal would do its bit as quickly as reasonably possible, but time would be required to identify the cases, to prepare the appeal material, to undertake some form of investigation on the part of the prosecution, and then to list those appeals.

Thirdly, as the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom, said, a significant number of sub-postmasters would refuse to participate because of their lack of faith in the system. The current system, as everyone has said, does not allow for an unwilling defendant, unless they lack capacity, to have their case referred to the Court of Appeal against their wishes.

Fourthly, it will be for the Post Office—or the Crown Prosecution Service if it replaces the Post Office as the prosecuting authority—to determine which of the appeals to contest. The evidence that Sir Wyn Williams is hearing in the inquiry suggests that little faith can be placed in the Post Office properly performing any duty placed on it in connection with Horizon. No doubt the obligations of the prosecutor can be passed to the Crown Prosecution Service, at least in England, but that would create yet further delay.

As the noble and learned Lord has said, the Lord Chancellor could be given power to refer the cases of unwilling postmasters to the Court of Appeal. There could be a presumption that the defendant was innocent unless the prosecution could actively convince the Court that the convictions were safe. None of that would obviate the need for investigation within, if not by, the prosecution at a time when the material is limited, and it would not prevent some appeals being resisted on the basis of which documents had survived. The Court of Appeal could no doubt hear cases en bloc of, say, 50 or 60 cases at a time and list them within weeks of the court being told they were ready.

All that is possible, but it would be bending our justice system out of its normal shape. Our justice system prides itself, rightly, on providing a fair and reliable system of adjudication, where above everything it decides cases on the evidence before it in accordance with settled principles of law. The courts have the key role of deciding disputes between private individuals and between the state and private individuals, without fear, favour or interference of any sort—particularly from the state. As the Executive control the legislature in our system, they can interfere with court processes by legislation. If unfavourable court decisions were overturned by legislation, the rule of law would be undermined—not where the legislation was to change the law, but where it was to overturn an inconvenient finding of fact. That is the argument of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett.

There are three alternatives. First, you could legislate to exonerate in a Bill like this. Secondly, you could use a royal pardon. Thirdly, you could adapt the current system of appeals to allow for mass exoneration by the courts. A royal pardon is inappropriate. It involves pardoning somebody for committing a crime, maybe because modern practice would not regard the act a crime. The sub-postmasters did not commit crimes. They should not have pardons; they should have exoneration.

Of the other two routes, I favour legislation like this, because it best does justice, which is the best protection for the rule of law. It is no criticism of the courts. It involves neither a slur on the judges nor the setting of a precedent which undermines the rule of law to say that the exceptional facts of this case cry out for legislation and not appeals.

This legislation identifies the group—sub-postmasters convicted in connection with their Post Office work while the Horizon system operated—and automatically and immediately exonerates them. A court process will take time. It will be much quicker than normal, but for many it will take years and not months. The court process will miss people because of the bad record keeping. If it is exoneration by court, when those missed emerge, as many will, they will not have been exonerated. Then they will have to go through a court process, when all the urgency has gone, to petition for acquittal.

The court process will produce anomalies and inconsistencies, bred very often by the uneven loss of documents and the unreliability of the Post Office. For those postmasters challenged to establish their innocence, wherever the burden lies in the court process, it is difficult to imagine that they would have faith in the conduct of such a prosecution. The legislature should take responsibility for putting this mess right, and not the courts.

What precedent does this Bill set? I completely accept what the noble and learned Lord said; it does set a precedent. It is a precedent that, where the court system, because of the exceptional nature of the miscarriage of justice, cannot effectively right the wrong, intervention by the legislature is appropriate. I cannot imagine this precedent ever being repeated. The Irish terrorist cases in the 1970s and 1980s demeaned and besmirched our court system, but they were put right by a process of appeals. The court system was able to remedy it, and to have intervened by legislation there would have been hugely undermining. The hallmarks of this exception are, first, the time it has lasted—24 years. Secondly, the need to use bulk hearings suggests that the courts cannot deal with it in a normal manner. Thirdly, justice must come soon. Fourthly, only legislation provides consistency and clarity.

Separation of powers is vital to the rule of law. The courts must be copper-bottomed, protected from interference by the legislature and the Executive. In a constitution based on parliamentary sovereignty, that separation also involves Parliament and the Executive providing necessary support for the courts in funding and in judicial appointments. It involves support in the face of public pressure, not legislating in any way that undermines the rule of law, and—very exceptionally—legislating where justice cannot be done without it.

This legislation is supportive and not undermining, so I support it in principle. I have a number of points on the detail: first is the decision to exclude from exoneration those cases which have already been dealt with by the Court of Appeal. I am strongly against that; I support the noble Lords, Lord Arbuthnot and Lord Browne, in saying that everybody should be exonerated. The fact that someone has got to the Court of Appeal is not a reason for not exonerating them. Those postmasters who got to the Court of Appeal almost certainly had the strongest cases because they got through; they should not be left out in the cold.

Secondly, I would be interested to hear from the Minister about the position in Scotland. If the Scottish Parliament is willing for one Bill to do it, it should be done by one Bill. Thirdly, I would like to hear why the DWP cases are being separated from everyone else. Maybe this House could contribute to this Bill by dealing with the Court of Appeal cases and the DWP cases and streamlining the position with Scotland.

Photo of The Bishop of Manchester The Bishop of Manchester Bishop 4:36, 13 Mai 2024

My Lords, I admit to being a little nervous as a non-lawyer entering a debate that has already heard from so many distinguished minds. Some may think that they have heard enough from the lawyers and do not need to hear from me.

I am grateful to the Minister for introducing the Bill. I concur with other noble Lords in hoping that it will be swiftly passed into law. The many victims of this long-running scandal and injustice must now benefit without further undue delay. As the noble Lord said in opening this debate, Parliament is not the usual route by which we overturn wrongful convictions. I echo others today, as well as what I have said in debates on other matters, in believing that we need to tread very carefully when acting in ways that move us on to territory more normally occupied by the courts and the judiciary. That is particularly important in Britain, because we give such huge weight to precedent. The Minister has, I am pleased to note, assured us that this Bill should not be considered a setting of precedent, and others have concurred. However, I think that that aspect of what we are doing merits, albeit briefly, deeper consideration. What one Government do today, no matter how warily, may be drawn on by future Governments in ways that stretch the original intentions well beyond breaking point. Our best defence against that, perhaps our only defence, is to set down very clear principles, not merely general assertions, at the outset.

Things happen very differently in different places. American presidents have regularly pardoned political cronies who have committed crimes in their support. I doubt whether many of us in your Lordships’ House would be surprised if a Republican victory later this year resulted in mass pardons, even for convicted insurrectionists. Closer to home, it is not beyond imagination that far-right movements in Europe, notorious for combining political organisation with street violence, might, should they gain a say in government, seek to overthrow their criminal associates’ convictions. Let me pick a cause closer to my own heart: let us suppose a future coalition Government here, needing the support of a minority party more to the left, were told that the price to pay included quashing the convictions of environmental protesters.

The question is how we in Britain safeguard the rule of law for the long term, while ensuring that the Post Office victims are speedily exonerated. Let me briefly offer four simple criteria; I hope that in responding to the debate the Minister will indicate whether he agrees, or has better ones to propose. I am not at all precious about my suggestions, but I am precious about respecting the role and political independence of our judges and courts. I believe that this is how we can best avoid future claims of precedent.

First, evidence has emerged since those original convictions that sets out so clearly the failings of the Horizon software that had that information, which was known within the Post Office and to Fujitsu at the time, been made available to the defence, it is unimaginable that any jury would have convicted. Indeed, it is doubtful whether any judge would have allowed a case to proceed that far. For me, this is the most compelling argument for the course of action we are taking today. Our justice system is based solidly on evidence, and where fresh and powerful evidence emerges, we need to be able to take it into account in a timely and effective way.

