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

I will need to write to the noble Lord on that point.

As my colleague in the other place, Minister Hollinrake, said, we want to minimise any pause between the Bill coming into effect and redress payments being made.

To be clear, the GLO compensation scheme is independent of the Post Office. As requested by postmasters in our consultation, it is run by the Department for Business and Trade. Claims which are not agreed will be assessed by a panel whose members are independent of government and the Post Office. Any errors in decisions from the independent panel can be taken to the reviewer of the GLO scheme, Sir Ross Cranston. The Government are funding postmasters with overturned convictions to receive independent legal advice on their claims and offers. Retired High Court judge Sir Gary Hickinbottom has been put in place to chair an independent panel to resolve disputes on pecuniary losses. Horizon shortfall scheme claims are assessed by an independent panel of experts who provide a recommendation to the Post Office. To date, there have not been any instances where the Post Office has offered a lower amount than the recommendation of the panel.

The noble Lord, Lord Sikka, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, raised the accountability of Post Office executives. We await the outcome of the Wyn inquiry, which will provide clarity on this issue. Finding people guilty without looking at all the evidence is how we got into this mess in the first place. Postmasters were prosecuted without proper disclosure; we must not make the same mistake again in holding people accountable for this scandal, however tempting it might be. The public can be very reassured by the detailed investigation being conducted in public by Sir Wyn Williams. Each week reveals more shocking news, and I have no doubt that justice will be served by the inquiry.

A number of noble Lords have quite rightly mentioned Fujitsu. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, has raised Fujitsu and its role in the scandal a number of times in this Chamber. It is right that the company has voluntarily decided not to bid for future government contracts for the time being while the inquiry is ongoing, unless the Government ask it to. The Government also welcome Fujitsu acknowledging that it has a moral obligation to contribute to compensation. The Government are in active conversations with the company at a very senior level about this.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, who has consistently raised the concept of the interrogation of computer evidence used in prosecutions. The Government are committed to preventing any further miscarriages of justice, like the Horizon scandal. There has been a proliferation of digital material in modern criminal cases, particularly in cases such as fraud and serious sexual offending but also in lower-level high-volume offences such as drink-driving. For this reason, any hasty changes to the legal position risk serious and significant unintended consequences for the running of the criminal justice system. However, the Lord Chancellor is fully considering all options available, and more consideration can be given to this matter and reported to the House through this process.

I thank the noble Lords, Lord Browne of Ladyton and Lord Holmes of Richmond, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, for their comments on the territorial extent of the Bill. We all wish to see justice being applied in all four parts of the United Kingdom. The other place has agreed to extend the Bill to Northern Ireland, in recognition of the unique challenges faced by the Northern Ireland Executive in bringing forward their own in a similar timeframe to the rest of the UK. Their legislative process is lengthy and difficult to expedite, and the legislation would have to compete with the many other priorities accumulated during the two-year suspension of the Assembly. The Government are also cognisant of the extent of cross-community support for the extension of the Bill to Northern Ireland.

The Government’s position on Scotland remains unchanged. Scotland does not face the same challenges in bringing forward legislation within its Parliament as Northern Ireland does. It is for the Scottish Government to bring forward their own proposals to address prosecutions, and for those to be scrutinised by the Scottish Parliament in line with the devolution settlement. I hope that reassures the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, and the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, that my officials have been supporting their counterparts in the Scottish Government to bring forward their own legislative proposals. I understand that they intend to do this shortly.

I turn to another of the very uncomfortable situations raised by the Horizon scandal, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Sahota, who spoke so powerfully about the racism experienced by victims of the Horizon scandal. I agree that this issue is very important. The Sir Wyn Williams inquiry has touched on this already in its oral evidence sessions. The Government are keen to hear anything that the inquiry concludes on this matter, including any recommendations for the future.

On the issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, in relation to Capture, the precursor computer system to Horizon, at this point we have not found sufficient evidence to conclude that Capture led to people being wrongly convicted. Capture was very different from Horizon: it was a stand-alone spreadsheet, not an integrated accounting system. There were bugs in it, but they were admitted to by the Post Office. It was not an interactive system that could be manipulated by a third-party source, as was the case with Horizon. It helped postmasters balance their accounts, rather than operating as a black box, reporting accounts across the network to Post Office headquarters. Given the limited information that we currently have about Capture and resulting convictions, there is not yet any evidence that any miscarriages of justice took place. It is therefore the Government’s position not to seek to overturn these convictions or to consider Capture cases within the Horizon system inquiry.

However, I would like to reassure the noble Baroness that we are looking into what can be done on Capture. As soon as the Government found out about issues with the Capture system, we asked the Post Office to investigate. We are in the process of appointing an independent forensic investigator to look into the Capture software and how the Post Office addressed concerns about it. Once the investigator has reported, we will return to the House to set out our plans, but we do not consider that this should hold up the more important matter before us, which is overturning the Horizon convictions.

On the post-legislative process, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sandhurst, for his very useful contribution and his two points about creating a website for those who have been exonerated by this Bill. He has indicated that we do not have full contact details for all our claimants in this case. For reasons of confidentiality, it would not be right to create a public web page that would list the names of those exonerated. However, all those that are in scope will be written to on Royal Assent, and those that we have been able to identify in scope but have not been contacted can get in touch with the Government to have their cases looked into. We will ensure that GOV.UK is utilised to promote access to exoneration and financial redress. All guidance on the exoneration process and the financial redress scheme will be on GOV.UK.

I am grateful for the cross-party support shown towards this legislation and the valuable support of the Opposition Front Benches, represented by the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton.

In closing, the Government recognise the profound impacts that the Horizon scandal had on those who were falsely accused. I listened to the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, refer to individual cases, and we all know of examples in our local area where lives have been ruined, and each one is a very sad story on its own. Therefore, we legislate with that at the forefront of our minds, and the objective of this Bill is to exonerate those who were so unjustly convicted of crimes that they did not commit and provide fair redress as swiftly as possible. I beg to move.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.