Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 5:27 pm ar 13 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Sahota Lord Sahota Llafur 5:27, 13 Mai 2024

My comments are, as we say in politics, from the grass roots about what some postmasters are saying and their feelings. As for the legal matters of this case, I leave it to your Lordships’ great legal minds.

I wholeheartedly support this Bill. It is long overdue, and the sooner we get it on the statute book, the better. The sub-postmasters have suffered long enough. The sooner we close this shameful chapter in our Post Office history, the better. This Bill must give faith to all those who have lost theirs in our justice system and in the Post Office management. Most important of all, I hope the end result of this Bill will satisfy all the sub-postmasters and that they will be properly compensated for their suffering.

I fully support the blanket quashing of their convictions or any other wrongdoing they are accused of, wherever the Post Office acted as judge, jury and executioner. Let me make it quite plain from the outset that my heart goes out to each and every one of the victims of this scandal, whatever their background and whichever community they belong to. This is one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in the history of our country.

Although all sub-postmasters were treated badly, some were subjected to extra layers of suffering. I bring to noble Lords’ attention in particular the victims who had an Asian heritage or background, although my concern is equally applicable to those from African and Caribbean backgrounds as well. This issue was reported on “Newsnight” around Christmas time by Sima Kotecha, one of its journalists. According to a Post Office survey in 2012, over 40% of the sub-postmasters in the UK were from an Asian background. Personally, I think that it could be more than that. They run the post offices not only in inner cities where there are large ethnic-minority populations but in small villages up and down the country.

When the news of this miscarriage of justice began to break over 20 years ago in local media and on social media, Asian sub-postmasters were the hardest hit, for two reasons. First, it was alleged that the Post Office officials investigating them treated them with racial malice and disdain. Their comments, which are in the public domain, include, “All you foreigners are the same—money grabbers—stealing money from the Post Office and sending it to your own country”. It was reported that they were often spoken to with condescending language and in a different tone. Secondly, there is the importance of shame and family reputation in the Asian community. Every culture and society is perceptive to social shame, but because of the closeness of the Asian society, it is more keenly felt by them. To understand it, you have to be Asian and of a certain age—like me.

Some of these Asians came to the UK with nothing, and out of their sheer hard work they built a comfortable lifestyle for themselves and their families. It is a well-known fact that some Asians work hard not for themselves but to leave behind something for their children, so that they would not have to go through all the same problems again. When they are falsely accused of being thieves, that is the deepest cut of all in the community. They try to hide not just from their community but from themselves. Worst of all is what their children and grandchildren think of them.

It is no wonder that some of the sub-postmasters suffered mental breakdowns and tried to commit suicide. Take the case of Jess Kaur, from the West Midlands, and the ordeal that the Post Office put her through. I have spoken with her a number of times. She had 14 electric shock treatments. When she was in hospital for her treatment, the Post Office did not believe her, so it sent its own doctor to verify her condition. How low can you get? We all pray to God that Jess will recover from her terrible ordeal soon.

Another Asian lady, Rubbina Shaheen, from Shropshire, my home county, lost everything—her business and her home—and was forced to live in a van on the streets of Shrewsbury. She said that she felt suicidal. Another Asian lady, Seema Misra, from London, was sent to jail while pregnant. Mrs Kashmir Kaur Gill, from Oxford, was prosecuted in 2009 for false accounting and was given a five-year suspended sentence. Her reputation and that of her family was destroyed in the community. She suffered decades of hell and developed a mental health problem. I could go on and on with these examples.

On Asian suffering, I do not think that the famous ITV drama that we all know even scratched the surface of this race and cultural issue. I hope that the Bill will acknowledge these particular issues. As I said earlier, my heart goes out to all the sub-postmasters, irrespective of their background.

Finally, it is my personal view that although all the Post Office senior managers, directors, chief executives and solicitors, and software company managers and directors—who went above and beyond the call of duty to protect the Post Office brand and their jobs and did not care about the human suffering—have apologised, as have all who have been giving evidence to the Williams inquiry and to Parliament, apologies are just words in the wind. There should be some kind of financial sanction on them. That I leave to your Lordships, with thanks for letting me make these comments.