Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 4:50 pm ar 13 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

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?