Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 3:41 pm ar 13 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

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.