Secondly, I note the arguments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett of Maldon, who reminded us that, unless cases are looked at individually, there is a risk that someone who had stolen money might now be let off. However, the principle that it is better that a guilty person go free than an innocent one be convicted lies at the root of our British justice system. It is enshrined in the requirement that guilt be proven beyond reasonable doubt—yet it goes back much further, to the Book of Genesis and a conversation between Lot and God over the fate of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. To save time, I will leave noble Lords to look that up for themselves.

Thirdly and importantly, we are well clear of partisan political territory here. Although I know that we in this House and the other place can proceed to legislate on a simple majority, were any major grouping in your Lordships’ House to feel that the Bill contained political bias in any direction, it would not be safe for us to proceed.

Finally, as so many noble Lords have said, we are dealing with such a large number of convictions that handling them in any other way would tie up the court system and delay justice for the Post Office victims and even for others in unconnected cases, who could not get their matters to court. Hence it is that combination—the compelling new evidence, the presumption of innocence, the political neutrality and the sheer number of cases—that allows me to offer my support to the Bill.

I look forward to hearing what other criteria noble Lords adduce in favour of its passing—some have already done so—and I look forward to the response of the Front Benches in their winding-up speeches.

Photo of Lord Sandhurst Lord Sandhurst Ceidwadwyr 4:41, 13 Mai 2024

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on moving swiftly with this process. This saga has dragged on for 20 years. A trusted public body has been guilty of the most appalling want of care, and others might say much worse. I leave that to the judgment and observations of Sir Wyn Williams’ inquiry and of my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom, without whose fantastic work we would not be here today.

It is evident now—we must remember this—that individuals pleaded guilty out of fear when offered charges of a lower gravity that offered the chance to avoid imprisonment. Fear in the face of overwhelming but fatally flawed evidence is what induced those pleas. Since then, the courts have in many cases, notwithstanding those guilty pleas, overturned those convictions. That highlights where we are. It is an exceptional and appalling situation, and anyone who has appeared in the Crown Court, as I used to in the first 10 years of my practice, will know what it is like when you say to someone, “Come on, the evidence is overwhelming”. Just occasionally, they do not plead guilty and, very occasionally, you get an acquittal. That is where we are; that is really important.

The Secretary of State for Justice and his Ministers have rightly seen it as a priority to go as far and as fast as they can to close this down, to bring justice to these sub-postmasters who have suffered so grievously. Speaking as a lawyer—but not so distinguished a lawyer as some who have spoken today—I have great admiration for our judges and for legal process. I thought hard about whether this statutory approach is right. Like others, I have had my misgivings, but I have come to the view that it is undoubtedly the right course. In saying this, I have the greatest respect for, and fully understand, the serious and powerful reasons for concern advanced by the former Lord Chief Justice, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett. We are right to be concerned about interference by Parliament with the courts. It must not happen. We have lived many happy years, relatively, since the Bill of Rights, and we must continue to do so. These two pillars of our constitution must remain separate, and we cannot interfere with the courts.

While I say that, we have to accept what has happened here. I am sure the courts could move fast, but the process of renewed appeals would none the less be complex. It would take longer than the process we are embarking on here. Quite possibly, some of the deserving sub-postmasters would die before their names were cleared. A pardon does not overturn a conviction; the conviction is still there. Innocent individuals will fall through the cracks if left to ordinary process. Some will simply not come forward; they have had enough of the courts and legal process and are exhausted. Understandably, they do not want to engage. We have to do everything we can to help them, and we cannot leave others wrongly convicted in these cases. It is clear that the Post Office’s own records relating to these prosecutions are lacking, and it has the potential to drag on however hard the judges push, so the knot must be cut. In this sense, I am happy to adopt what has been said by Dr Robert Craig, a lecturer in law at the University of Bristol. He has expressed the clear view that the legislation is justified and necessary. The whole process, he says, has been

“an affront to the conscience of the court”.

I could not put it better myself.

Looking forward, can I suggest a practical step—and I have another to suggest later—that does not require primary legislation? I suggest that it is important that, once the process is set in chain by this Bill when it becomes statute, there is established a website where any individual who wishes to know if they have in fact been cleared by the process or are eligible to be cleared but have not yet heard should be able to log on and request that they be informed where they stand and notify the powers that be of their interest. Publicity must be given to the existence of what is, in effect, a central clearing house, to make certain that people whose records may be in a brown folder somewhere are not left unhelped.

We know that, in the landmark case of Hamilton in 2021, the Court of Appeal quashed the convictions of 39 sub-postmasters and found their conviction by the Post Office to be an “abuse of process” and an “affront to justice”. The main issue in those appeals, we know, was the reliability of Horizon. Notwithstanding this, since that decision, 13 cases have been back to the Court of Appeal and have been held to have been safe convictions. Those are the category in Clause 3 who will stand; their convictions will not be quashed. My noble friend Lord Arbuthnot has expressed profound concerns, which I understand, about this. But the Government are in something of a dilemma here, and I understand where that starts.

None the less, Hamilton was in 2021. Since then, much more evidence has come out. Sir Wyn Williams will report within the next year. It is undoubtedly the case that much evidence will have come to light, which may cast a different light on those 13 convictions. If that is so, of course those persons can apply to the Criminal Cases Review Commission and ask for their appeals to be reopened. I suggest a simple, practical step. In those 13 cases, the Ministry of Justice should, in the near future when this Bill is passed, personally inform those 13 individuals that they will not be acquitted under the Bill and are in a different category but that the inquiry may well have produced new material to justify reopening it. For that purpose, they should be provided with a reasonable sum to enable them to consult solicitors and review the dismissal of their appeal in light of any fresh evidence that the inquiry or other investigations since 2021 may have brought to light.

I invite the Government to put in train the two practical measures I have indicated: namely, a website to give access to verification for individuals that they are in fact among those who will stand acquitted as a result of this legislation; and a resource for the 13 who have been convicted and whose appeals have been dismissed since 2021. With that said, I commend this Bill and wish it a safe and swift passage.

Photo of Lord Sikka Lord Sikka Llafur 4:50, 13 Mai 2024

My Lords, I welcome this Bill, as it enables some postmasters wrongly convicted to secure some compensation and wipe the slate clean, though the scars of injustice will remain with them and their families for ever.

I will raise four broad areas of concern. First, as has been pointed out, Clause 1 quashes convictions prosecuted by the Post Office and the Crown Prosecution Service only. It does not quash the 61 cases prosecuted by the DWP against postmasters in England and Wales. The DWP was the state prosecutor of postmasters until the end of 2012, when its prosecutorial function was assigned to the CPS by the Director of Public Prosecutions. Can the Minister say whether any of the CPS prosecutions being quashed were initiated by the DWP?

The omission of the DWP prosecutions from the Bill is utterly unfair. Just like the Post Office and the CPS, the DWP used Horizon-generated data and faced lies and cover-ups from the Post Office. It has now been conclusively shown that the Post Office and the CPS convictions were unsafe because of unreliable evidence, lies and cover-ups. It is hard to see why the same data, evidence and channels of generating evidence are somehow considered reliable for prosecutions by the DWP.

The DWP convictions were mostly prosecuted between 2000 and 2006, when there was a clear conspiracy of silence and cover-up around the flaws in the Horizon system and when the Post Office concealed a lot of information. Since then, many of the Crown Court transcripts and bundles of evidence relating to those convictions have been destroyed. Therefore, the Government’s argument of investigating these on a case-by-case basis is pretty much impossible and unlikely to provide any fairness to those individuals.

The DWP position is stated in a letter signed by Mrs Alison Riley, a senior lawyer with the DWP legal advisers in the Government Legal Department, from 28 September 2023, addressed to Professor Christopher Hodges of the Horizon Compensation Advisory Board:

“I can say with some confidence that in the majority of cases we have found that those cases prosecuted by the DWP did not rely on evidence from the Horizon system but rather relied on physical evidence such as order books, vouchers and date stamps”.

