Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 4:36 pm ar 13 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

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.