Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 5:38 pm ar 13 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol 5:38, 13 Mai 2024

My Lords, it is an honour to follow so many noble Lords in speaking at this Second Reading.

On these Benches, we too support the Bill. I am grateful that the right reverend Prelate pointed out that there is not one single party grouping or other grouping against it. That speaks to the highly unusual circumstances. While I am sure that will not entirely comfort the noble and learned Lords, Lord Burnett and Lord Etherton, I hope it will give them some reassurance that the Bill is meeting the issues that they both raised about the potential for future totalitarian moves. If you read the progress of this Bill in another place, you will see that exactly the same happened there. There was much thought about the difficulties of the constitution and how this fits in while trying to balance that with the difficult circumstances the country finds itself in following this extraordinary miscarriage of justice.

I thank the Minister for our meeting last week. I also thank the House of Lords Library and the Law Society for their helpful briefings. I am speaking from these Benches today in the absence of my noble friend Lord Fox, who hopes to be able to join us for the next stage of the Bill.

For those of us who perhaps have been sad enough to sit and watch many of the hours of evidence in this phase of the inquiry, it is vital to remember that the lives of the sub-postmasters and other Post Office front-line staff have been ruined by Post Office Ltd and Fujitsu. Both of them convinced magistrates, juries and judges that the software package could not be accessed remotely. As the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, outlined and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, also spoke about, Fujitsu will need to face justice, as will the management at Post Office Ltd. Evidence in recent weeks has now put into the public domain the fact that staff at both organisations knew many years ago that it was possible to access Horizon remotely, and that it was done to remedy glitches and errors.

The noble Lord, Lord Sikka, referred to the oral evidence of Rod Ismay as unimpressive. Helpfully, though, the written evidence presented to him from emails and reports during that period made absolutely plain who knew what and when. Despite that, since 2000, the Post Office has prosecuted some 730 individuals, many of whom were convicted and imprisoned on what appear to have been false evidence and assertions. Many were not only bankrupted but lost their homes, their businesses and the faith of their local communities when they served in their local Post Office branch, as the noble Lord, Sahota, rightly pointed out. As we have heard, some postmasters committed suicide.

As with other scandals, such as the infected blood victims, compensation and interim compensation schemes have been set up. Those whose convictions have not yet been quashed are ineligible to apply for them. The Horizon Compensation Advisory Board has made a specific recommendation that all the affected sub-postmasters’ convictions are unsafe and should be swiftly overturned. As I have already outlined, what we are hearing in the inquiry reinforces this beyond any shadow of doubt. We must leave it to Sir Wyn Williams to present his report and his findings in due course, but it is evident that things have gone badly wrong.

The noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, reminded me of a software engineer’s description of error-filled software. I am married to an engineer who is involved with software. A common phrase in our family is “garbage in, garbage out”. Yet, one of the problems of this case is that everybody believed that the software was invincible. Therein lay the miscarriage of justice.

It is public knowledge, through both the Court of Appeal judgment in 2021 and the evidence given under oath at the public inquiry, that the technical reason relied on for every single prosecution was that it was impossible for anyone, apart from the sub-postmaster, to access an individual’s account. We know that that was demonstrably untrue. Worse, POL and Fujitsu continued to rely on it, even when they knew it was not the case. That is an even worse miscarriage of justice. On these grounds alone, every single one of the remaining Horizon convictions should be overturned.

I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett, for saying that the judiciary could and should be able to proceed with appeals. There are real concerns about capacity, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, said. The noble Lord, Lord Sandhurst, also expressed concerns about the timescale. We know that there is a large backlog in cases coming to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, let alone the issue of finding time in the Court of Appeal. The one thing that we have heard from every speaker today is that these issues must be resolved at pace.

Some convicted postmasters are dying. Others are at retirement age, having lost everything decades ago as a result of these convictions. It is not just unfair that they cannot access justice swiftly; this is itself an injustice. I support the concerns expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, about DWP convictions between 2000 and 2006 being treated differently from CPS convictions. Will the Minister ensure that the DWP is required now to assess its prosecutions in this case? I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, for going into further detail on the question of DWP convictions being reliable. Given that Post Office Ltd has now given up its right to conduct prosecutions, I wonder whether the same should be true for the DWP.

I have questions for the Minister that I warned him about last week. First, in Clause 2, the relevant offence is defined by time, between 1996 and 2018, and by offence; Clause 2(6) specifically mentions the Horizon system, as does Clause 10; and Clause 8 provides a power for the Secretary of State to make further consequential provision. The Delegated Powers Committee supplementary memorandum confirms the narrow scope, and all this should give reassurance to the House that that is true.

However, there is a problem. The system prior to Horizon, Capture, is now revealed to have had serious software glitches and errors in the same way. I am grateful that the Government have now instituted an inquiry into that, although, hopefully, of a more limited nature. The Independent newspaper reported that former sub-postmasters had suffered unexplained shortfalls caused by Capture, which was rolled out in the early 1990s. Details show that the Post Office knew Capture was prone to faults and glitches, yet prosecutions went ahead.

Following the inquiry that the Government have now instigated into the Capture convictions, would it be possible—I suspect the answer is no—to add Capture to the Horizon inquiry? Yes, the software definitely predated Horizon, but everything else, including the bizarre and unexpected shortfalls and the way the Post Office conducted the prosecutions, including repeated assertions, is very similar to the Horizon case. If that is not possible but the Capture inquiry comes to the same conclusions as are now evident from the Horizon inquiry, what route to redress is available for the Capture postmasters?

The noble Lords. Lord Arbuthnot and Lord Sandhurst, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Sentamu, spoke of the 13 people post the Hamilton case who had their sentences upheld by the Court of Appeal, of whom seven are entitled to appeal but six were refused leave. Assuming that the final inquiry report confirms that cases relating to Horizon should never have been brought to court because of the Post Office relying in every case on Horizon, saying repeatedly that it was not possible for anyone to be able to access postmasters’ Horizon accounts, can the Secretary of State ensure that these cases are entitled to make an application to appeal? There are consequential rights, although the Bill says they are limited in scope, for the Secretary of State to do so. Would a particular finding from the inquiry be something that could happen? The noble Lord, Lord Sandhurst, said he believed those people would not be able to get any of their convictions overturned under the Bill. Is that true? He is shaking his head, so if I misunderstood him then I apologise. Could the Secretary of State’s power be used in regulation as it relates to Horizon?

I hope we will be able to progress with the same carefulness with which we started this Second Reading.