Let us look at those words again. The letter used the phrase

“with some confidence”,

instead of “with absolute certainty” or “with 100% confidence”. The letter seems to suggest that there is some doubt. It also used the phrase

“in the majority of cases”.

Does that mean that there were cases where somebody was wrongly prosecuted by relying upon Horizon-generated data? Were there cases in which the DWP used Horizon-generated data to secure prosecutions? How many cases were there, which this letter is perhaps not identifying? I hope the Minister will be able to tell us.

Can the Minister say whether any convictions secured by the DWP have ever been quashed by the courts, at any time, from the year 2000 onwards? Has any DWP investigator, official or witness retracted evidence given on oath? If so, that makes all the convictions unsafe. Can the Minister categorically say that all 61 cases have been independently reviewed? Which documents were reviewed, when was this done and by whom? Were the victims invited to respond to the review? Has any post-conviction disclosure ever been made to postmasters who were previously prosecuted and convicted by proceedings brought by the DWP? Were they given the appropriate information? Against a wall of silence and lies by the Post Office, some people convicted by the DWP may even have been denied appeal, but the revelations of last three years surely change that. Can the Minister say how many of those prosecuted by the DWP have actually been denied appeal and are perhaps now deserving of it?

I am reminded of the maxim of the English jurist, William Blackstone:

“It is better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer”.

I therefore urge the Minister to amend the Bill and quash the convictions of those prosecuted by the DWP. If not, he should at the very least appoint an inquiry to examine the safety of the DWP convictions.

My second point is this. On 16 January, at Second Reading of the then Post Office (Horizon System) Compensation Bill in this House, I urged the Minister to remove the Post Office’s involvement in setting the terms of compensation and in administering any aspect of compensation schemes, as that would only multiply the pain for postmasters. I understand from some postmasters—one of whom I spoke with earlier today—that the Post Office is still involved with the group litigation order scheme. It is also involved with the Horizon shortfall scheme, at least where some 360 to 370 disputed cases are concerned. It is good to know that there is a panel of King’s Counsels, but the problem is that the Post Office set the terms of reference, the guidance and the principles of the scheme. No matter how independent the panel, it is duty bound to follow those guiding principles. The Post Office basically cannot be trusted, and its involvement is a source of discomfort. Can the Minister shed some light on why the Post Office is still involved in these schemes, and what is to be done to remove it from them?

Thirdly, the Horizon inquiry has provided strong evidence of wrongdoings which warrant criminal charges. However, whenever any question is asked, the Minister’s standard response is that we must wait until the end of the Horizon inquiry and the subsequent report before any action is taken. That position is deeply unsatisfactory. It is hard to know why prosecutions have not already begun on the basis of evidence which has already been provided to the inquiry. Any delay would mean that many would escape justice altogether. It is quite conceivable that, in time, many will simply say that they are fragile, too old and have selective amnesia so simply cannot remember.

Just last Friday, the inquiry took evidence from Mr Rod Ismay, who used the phrase “I do not know” 125 times and said “I cannot remember” at least 40 times. What will happen when these individuals are eventually charged, possibly in another five or six years? They will simply get away. I urge the Minister to begin some criminal inquiries and charges now and not wait until the end of the inquiry.

My final point is the observation that the root cause of the Post Office scandal is the power of giant corporations to bludgeon people into submission and silence, all with a view to boosting profits, executive salaries and improving the bottom line. That is evident in many other cases: for example, P&O Ferries knowingly flouted the law to sack workers; water, rail, and energy companies are all abusing people; there is Grenfell; there is the finance industry, a serial offender in mis-selling financial products; drug companies are overcharging the NHS; G4S and Serco, which is overcharging the Government for contracts. Yet we have not really seen any move from the Government to democratise corporations, to empower the people, and to hold this unaccountable power to account. Can the Minister explain when exactly we can expect some reversal and some checks on the corporate power? People at the moment are struggling—they cannot get legal aid to take anybody to court. Regulators are, basically, in bed with many of the companies, and they are promoting competitiveness rather than safeguarding the customer’s interests. Governments are shielding corporate misdeeds. In this House, I provided evidence of how the Government shielded and covered up HSBC’s money laundering and made sure that it did not really face the full consequences. Without empowering citizens and curbing corporate power, Post Office-type scandals will recur. Can the Minister explain to the House why, in 14 years, little or nothing has been done to call corporations to account?

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green 5:02, 13 Mai 2024

My Lords, this scandal is rightly recognised as one of the gravest miscarriages of justice in the history of the English legal system. It seems so obvious now because so much has been reported, but for years hundreds of sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses were labelled as dishonest and convicted of dishonesty offences when they were telling the truth. One of the most fundamental elements of our justice system is that it is supposed to ensure that innocent people are found innocent because, if innocent people are at risk of being found guilty, trust in our justice system will disappear. In that light, exceptional steps are needed to put these injustices right, and although the Bill proposes a novel and controversial constitutional innovation, it is being done in aid of the powerless against the powerful and therefore, despite quite strong misgivings, I feel it is justified.

To talk about this Bill setting a precedent is to overgeneralise the circumstances of the Horizon scandal. We are not talking about overturning one or two questionable cases: we are talking about rectifying what has been revealed as an industrial enterprise to maliciously prosecute hundreds of innocent people. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, made the point about how all should be exonerated. That is absolutely right; it is not enough to create, again, two tiers of those people who were so badly treated. If such a wholescale injustice does take place again, victims and the wider public can be assured that Parliament will intervene on behalf of the powerless against the powerful to secure justice, but let us all hope this is the first and last time that this unprecedented legislation is ever justified.

There is a grey cloud hanging over this Bill: to have real justice, Fujitsu’s role should be thoroughly investigated and prosecutions should start. As the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, said, it is wrong to wait until the end of the inquiry, because we already know that Fujitsu was guilty of many infractions. It was aware of the problems from the start. It was aware of its employees having remote access and, in 2009, Computer Weekly made it aware of the link between the glitches in the Horizon system and the prosecution of sub-postmasters. The chief executive of Fujitsu at the time, Roger Gilbert, said that Computer Weekly was not a publication to which he subscribed, so he clearly could not know anything about it. His press office was scandalously lax.

Fujitsu is still a major government contractor which gives money to the Conservative Party. It has numerous other government contracts and, for ideological reasons, the Government have been outsourcing all their IT expertise—exactly as the Post Office does. The next Government need to reverse this process and take that expertise back in house, or at least employ enough in-house expertise to know when a company is getting it wrong, hiding the truth or providing a service that is a complete liability and security risk. If you let major corporations run your Government, taxpayers will be ripped off and find that they are paying out millions when things go wrong.

I have two final points. First, Fujitsu should be in the dock and prosecutions should already have begun. Secondly, Fujitsu should pay the costs back to sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, not us taxpayers.

Photo of Lord Etherton Lord Etherton Crossbench 5:06, 13 Mai 2024

My Lords, the Horizon scandal was described in the Explanatory Notes as a

“miscarriage of justice of unparalleled scale and impact”.

I do not know of anyone who would challenge that description. I certainly would not. It has had a devastating impact on huge numbers of sub-postmasters over a long period, leading to shattered lives, including huge trauma and mental distress, suicides, financial and reputational ruin, and the loss of a normal happy retirement.

The sub-postmasters, who have waited for far too long for recognition of their suffering and of the injustice that has overwhelmed their lives, deserve a speedy and simple route to bring that suffering and injustice to an end. The question for this House is whether this Bill is, in all respects, appropriate to achieve that goal.

The difficulty, which we must confront head on, is that the Bill infringes one of the most fundamental and critical tenets of our constitution: the independence of the judiciary. The judiciary is one of the three pillars of our constitution—the Executive, Parliament and judiciary. Each of those has its allotted function, providing the checks and balances essential for a democratic state.

