Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 6:01 pm ar 13 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Offord of Garvel Lord Offord of Garvel Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade) 6:01, 13 Mai 2024

My Lords, this has been a thoughtful and considered debate, and I am grateful for the broad and insightful contributions from noble Lords across the House. I was particularly grateful for the opening contributions of the noble and learned Lords, Lord Falconer of Thoroton and Lord Burnett of Maldon, one speaking as a former Lord Chancellor and the other as a former Lord Chief Justice. They were able to frame so eloquently the two potential solutions available to your Lordships’ House to right these wrongs.

The Government acknowledge that the quashing of convictions by an Act of Parliament is an exceptional step, but we believe it is required to respond to a factually exceptional situation. We know that many postmasters are simply too traumatised or disenchanted with authority to consider appealing, no matter how easy we make it. They want to see no further lawyer or court; they are scunnered. In many cases, evidence simply no longer exists anyway in order to help their cases. The scale and circumstances of prosecutorial and investigatory misconduct over such an extended period are unique in our history. The scale of this miscarriage of justice is an affront to the rule of law itself. Therefore, it is right that the Government intervene to deliver justice to hundreds of postmasters, who deserve this without having to make a huge amount of effort themselves. We need to do this while respecting the delicate constitutional balance so eloquently put forward by a number of noble and learned Lords this afternoon.

I will start by covering the legislative approach we are taking. I understand the concerns of the noble and learned Lords, Lord Burnett of Maldon and Lord Etherton, and the right relevant Prelate the Bishop of Manchester. We all share their respect for an independent judiciary. I have been clear that the Bill is not a comment on the outstanding work of the courts and judiciary, which have dealt swiftly with the cases before them. I am cognisant of the assurances given by the judiciary that it would move fast in this case.

However, I respectfully disagree with how the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, characterised the legislation. We agree that the separation of powers is a vital part of our justice system, but public confidence and faith in the system are also vital. This is a miscarriage of justice on a scale never seen before, and the circumstances are exceptional. We have carefully considered other approaches, including court processes. However, ultimately, no reform short of this legislative approach provides the swift remedy needed as a result of these unprecedented circumstances.

Many postmasters would not see justice through the courts, because much of the evidence about individual cases has now been destroyed or because many postmasters no longer trust the criminal justice system and therefore will not come forward. It is therefore right that the Government take action to put this right.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett of Maldon, raised the possibility of legislating to give Ministers powers to refer cases to the Court of Appeal and assume that all convictions were wrongful unless new evidence was presented. Reconsideration of cases by the Court of Appeal would take time even if court processes were expedited. Further, a presumption that all relevant convictions are unsafe is rebuttable, and we cannot be sure that every case would pass through the courts swiftly and without adjournments. This approach would not avoid interfering with the independence of the judiciary; it would raise other constitutional concerns, as it would make an assumption about the outcome of the cases being referred, meaning that the Government were still interfering in the judicial process of the senior appellate court.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett, also spoke about comments made by the Lady Chief Justice. She said that in over 90% of cases the defendants pleaded guilty. We are not able to verify this figure, which in itself tells noble Lords quite a lot about this case. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, rightly raised, we are also aware, from Sir Wyn Williams’ inquiry, of evidence suggesting that individuals pleaded guilty because they were told to or felt under pressure.

I turn to the specific issue of the Court of Appeal cases, which was highlighted at the beginning of the debate by the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom, and then raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, and the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond. This is a difficult issue; I thank noble Lords for raising it.

Let us start by reminding your Lordships’ House of the unprecedented and constitutionally sensitive nature of this legislation. That is why it is vital that we legislate in a way which respects the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary as far as possible. Including convictions that have been upheld by the Court of Appeal would override decisions taken by the senior judiciary. Of the 13 such cases we know of, seven were upheld by the Court of Appeal and six were refused leave to appeal. They are excluded from the Bill because the Government believe we should tread very carefully where judges in the senior appellate court have considered a case on its merits. We recognise that this approach may leave a small number of individuals concerned about the way forward for their cases. In cases where the Court of Appeal has upheld a conviction, the usual routes of appeal remain available to them.

I turn to the matter of the DWP cases—