Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 4:41 pm ar 13 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

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.