Increasingly, in our own state, there has been a blurring of lines between the Executive and Parliament. The Minister, in his opening address, said that it is really Parliament and not the Executive that should be regarded as the body responsible for the legislative acquittals en masse provided for in the Bill. The reality, however, is that the Executive, especially one with a significant majority in the other place, almost always secure the implementation of their policies—an elective dictatorship, it has been called.

Reducing the Bill to its essence, the Executive are using Parliament to strip the judiciary of one of its central functions—determining who is guilty and who is not guilty of a criminal offence. That intrusion into the judicial pillar of the state is made as plain as could be from the wording of Clause 7(1), which states that

“a person whose conviction is quashed by section 1(1) is to be treated as if, on the coming into force of this Act, the conviction had been quashed by a court on an appeal”.

It is a characteristic of every autocracy and dictatorship that the Executive directly or indirectly nullify one or more aspects of judicial independence. History has demonstrated that there can be no liberty without judicial independence. This may seem a long way from the benign Bill that we are now debating, but it is not. We must guard our basic constitutional norms ferociously. Perhaps the most important duty of this House, performing its essential role as a check and balance in the lawmaking process, is to do precisely that when it is faced with draft legislation that is the result more of political expediency than of constitutional compliance.

Paragraph 24 of the Explanatory Notes states, as did the Minister, that

“the Bill does not set any constitutional precedent”.

That, however, is a quite meaningless statement. Of course, the Bill does not set any constitutional precedent since no Parliament can bind a future Parliament—each one is sovereign. By contrast, the Bill, if enacted, will provide an historical example of an overreach by the Executive, through Parliament, into the judicial pillar of the state. In that sense it is indeed a precedent for any Government with a sufficient parliamentary majority, even where the object of the Government is not a benign one.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, suggested that the precedent was a very narrow one, in effect, confining it to the precise facts and circumstances of the present scandal. I see no reason at all why a non-benign Executive should not take the wider view that I have just described.

The precedent is all the more egregious because, contrary to the impression created by the Explanatory Notes, it is not at all clear that the Bill is necessary to achieve the desired objective. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett of Maldon, has described several practical arguments as to why our constitutional norms can be preserved while delivering the justice that the sub-postmasters so urgently require. I wish to make one or two points in relation to this.

The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Carr of Walton-on-the-Hill, the Lady Chief Justice of England and Wales, addressed the Justice Committee of the other place on 16 January this year on the Prime Minister’s announcement the previous week that there would be emergency legislation to quash en masse the convictions of people prosecuted by the Post Office on the basis of Horizon data. The Lady Chief Justice refuted any suggestion that the judiciary had given the proposed legislation the green light. She said that she had had two short conversations with the Justice Secretary at his urgent request, and that was the extent of the consultation that had taken place. She also refuted any suggestion that the courts had been unable to cope with the cases or would be unable to cope with future volumes.

Where do we find anywhere, in the Explanatory Notes or elsewhere, any analysis by the Government of why the courts would be unable to make special arrangements for expedited appeals in relation to all convictions, or as to how quickly that could be done? The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, gave a range of speculative difficulties that would arise in relation to a wide variety of matters. As I understand it, he acknowledged that it might be possible to provide alternative arrangements that would satisfy the giving of justice in a speedy and effective way but said that this would result in bending our justice system out of balance. But all of this is a balance. I suggest it is better to bend the justice system out of its ordinary shape—if this can be done, as I think it can—if that would give proper, fair and speedy restitution and acquittals to the sub-postmasters, rather than drive a coach and horses through one of our most important and fundamental constitutional norms.

The second point I wish to emphasise in relation to the various examples given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, is that, as I have mentioned, his examples of difficulties and his expansion of the problems are all speculative. As far as I am aware, there has been no proper discussion between the Executive and the senior judiciary as to what it might be possible to achieve. The truth of the matter is that every problem said to make the Bill a necessity is capable of resolution without legislative en masse acquittals, including speed of appeals, reluctance of those convicted to become further involved in our court proceedings, lack of evidence, and the test for a successful appeal against conviction. I do not accept that these matters are impossible of achievement outside the context of the present Bill.

What we need is evidence of actual discussions as to what is viable, rather than to deal with speculation as to what may or may not occur. For my part, in the absence of any clear and public explanation by the Government, following discussions with the senior judiciary, and for the reasons I have given, I do not consider that it would be right to support the approach of acquitting through this legislation all those who have been convicted.

Photo of Lord Holmes of Richmond Lord Holmes of Richmond Ceidwadwyr 5:18, 13 Mai 2024

My Lords, this has been a sober and serious Second Reading—understandably so. How does one even begin to find the words to describe such an unspeakable set of circumstances? Perhaps one pulls on the words of those who have been faced with many miscarriages of justice: the CCRC itself described this as

“the most widespread miscarriage of justice” it had seen. It is for that reason at least that I support this legislation.

I am well aware, and completely supportive, of the separation of powers, and the fine and delicate balance of our unwritten constitution, but in passing this legislation, it is as clear as it can be that Parliament will be carrying out the will of the people. It is also clear that this will set a precedent. I am delicately untroubled by that, because it sets a precedent for a set of circumstances where, were they to occur again, it may well be the case that the will of the people and Parliament need to step in. It is that set of circumstances which—I say delicately and with respect—argue against the claims that this tends towards autocracy and totalitarianism.

This is not something that any of us are undertaking lightly, but it is a means of securing justice for those who have waited far too long, many serving prison sentences and all carrying the sentence of having been convicted, often for decades. This is why I believe Parliament is right to take this Bill through, to enable justice around in the most timely manner. It is difficult to even call it “timely”, bearing in mind how long this has already taken.

To ensure justice and equity for all those who have suffered for so long, I need to ask my noble friend the Minister: how can the Government act to ensure that justice for all happens on a similar, if not identical, timeline? How can the Government, while understanding the reserved nature of the Post Office and the devolved nature of justice, work even more with the Scottish Parliament to ensure that all postmistresses and postmasters in Scotland can achieve justice at the same time or in a similar timeframe to those in England, Wales and Northern Ireland?

Similarly, as other noble Lords have rightly stated, it seems inequitable for those who have already been to the Court of Appeal to be excluded from this legislation. They are effectively being punished for having been able to pursue their claims quickly and effectively, only to find themselves receiving no remedy and the outcome that the court, at that stage and on the evidence provided, delivered for them. We know that justice delayed is justice denied. We have the opportunity to at least bring justice through the legislative process—yes, it is novel and unprecedented—through this Bill.

I turn to the means by which the private prosecutions were brought about in the first place: Section 6(1) of the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985. Many members of the public were shocked to discover that the Post Office could pursue such prosecutions in this manner. They were even more shocked when they realised that this was a power in no sense available just to the Post Office but available across the piece. The Post Office was effectively acting as investigator and prosecutor in cases where it was the alleged victim. Does my noble friend the Minister not agree that this is self-evidently prima facie problematic?

If we are to deliver justice for all those who have suffered, how many sub-postmistresses and sub-postmasters will be left with their convictions not quashed even after this legislation is passed? As much as we can be clear on the numbers, there are approaching 1,000 convictions and so far—again, as much as we can know—around 103 convictions have been quashed: 10%. This Bill, when it comes into statute, will certainly address a large number of those convictions, but how many people—to the Minister’s best knowledge, on the evidence he has available to him—will still be left unhelped after we pass this legislation?

Without moving away from the serious matter of today, I would like to ask the Minister about what thoughts the Government have put to reflecting on Section 6(1) of the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985. What are the safeguards? How did they work in these instances? Are the Government satisfied to continue with this legislation in its current form? Is the Law Commission looking into this?

