Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 5:18 pm ar 13 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Holmes of Richmond Lord Holmes of Richmond Ceidwadwyr 5:18, 13 Mai 2024

My Lords, this has been a sober and serious Second Reading—understandably so. How does one even begin to find the words to describe such an unspeakable set of circumstances? Perhaps one pulls on the words of those who have been faced with many miscarriages of justice: the CCRC itself described this as

“the most widespread miscarriage of justice” it had seen. It is for that reason at least that I support this legislation.

I am well aware, and completely supportive, of the separation of powers, and the fine and delicate balance of our unwritten constitution, but in passing this legislation, it is as clear as it can be that Parliament will be carrying out the will of the people. It is also clear that this will set a precedent. I am delicately untroubled by that, because it sets a precedent for a set of circumstances where, were they to occur again, it may well be the case that the will of the people and Parliament need to step in. It is that set of circumstances which—I say delicately and with respect—argue against the claims that this tends towards autocracy and totalitarianism.

This is not something that any of us are undertaking lightly, but it is a means of securing justice for those who have waited far too long, many serving prison sentences and all carrying the sentence of having been convicted, often for decades. This is why I believe Parliament is right to take this Bill through, to enable justice around in the most timely manner. It is difficult to even call it “timely”, bearing in mind how long this has already taken.

To ensure justice and equity for all those who have suffered for so long, I need to ask my noble friend the Minister: how can the Government act to ensure that justice for all happens on a similar, if not identical, timeline? How can the Government, while understanding the reserved nature of the Post Office and the devolved nature of justice, work even more with the Scottish Parliament to ensure that all postmistresses and postmasters in Scotland can achieve justice at the same time or in a similar timeframe to those in England, Wales and Northern Ireland?

Similarly, as other noble Lords have rightly stated, it seems inequitable for those who have already been to the Court of Appeal to be excluded from this legislation. They are effectively being punished for having been able to pursue their claims quickly and effectively, only to find themselves receiving no remedy and the outcome that the court, at that stage and on the evidence provided, delivered for them. We know that justice delayed is justice denied. We have the opportunity to at least bring justice through the legislative process—yes, it is novel and unprecedented—through this Bill.

I turn to the means by which the private prosecutions were brought about in the first place: Section 6(1) of the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985. Many members of the public were shocked to discover that the Post Office could pursue such prosecutions in this manner. They were even more shocked when they realised that this was a power in no sense available just to the Post Office but available across the piece. The Post Office was effectively acting as investigator and prosecutor in cases where it was the alleged victim. Does my noble friend the Minister not agree that this is self-evidently prima facie problematic?

If we are to deliver justice for all those who have suffered, how many sub-postmistresses and sub-postmasters will be left with their convictions not quashed even after this legislation is passed? As much as we can be clear on the numbers, there are approaching 1,000 convictions and so far—again, as much as we can know—around 103 convictions have been quashed: 10%. This Bill, when it comes into statute, will certainly address a large number of those convictions, but how many people—to the Minister’s best knowledge, on the evidence he has available to him—will still be left unhelped after we pass this legislation?

Without moving away from the serious matter of today, I would like to ask the Minister about what thoughts the Government have put to reflecting on Section 6(1) of the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985. What are the safeguards? How did they work in these instances? Are the Government satisfied to continue with this legislation in its current form? Is the Law Commission looking into this?

Similarly, looking to a potential future beyond this unprecedented set of circumstances, what are the Government’s thoughts in terms of the future of the Post Office? It is a unique entity. It has been in our communities, on most of our high streets, for over half a millennium—but 500 years-plus of history does not give any organisation any right necessarily to continue in any form. Does the Minister agree that urgent thought on the structure of the Post Office, potentially looking at mutualisation or other such models, could, at least once we are through this, enable a brighter, better Post Office?

With sub-postmistresses and sub-postmasters, the pillars of our community, knowing our communities and the business better than anybody else, would it not make sense to have their voices, past and present, involved in shaping that future? In equalities discussions, there is a useful mantra, “Nothing about us without us”. I gently suggest that that mantra should apply to considerations about the Post Office going forward, where all the sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses right across the country are able to have a voice in shaping what needs to be a very different future for the Post Office.