Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 5:49 pm ar 13 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Shadow Spokesperson (Business and Trade), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland) 5:49, 13 Mai 2024

My Lords, I thank the Minister and the departmental team for their work on this Bill and for being available to meet me, my noble friend Lord Leong and others from across the House.

In reading back over some of my speeches from 2019, 2020 and 2021—I am just a newbie to this—one theme shines through, and that is the sheer injustice of the Post Office Ltd and Fujitsu scandal. I use Post Office and Fujitsu rather than Horizon, as Horizon is just a faceless IT system. The Post Office Ltd is culpable, with senior management to blame, the board negligent and the department and its representatives missing. There are two main parties to this: Fujitsu and Post Office Ltd. I am sure we will come back to the board, the individuals, the non-execs and the department representatives, as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, has raised many times in previous debates.

Naturally, I pay tribute to the many sub-postmasters and mistresses who have campaigned tirelessly for justice. Their resolve in the face of unimaginable levels of abuse and suffering is testament to their courage. It was their stories that galvanised the country behind taking the urgent and unprecedented action in this Bill. Although it may have been a television drama that finally ignited public consciousness on this issue, I also want to reiterate the tributes to the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, and to Kevan Jones MP, for their years of work in Parliament and outside to lay bare the great injustices and the fight of the sub-postmasters and mistresses.

This is not an academic debate; this is fundamentally about people’s lives. I am not a lawyer, but I understand the focus on legal precedents, the debate around the judiciary, Executive and Parliament, and the inference on the constitution and the independence of the judiciary. But this is about people. That is the balance this House needs to reach.

I made a speech in 2020 in response to the court case Bates v Post Office, which was settled in 2019, in which I mentioned a number of individual cases. My noble friend Lord Sahota has touched on two of those, but it is worth putting on record what happened to those individuals. There was Seema Misra, who ran a post office with her husband in Surrey. Time and again she had to put her own money into the till. A shortfall of £80,000 was ultimately found and she was sentenced to 15 months in jail while pregnant with her second child. Rubbina Shaheen was jailed for 12 months in 2010 after she was accused of stealing over £40,000 from the Greenfields post office in Shrewsbury. We all know Jo Hamilton’s story. Jo was accused of taking £36,000 from a village shop she ran in Hampshire. After pleading guilty to false accounting to avoid a more serious charge, she gave up her shop and found it difficult to get a new job due to her criminal record. During today’s debate, we must not lose sight of the impact of the failures on those families.

This is an important Bill, and those of us on these Benches support it wholeheartedly. Labour committed itself to working with the Government to ensure the best possible outcome for the victims. I am glad that the Government agree with us that these wrongful convictions ought to be quashed and that compensation needs to be delivered urgently.

I am particularly encouraged by the Minister’s desire to see convictions overturned prior to the Summer Recess. That deals with a number of the legal arguments about other options. If we followed those, the overturning of convictions would not happen before the Summer Recess. I am glad that the Government have worked constructively with Members of the other place to expand the terms to include Northern Irish sub-postmasters in the Bill. It is our hope that the Scottish Parliament also soon passes a similar Bill, as my noble friend Lord Browne touched on, so that victims all across the UK can benefit from having their convictions overturned.

This is one of the most egregious miscarriages of justice in British legal history, and I am heartened to see people from across all parties and none working together to deliver justice for those innocent people who have served at the heart of our communities. The many stories we have heard in this debate in this House and the other place never fail to shock me, and they emphasise the sheer scale of the suffering that this scandal has caused.

The noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, touched on Justice Fraser’s judgment in 2019. We have come a long way since 2019, but we have not come that far, and it is worth reminding ourselves. I was very struck by the vivid language that Justice Fraser used in his judgment, stating that Post Office Ltd demonstrated

“the most dreadful complacency, and total lack of interest in investigating these serious issues …” amounting to

“the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the earth is flat”.

The judge concluded that sub-postmasters were treated in

“capricious or arbitrary ways which would not be unfamiliar to a mid-Victorian factory-owner”.

It does beg the question, though: how did our judicial system allow so many sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses to be found guilty over so many years? It is deeply shameful that justice did not come quickly enough for those sub-postmasters who died or killed themselves before they could find redress. We want now to see justice for all victims. How confident is the Minister—this has been a theme throughout the debate—in the identifying criteria? Can he assure the House that all those affected are included in it?

It is important that we recognise the impact on sub-postmasters’ families, as the Lost Chances for the Children of Sub-Postmasters campaign group has highlighted. I also look forward to the publication of Wyn Williams’ inquiry report, as it will give an important opportunity to reflect more broadly on how we may be able to resolve further issues in a timely and dignified manner.

It will be vital for the legal system and the Government, as well as corporate bodies, to learn the lessons of these cases. As I said in a debate on this issue in January, we need to see a cultural change that sees an end to the constant stream of scandal after scandal. The destruction of people’s lives, the cover-ups, the vindictive way in which victims were treated once they came forward, the lethargic way in which justice is served, the culture of not being held responsible for failure and instead even being rewarded—that must all end. It remains my hope that this brings about a serious shift in the way that those in positions of power are permitted to act.

I am glad that the Bill can give sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses some relief, dignity and official acknowledgment of their innocence. However, it is important to note that this is an exceptional Bill and an isolated case. The House’s agreement on this Bill must never be misconstrued as any kind of desire to set a precedent. The independence of the judiciary must be upheld. I welcome the Government’s reassurances on this particular concern, but I ask for more. Will the Minister consider a more explicit element in the Bill? In addition, can he elaborate on the decision to include CPS prosecutions but not the DWP ones or the 13 Court of Appeal cases, as outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, and touched on by a number of noble Lords and noble Baronesses?

We on these Benches welcome this vital piece of legislation, but of course this is not the end: there is more to be done to right the wrongs. The Bill is a positive step on the road to justice for victims. It may not be the final destination but it is nevertheless an important milestone. I will finish with the words of the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, which are a great subtitle for the Bill: “the price that we pay for the exoneration of the innocent”. They are fine words.