Similarly, looking to a potential future beyond this unprecedented set of circumstances, what are the Government’s thoughts in terms of the future of the Post Office? It is a unique entity. It has been in our communities, on most of our high streets, for over half a millennium—but 500 years-plus of history does not give any organisation any right necessarily to continue in any form. Does the Minister agree that urgent thought on the structure of the Post Office, potentially looking at mutualisation or other such models, could, at least once we are through this, enable a brighter, better Post Office?

With sub-postmistresses and sub-postmasters, the pillars of our community, knowing our communities and the business better than anybody else, would it not make sense to have their voices, past and present, involved in shaping that future? In equalities discussions, there is a useful mantra, “Nothing about us without us”. I gently suggest that that mantra should apply to considerations about the Post Office going forward, where all the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses right across the country are able to have a voice in shaping what needs to be a very different future for the Post Office.

Photo of Lord Sahota Lord Sahota Llafur 5:27, 13 Mai 2024

My comments are, as we say in politics, from the grass roots about what some postmasters are saying and their feelings. As for the legal matters of this case, I leave it to your Lordships’ great legal minds.

I wholeheartedly support this Bill. It is long overdue, and the sooner we get it on the statute book, the better. The sub-postmasters have suffered long enough. The sooner we close this shameful chapter in our Post Office history, the better. This Bill must give faith to all those who have lost theirs in our justice system and in the Post Office management. Most important of all, I hope the end result of this Bill will satisfy all the sub-postmasters and that they will be properly compensated for their suffering.

I fully support the blanket quashing of their convictions or any other wrongdoing they are accused of, wherever the Post Office acted as judge, jury and executioner. Let me make it quite plain from the outset that my heart goes out to each and every one of the victims of this scandal, whatever their background and whichever community they belong to. This is one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in the history of our country.

Although all sub-postmasters were treated badly, some were subjected to extra layers of suffering. I bring to noble Lords’ attention in particular the victims who had an Asian heritage or background, although my concern is equally applicable to those from African and Caribbean backgrounds as well. This issue was reported on “Newsnight” around Christmas time by Sima Kotecha, one of its journalists. According to a Post Office survey in 2012, over 40% of the sub-postmasters in the UK were from an Asian background. Personally, I think that it could be more than that. They run the post offices not only in inner cities where there are large ethnic-minority populations but in small villages up and down the country.

When the news of this miscarriage of justice began to break over 20 years ago in local media and on social media, Asian sub-postmasters were the hardest hit, for two reasons. First, it was alleged that the Post Office officials investigating them treated them with racial malice and disdain. Their comments, which are in the public domain, include, “All you foreigners are the same—money grabbers—stealing money from the Post Office and sending it to your own country”. It was reported that they were often spoken to with condescending language and in a different tone. Secondly, there is the importance of shame and family reputation in the Asian community. Every culture and society is perceptive to social shame, but because of the closeness of the Asian society, it is more keenly felt by them. To understand it, you have to be Asian and of a certain age—like me.

Some of these Asians came to the UK with nothing, and out of their sheer hard work they built a comfortable lifestyle for themselves and their families. It is a well-known fact that some Asians work hard not for themselves but to leave behind something for their children, so that they would not have to go through all the same problems again. When they are falsely accused of being thieves, that is the deepest cut of all in the community. They try to hide not just from their community but from themselves. Worst of all is what their children and grandchildren think of them.

It is no wonder that some of the sub-postmasters suffered mental breakdowns and tried to commit suicide. Take the case of Jess Kaur, from the West Midlands, and the ordeal that the Post Office put her through. I have spoken with her a number of times. She had 14 electric shock treatments. When she was in hospital for her treatment, the Post Office did not believe her, so it sent its own doctor to verify her condition. How low can you get? We all pray to God that Jess will recover from her terrible ordeal soon.

Another Asian lady, Rubbina Shaheen, from Shropshire, my home county, lost everything—her business and her home—and was forced to live in a van on the streets of Shrewsbury. She said that she felt suicidal. Another Asian lady, Seema Misra, from London, was sent to jail while pregnant. Mrs Kashmir Kaur Gill, from Oxford, was prosecuted in 2009 for false accounting and was given a five-year suspended sentence. Her reputation and that of her family was destroyed in the community. She suffered decades of hell and developed a mental health problem. I could go on and on with these examples.

On Asian suffering, I do not think that the famous ITV drama that we all know even scratched the surface of this race and cultural issue. I hope that the Bill will acknowledge these particular issues. As I said earlier, my heart goes out to all the sub-postmasters, irrespective of their background.

Finally, it is my personal view that although all the Post Office senior managers, directors, chief executives and solicitors, and software company managers and directors—who went above and beyond the call of duty to protect the Post Office brand and their jobs and did not care about the human suffering—have apologised, as have all who have been giving evidence to the Williams inquiry and to Parliament, apologies are just words in the wind. There should be some kind of financial sanction on them. That I leave to your Lordships, with thanks for letting me make these comments.

Photo of Lord Sentamu Lord Sentamu Crossbench 5:35, 13 Mai 2024

My Lords, I was not intending to speak, but the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, and other noble Lords here, have posed for me a conundrum. By the way, I live in a village where there is a Conundrum road, right near the Scottish border. When you face a conundrum, what do you do? I want to support this Bill, but I have a problem: the issue that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, raised about the 13 people whose appeals were turned down. If you include them in this Bill, you would be directly interfering with the Court of Appeal, by saying to the court that you do not agree with what it did and so are pardoning these people.

My suggestion is that, in the light of the evidence that we have been hearing at the inquiry, the Minister and the Government need to go back and find other lawyers to see whether there is still fresh evidence that can emerge, so that those 13 people can go back to the Court of Appeal. My worry is that, if you legislate en bloc, as has been suggested, you run the danger that you are definitely interfering and telling the Court of Appeal that its decision was not the right one. That needs resolving. If you do not resolve it for the likes of me, I will find myself in a conundrum.

Secondly, why do the Department for Work and Pensions convictions not require the same examination as for all other convictions? Somebody somewhere has got to bend their mind to those 61 cases. If you do not do it, you give the impression that they had better evidence, and that because people have not appealed it is therefore not going to be followed up on.

For me, this Bill should not have a say in what the Court of Appeal’s decision was in those 13 cases. On the Department for Work and Pensions, again I suggest that somebody needs to look afresh at those 61 cases and at whether there is a possibility—not through this Bill—of fresh hearings by the Court of Appeal.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol 5:38, 13 Mai 2024

My Lords, it is an honour to follow so many noble Lords in speaking at this Second Reading.

On these Benches, we too support the Bill. I am grateful that the right reverend Prelate pointed out that there is not one single party grouping or other grouping against it. That speaks to the highly unusual circumstances. While I am sure that will not entirely comfort the noble and learned Lords, Lord Burnett and Lord Etherton, I hope it will give them some reassurance that the Bill is meeting the issues that they both raised about the potential for future totalitarian moves. If you read the progress of this Bill in another place, you will see that exactly the same happened there. There was much thought about the difficulties of the constitution and how this fits in while trying to balance that with the difficult circumstances the country finds itself in following this extraordinary miscarriage of justice.

I thank the Minister for our meeting last week. I also thank the House of Lords Library and the Law Society for their helpful briefings. I am speaking from these Benches today in the absence of my noble friend Lord Fox, who hopes to be able to join us for the next stage of the Bill.

For those of us who perhaps have been sad enough to sit and watch many of the hours of evidence in this phase of the inquiry, it is vital to remember that the lives of the sub-postmasters and other Post Office front-line staff have been ruined by Post Office Ltd and Fujitsu. Both of them convinced magistrates, juries and judges that the software package could not be accessed remotely. As the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, outlined and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, also spoke about, Fujitsu will need to face justice, as will the management at Post Office Ltd. Evidence in recent weeks has now put into the public domain the fact that staff at both organisations knew many years ago that it was possible to access Horizon remotely, and that it was done to remedy glitches and errors.

