Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill - Second Reading

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

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Offord of Garvel Lord Offord of Garvel Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade) 3:32, 13 Mai 2024

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.