The noble Lord, Lord Sikka, referred to the oral evidence of Rod Ismay as unimpressive. Helpfully, though, the written evidence presented to him from emails and reports during that period made absolutely plain who knew what and when. Despite that, since 2000, the Post Office has prosecuted some 730 individuals, many of whom were convicted and imprisoned on what appear to have been false evidence and assertions. Many were not only bankrupted but lost their homes, their businesses and the faith of their local communities when they served in their local Post Office branch, as the noble Lord, Sahota, rightly pointed out. As we have heard, some postmasters committed suicide.

As with other scandals, such as the infected blood victims, compensation and interim compensation schemes have been set up. Those whose convictions have not yet been quashed are ineligible to apply for them. The Horizon Compensation Advisory Board has made a specific recommendation that all the affected sub-postmasters’ convictions are unsafe and should be swiftly overturned. As I have already outlined, what we are hearing in the inquiry reinforces this beyond any shadow of doubt. We must leave it to Sir Wyn Williams to present his report and his findings in due course, but it is evident that things have gone badly wrong.

The noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, reminded me of a software engineer’s description of error-filled software. I am married to an engineer who is involved with software. A common phrase in our family is “garbage in, garbage out”. Yet, one of the problems of this case is that everybody believed that the software was invincible. Therein lay the miscarriage of justice.

It is public knowledge, through both the Court of Appeal judgment in 2021 and the evidence given under oath at the public inquiry, that the technical reason relied on for every single prosecution was that it was impossible for anyone, apart from the sub-postmaster, to access an individual’s account. We know that that was demonstrably untrue. Worse, POL and Fujitsu continued to rely on it, even when they knew it was not the case. That is an even worse miscarriage of justice. On these grounds alone, every single one of the remaining Horizon convictions should be overturned.

I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett, for saying that the judiciary could and should be able to proceed with appeals. There are real concerns about capacity, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, said. The noble Lord, Lord Sandhurst, also expressed concerns about the timescale. We know that there is a large backlog in cases coming to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, let alone the issue of finding time in the Court of Appeal. The one thing that we have heard from every speaker today is that these issues must be resolved at pace.

Some convicted postmasters are dying. Others are at retirement age, having lost everything decades ago as a result of these convictions. It is not just unfair that they cannot access justice swiftly; this is itself an injustice. I support the concerns expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, about DWP convictions between 2000 and 2006 being treated differently from CPS convictions. Will the Minister ensure that the DWP is required now to assess its prosecutions in this case? I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, for going into further detail on the question of DWP convictions being reliable. Given that Post Office Ltd has now given up its right to conduct prosecutions, I wonder whether the same should be true for the DWP.

I have questions for the Minister that I warned him about last week. First, in Clause 2, the relevant offence is defined by time, between 1996 and 2018, and by offence; Clause 2(6) specifically mentions the Horizon system, as does Clause 10; and Clause 8 provides a power for the Secretary of State to make further consequential provision. The Delegated Powers Committee supplementary memorandum confirms the narrow scope, and all this should give reassurance to the House that that is true.

However, there is a problem. The system prior to Horizon, Capture, is now revealed to have had serious software glitches and errors in the same way. I am grateful that the Government have now instituted an inquiry into that, although, hopefully, of a more limited nature. The Independent newspaper reported that former sub-postmasters had suffered unexplained shortfalls caused by Capture, which was rolled out in the early 1990s. Details show that the Post Office knew Capture was prone to faults and glitches, yet prosecutions went ahead.

Following the inquiry that the Government have now instigated into the Capture convictions, would it be possible—I suspect the answer is no—to add Capture to the Horizon inquiry? Yes, the software definitely predated Horizon, but everything else, including the bizarre and unexpected shortfalls and the way the Post Office conducted the prosecutions, including repeated assertions, is very similar to the Horizon case. If that is not possible but the Capture inquiry comes to the same conclusions as are now evident from the Horizon inquiry, what route to redress is available for the Capture postmasters?

The noble Lords. Lord Arbuthnot and Lord Sandhurst, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Sentamu, spoke of the 13 people post the Hamilton case who had their sentences upheld by the Court of Appeal, of whom seven are entitled to appeal but six were refused leave. Assuming that the final inquiry report confirms that cases relating to Horizon should never have been brought to court because of the Post Office relying in every case on Horizon, saying repeatedly that it was not possible for anyone to be able to access postmasters’ Horizon accounts, can the Secretary of State ensure that these cases are entitled to make an application to appeal? There are consequential rights, although the Bill says they are limited in scope, for the Secretary of State to do so. Would a particular finding from the inquiry be something that could happen? The noble Lord, Lord Sandhurst, said he believed those people would not be able to get any of their convictions overturned under the Bill. Is that true? He is shaking his head, so if I misunderstood him then I apologise. Could the Secretary of State’s power be used in regulation as it relates to Horizon?

I hope we will be able to progress with the same carefulness with which we started this Second Reading.

Photo of Lord Sandhurst Lord Sandhurst Ceidwadwyr

Under Clause 3(2) of the Bill, you do not get your appeal allowed if it has been dismissed by the Court of Appeal.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol

I am referring to Clause 8, which is the power of the Secretary of State to make further consequential provision. I wondered whether the recommendations and report from the Horizon inquiry might be able to be used by the Secretary of State to make that happen.

Photo of Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Shadow Spokesperson (Business and Trade), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland) 5:49, 13 Mai 2024

My Lords, I thank the Minister and the departmental team for their work on this Bill and for being available to meet me, my noble friend Lord Leong and others from across the House.

In reading back over some of my speeches from 2019, 2020 and 2021—I am just a newbie to this—one theme shines through, and that is the sheer injustice of the Post Office Ltd and Fujitsu scandal. I use Post Office and Fujitsu rather than Horizon, as Horizon is just a faceless IT system. The Post Office Ltd is culpable, with senior management to blame, the board negligent and the department and its representatives missing. There are two main parties to this: Fujitsu and Post Office Ltd. I am sure we will come back to the board, the individuals, the non-execs and the department representatives, as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, has raised many times in previous debates.

Naturally, I pay tribute to the many sub-postmasters and mistresses who have campaigned tirelessly for justice. Their resolve in the face of unimaginable levels of abuse and suffering is testament to their courage. It was their stories that galvanised the country behind taking the urgent and unprecedented action in this Bill. Although it may have been a television drama that finally ignited public consciousness on this issue, I also want to reiterate the tributes to the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, and to Kevan Jones MP, for their years of work in Parliament and outside to lay bare the great injustices and the fight of the sub-postmasters and mistresses.

This is not an academic debate; this is fundamentally about people’s lives. I am not a lawyer, but I understand the focus on legal precedents, the debate around the judiciary, Executive and Parliament, and the inference on the constitution and the independence of the judiciary. But this is about people. That is the balance this House needs to reach.

I made a speech in 2020 in response to the court case Bates v Post Office, which was settled in 2019, in which I mentioned a number of individual cases. My noble friend Lord Sahota has touched on two of those, but it is worth putting on record what happened to those individuals. There was Seema Misra, who ran a post office with her husband in Surrey. Time and again she had to put her own money into the till. A shortfall of £80,000 was ultimately found and she was sentenced to 15 months in jail while pregnant with her second child. Rubbina Shaheen was jailed for 12 months in 2010 after she was accused of stealing over £40,000 from the Greenfields post office in Shrewsbury. We all know Jo Hamilton’s story. Jo was accused of taking £36,000 from a village shop she ran in Hampshire. After pleading guilty to false accounting to avoid a more serious charge, she gave up her shop and found it difficult to get a new job due to her criminal record. During today’s debate, we must not lose sight of the impact of the failures on those families.

This is an important Bill, and those of us on these Benches support it wholeheartedly. Labour committed itself to working with the Government to ensure the best possible outcome for the victims. I am glad that the Government agree with us that these wrongful convictions ought to be quashed and that compensation needs to be delivered urgently.

I am particularly encouraged by the Minister’s desire to see convictions overturned prior to the Summer Recess. That deals with a number of the legal arguments about other options. If we followed those, the overturning of convictions would not happen before the Summer Recess. I am glad that the Government have worked constructively with Members of the other place to expand the terms to include Northern Irish sub-postmasters in the Bill. It is our hope that the Scottish Parliament also soon passes a similar Bill, as my noble friend Lord Browne touched on, so that victims all across the UK can benefit from having their convictions overturned.

This is one of the most egregious miscarriages of justice in British legal history, and I am heartened to see people from across all parties and none working together to deliver justice for those innocent people who have served at the heart of our communities. The many stories we have heard in this debate in this House and the other place never fail to shock me, and they emphasise the sheer scale of the suffering that this scandal has caused.

The noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, touched on Justice Fraser’s judgment in 2019. We have come a long way since 2019, but we have not come that far, and it is worth reminding ourselves. I was very struck by the vivid language that Justice Fraser used in his judgment, stating that Post Office Ltd demonstrated

“the most dreadful complacency, and total lack of interest in investigating these serious issues …” amounting to

“the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the earth is flat”.

The judge concluded that sub-postmasters were treated in

“capricious or arbitrary ways which would not be unfamiliar to a mid-Victorian factory-owner”.

It does beg the question, though: how did our judicial system allow so many sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses to be found guilty over so many years? It is deeply shameful that justice did not come quickly enough for those sub-postmasters who died or killed themselves before they could find redress. We want now to see justice for all victims. How confident is the Minister—this has been a theme throughout the debate—in the identifying criteria? Can he assure the House that all those affected are included in it?

It is important that we recognise the impact on sub-postmasters’ families, as the Lost Chances for the Children of Sub-Postmasters campaign group has highlighted. I also look forward to the publication of Wyn Williams’ inquiry report, as it will give an important opportunity to reflect more broadly on how we may be able to resolve further issues in a timely and dignified manner.

It will be vital for the legal system and the Government, as well as corporate bodies, to learn the lessons of these cases. As I said in a debate on this issue in January, we need to see a cultural change that sees an end to the constant stream of scandal after scandal. The destruction of people’s lives, the cover-ups, the vindictive way in which victims were treated once they came forward, the lethargic way in which justice is served, the culture of not being held responsible for failure and instead even being rewarded—that must all end. It remains my hope that this brings about a serious shift in the way that those in positions of power are permitted to act.

I am glad that the Bill can give sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses some relief, dignity and official acknowledgment of their innocence. However, it is important to note that this is an exceptional Bill and an isolated case. The House’s agreement on this Bill must never be misconstrued as any kind of desire to set a precedent. The independence of the judiciary must be upheld. I welcome the Government’s reassurances on this particular concern, but I ask for more. Will the Minister consider a more explicit element in the Bill? In addition, can he elaborate on the decision to include CPS prosecutions but not the DWP ones or the 13 Court of Appeal cases, as outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, and touched on by a number of noble Lords and noble Baronesses?

We on these Benches welcome this vital piece of legislation, but of course this is not the end: there is more to be done to right the wrongs. The Bill is a positive step on the road to justice for victims. It may not be the final destination but it is nevertheless an important milestone. I will finish with the words of the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, which are a great subtitle for the Bill: “the price that we pay for the exoneration of the innocent”. They are fine words.

Photo of Lord Offord of Garvel Lord Offord of Garvel Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade) 6:01, 13 Mai 2024

My Lords, this has been a thoughtful and considered debate, and I am grateful for the broad and insightful contributions from noble Lords across the House. I was particularly grateful for the opening contributions of the noble and learned Lords, Lord Falconer of Thoroton and Lord Burnett of Maldon, one speaking as a former Lord Chancellor and the other as a former Lord Chief Justice. They were able to frame so eloquently the two potential solutions available to your Lordships’ House to right these wrongs.

The Government acknowledge that the quashing of convictions by an Act of Parliament is an exceptional step, but we believe it is required to respond to a factually exceptional situation. We know that many postmasters are simply too traumatised or disenchanted with authority to consider appealing, no matter how easy we make it. They want to see no further lawyer or court; they are scunnered. In many cases, evidence simply no longer exists anyway in order to help their cases. The scale and circumstances of prosecutorial and investigatory misconduct over such an extended period are unique in our history. The scale of this miscarriage of justice is an affront to the rule of law itself. Therefore, it is right that the Government intervene to deliver justice to hundreds of postmasters, who deserve this without having to make a huge amount of effort themselves. We need to do this while respecting the delicate constitutional balance so eloquently put forward by a number of noble and learned Lords this afternoon.

I will start by covering the legislative approach we are taking. I understand the concerns of the noble and learned Lords, Lord Burnett of Maldon and Lord Etherton, and the right relevant Prelate the Bishop of Manchester. We all share their respect for an independent judiciary. I have been clear that the Bill is not a comment on the outstanding work of the courts and judiciary, which have dealt swiftly with the cases before them. I am cognisant of the assurances given by the judiciary that it would move fast in this case.

However, I respectfully disagree with how the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, characterised the legislation. We agree that the separation of powers is a vital part of our justice system, but public confidence and faith in the system are also vital. This is a miscarriage of justice on a scale never seen before, and the circumstances are exceptional. We have carefully considered other approaches, including court processes. However, ultimately, no reform short of this legislative approach provides the swift remedy needed as a result of these unprecedented circumstances.

Many postmasters would not see justice through the courts, because much of the evidence about individual cases has now been destroyed or because many postmasters no longer trust the criminal justice system and therefore will not come forward. It is therefore right that the Government take action to put this right.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett of Maldon, raised the possibility of legislating to give Ministers powers to refer cases to the Court of Appeal and assume that all convictions were wrongful unless new evidence was presented. Reconsideration of cases by the Court of Appeal would take time even if court processes were expedited. Further, a presumption that all relevant convictions are unsafe is rebuttable, and we cannot be sure that every case would pass through the courts swiftly and without adjournments. This approach would not avoid interfering with the independence of the judiciary; it would raise other constitutional concerns, as it would make an assumption about the outcome of the cases being referred, meaning that the Government were still interfering in the judicial process of the senior appellate court.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett, also spoke about comments made by the Lady Chief Justice. She said that in over 90% of cases the defendants pleaded guilty. We are not able to verify this figure, which in itself tells noble Lords quite a lot about this case. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, rightly raised, we are also aware, from Sir Wyn Williams’ inquiry, of evidence suggesting that individuals pleaded guilty because they were told to or felt under pressure.

I turn to the specific issue of the Court of Appeal cases, which was highlighted at the beginning of the debate by the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom, and then raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, and the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond. This is a difficult issue; I thank noble Lords for raising it.

Let us start by reminding your Lordships’ House of the unprecedented and constitutionally sensitive nature of this legislation. That is why it is vital that we legislate in a way which respects the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary as far as possible. Including convictions that have been upheld by the Court of Appeal would override decisions taken by the senior judiciary. Of the 13 such cases we know of, seven were upheld by the Court of Appeal and six were refused leave to appeal. They are excluded from the Bill because the Government believe we should tread very carefully where judges in the senior appellate court have considered a case on its merits. We recognise that this approach may leave a small number of individuals concerned about the way forward for their cases. In cases where the Court of Appeal has upheld a conviction, the usual routes of appeal remain available to them.

I turn to the matter of the DWP cases—

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol

I am sure that is right for the seven who could appeal, but there were six who were not given leave to appeal. What would their route be to getting justice?

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

My understanding is that six were given no right to appeal because it was considered they did not have the evidence to do so; in effect, they are considered with the 13 whose convictions were not overturned. Therefore, they are included within the same category.

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Llafur

I have been focusing on the recent trips to the Court of Appeal. I do not know whether there were trips to the Court of Appeal in the immediate aftermath of the convictions that started in 1996. Are we talking only about recent trips to the Court of Appeal or are we including trips that might have been a decade ago, before the nature of the scandal was known?

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

My Lords, I will cross-check the record, but my understanding is that these 13 cases are recent and came to the Court of Appeal after the Hamilton judgment, so the courts were aware of the background in those cases.

The noble Lords, Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom, Lord Sikka and Lord McNicol, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, questioned why this legislation does not include the cases prosecuted by the DWP, which we believe amount to 62. The noble Lord, Lord Sikka, asked whether any DWP-prosecuted cases were quashed; we are not aware of any convictions being quashed by the Court of Appeal. These cases, unlike many of the cases prosecuted by the Post Office or the CPS, involved wider corroborating evidence beyond that supplied by the faulty Horizon system, so are unlikely to be unsafe in the same way. The existing and established appeal processes remain available in relation to these cases.

I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Lords, Lord Sikka and Lord Holmes of Richmond, about the importance of delivering financial redress as quickly as possible. I am pleased to say that, as of 30 April, we have paid out more than £200 million in redress to over 2,800 claimants. Under the main Horizon shortfall scheme, 88% of claims have now been received and 72% paid out. We are going as fast as we can; we are reliant on the appeals coming forward and claimants making claims. We expect that, at the moment, many of those with overturned convictions are waiting for this Bill to pass and we expect their claims to come in more quickly following this legislation.

Financial redress is clearly not in scope of this legislation, but I hope it reassures noble Lords to know that, once the necessary legislation has been passed, we will provide a route to full, fair and rapid financial redress for quashed convictions. We will include information about redress in the notifications which we send to postmasters when their convictions are overturned. Our aim is that the redress process will follow seamlessly from the process of overturning convictions.

Photo of Lord Sikka Lord Sikka Llafur

Before we leave the issue of DWP convictions, can the Minister confirm or otherwise—he might wish to write—whether any DWP investigator, official or witness has at any point retracted evidence given under oath to any Crown Court?

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

I will need to write to the noble Lord on that point.

As my colleague in the other place, Minister Hollinrake, said, we want to minimise any pause between the Bill coming into effect and redress payments being made.

To be clear, the GLO compensation scheme is independent of the Post Office. As requested by postmasters in our consultation, it is run by the Department for Business and Trade. Claims which are not agreed will be assessed by a panel whose members are independent of government and the Post Office. Any errors in decisions from the independent panel can be taken to the reviewer of the GLO scheme, Sir Ross Cranston. The Government are funding postmasters with overturned convictions to receive independent legal advice on their claims and offers. Retired High Court judge Sir Gary Hickinbottom has been put in place to chair an independent panel to resolve disputes on pecuniary losses. Horizon shortfall scheme claims are assessed by an independent panel of experts who provide a recommendation to the Post Office. To date, there have not been any instances where the Post Office has offered a lower amount than the recommendation of the panel.

The noble Lord, Lord Sikka, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, raised the accountability of Post Office executives. We await the outcome of the Wyn inquiry, which will provide clarity on this issue. Finding people guilty without looking at all the evidence is how we got into this mess in the first place. Postmasters were prosecuted without proper disclosure; we must not make the same mistake again in holding people accountable for this scandal, however tempting it might be. The public can be very reassured by the detailed investigation being conducted in public by Sir Wyn Williams. Each week reveals more shocking news, and I have no doubt that justice will be served by the inquiry.

A number of noble Lords have quite rightly mentioned Fujitsu. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, has raised Fujitsu and its role in the scandal a number of times in this Chamber. It is right that the company has voluntarily decided not to bid for future government contracts for the time being while the inquiry is ongoing, unless the Government ask it to. The Government also welcome Fujitsu acknowledging that it has a moral obligation to contribute to compensation. The Government are in active conversations with the company at a very senior level about this.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, who has consistently raised the concept of the interrogation of computer evidence used in prosecutions. The Government are committed to preventing any further miscarriages of justice, like the Horizon scandal. There has been a proliferation of digital material in modern criminal cases, particularly in cases such as fraud and serious sexual offending but also in lower-level high-volume offences such as drink-driving. For this reason, any hasty changes to the legal position risk serious and significant unintended consequences for the running of the criminal justice system. However, the Lord Chancellor is fully considering all options available, and more consideration can be given to this matter and reported to the House through this process.

I thank the noble Lords, Lord Browne of Ladyton and Lord Holmes of Richmond, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, for their comments on the territorial extent of the Bill. We all wish to see justice being applied in all four parts of the United Kingdom. The other place has agreed to extend the Bill to Northern Ireland, in recognition of the unique challenges faced by the Northern Ireland Executive in bringing forward their own in a similar timeframe to the rest of the UK. Their legislative process is lengthy and difficult to expedite, and the legislation would have to compete with the many other priorities accumulated during the two-year suspension of the Assembly. The Government are also cognisant of the extent of cross-community support for the extension of the Bill to Northern Ireland.

The Government’s position on Scotland remains unchanged. Scotland does not face the same challenges in bringing forward legislation within its Parliament as Northern Ireland does. It is for the Scottish Government to bring forward their own proposals to address prosecutions, and for those to be scrutinised by the Scottish Parliament in line with the devolution settlement. I hope that reassures the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, and the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, that my officials have been supporting their counterparts in the Scottish Government to bring forward their own legislative proposals. I understand that they intend to do this shortly.

I turn to another of the very uncomfortable situations raised by the Horizon scandal, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Sahota, who spoke so powerfully about the racism experienced by victims of the Horizon scandal. I agree that this issue is very important. The Sir Wyn Williams inquiry has touched on this already in its oral evidence sessions. The Government are keen to hear anything that the inquiry concludes on this matter, including any recommendations for the future.

On the issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, in relation to Capture, the precursor computer system to Horizon, at this point we have not found sufficient evidence to conclude that Capture led to people being wrongly convicted. Capture was very different from Horizon: it was a stand-alone spreadsheet, not an integrated accounting system. There were bugs in it, but they were admitted to by the Post Office. It was not an interactive system that could be manipulated by a third-party source, as was the case with Horizon. It helped postmasters balance their accounts, rather than operating as a black box, reporting accounts across the network to Post Office headquarters. Given the limited information that we currently have about Capture and resulting convictions, there is not yet any evidence that any miscarriages of justice took place. It is therefore the Government’s position not to seek to overturn these convictions or to consider Capture cases within the Horizon system inquiry.

However, I would like to reassure the noble Baroness that we are looking into what can be done on Capture. As soon as the Government found out about issues with the Capture system, we asked the Post Office to investigate. We are in the process of appointing an independent forensic investigator to look into the Capture software and how the Post Office addressed concerns about it. Once the investigator has reported, we will return to the House to set out our plans, but we do not consider that this should hold up the more important matter before us, which is overturning the Horizon convictions.

On the post-legislative process, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sandhurst, for his very useful contribution and his two points about creating a website for those who have been exonerated by this Bill. He has indicated that we do not have full contact details for all our claimants in this case. For reasons of confidentiality, it would not be right to create a public web page that would list the names of those exonerated. However, all those that are in scope will be written to on Royal Assent, and those that we have been able to identify in scope but have not been contacted can get in touch with the Government to have their cases looked into. We will ensure that GOV.UK is utilised to promote access to exoneration and financial redress. All guidance on the exoneration process and the financial redress scheme will be on GOV.UK.

I am grateful for the cross-party support shown towards this legislation and the valuable support of the Opposition Front Benches, represented by the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton.

In closing, the Government recognise the profound impacts that the Horizon scandal had on those who were falsely accused. I listened to the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, refer to individual cases, and we all know of examples in our local area where lives have been ruined, and each one is a very sad story on its own. Therefore, we legislate with that at the forefront of our minds, and the objective of this Bill is to exonerate those who were so unjustly convicted of crimes that they did not commit and provide fair redress as swiftly as possible. I beg to move.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.