Amendment 1

Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill - Report and Third Reading – in the House of Lords am 5:51 pm ar 23 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Lord Sikka:

Moved by Lord Sikka

1: Clause 1, page 1, line 9, after “Service” insert “or the Department for Work and Pensions

Photo of Lord Sikka Lord Sikka Llafur

My Lords, I thank the Minister and his team for meeting me yesterday to discuss some of the issues relating to Amendment 1, which seeks to amend Clause 1 and quash convictions of postmasters secured by the Department for Work and Pensions. I will not hold up this Bill by pressing the amendment but would like to put some matters on the public record for consideration by the next Government.

Based upon some evidence and testimonies of individuals and, in the case of those who have passed away since convictions, information given to me by their families, I believe there is a strong case for an independent review of all the DWP convictions of postmasters. These convictions took place at a time when the government department and public bodies were insisting that their evidence was sound. The Minister has already said that the DWP cases were not influenced by Horizon. But my view is that, for any fraud to be discovered or prosecuted, there has to be some baseline which states the normal state of affairs. Was that normal state of affairs as per the data generated by the Horizon system?

After 20 years, the affected individuals and their families no longer have court transcripts or the bundles of evidence. Courts themselves do not have copies of the transcripts or the bundles of evidence. Lawyers acting for the parties do not have copies of the transcripts or the bundles of evidence. That makes it very difficult to know whether those prosecutions were fair or whether, in the heat of the moment and the prevailing climate that postmasters were guilty, certain kinds of assumptions were made. I am hoping that the DWP and the Ministry of Justice have copies of each of the cases and all the transcripts, and that they have reviewed or will review each case thoroughly. Without reviewing each case, it is hard to know whether any of the convictions were safe.

Some anecdotal evidence in family and professional letters suggests that convictions may not be safe. For example, there is a letter from the law firm Williamson & Soden, dated 18 April 2004, to a client, now deceased, whom I shall call Mr X out of respect for his family, who do not want him named. This letter says:

“I write to confirm the outcome of your trial at Wolverhampton Crown Court. As you are aware, having heard all the evidence, the Jury found you not guilty to all seventeen counts against you and you were finally discharged. You will be pleased to know that you cannot be re-charged for these offences and you are no longer subject to bail”.

Of course, it is not unusual for the courts to absolve individuals, but my point is that the case shows that the DWP’s construction of this case and evidence was obviously flawed. How many other cases were based on flawed evidence? That is the issue here.

In that case, the same person, now deceased, wrote a letter saying that

“completely unfounded allegations were brought against me by the DWP with scant regard for the evidence or facts available, and I find it incredible that the Senior Investigating Officer in this matter”—

I will call her TC as, again, I do not want to give the person’s name, although I mentioned it to the Minister—

“was willing to admit, in open court, that she has been neglectful in her duty in securing evidence, which could have possibly proved my innocence months ago”.

These allegations were made against a senior DWP investigating officer.

I have given the identity of this person to the Minister, but he said that DWP cannot find anyone with that name in its records, which inevitably raises further questions about how DWP can claim that its prosecutions were sound. Does this mean its files are deficient and it has not got the data? If Ms TC’s evidence was faulty in one case, how many other cases was she involved in? These are the kinds of questions I have. I urge the next Government to mount an independent investigation of DWP prosecutions of postmasters.

Finally, I thank the Minister for his courtesy, integrity and professionalism throughout this debate and on other occasions when we have crossed cocktail sticks across this Floor.

Photo of Lord Beith Lord Beith Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, we would not be considering an amendment like this on Report but for the foreshortening that the general election has imposed. But it is valuable that the point has been brought forward. A little earlier, the Minister gave us a pretty blood-curdling description of some of the offences that might have been covered or have secured convictions as a result of DWP prosecutions.

However, that should not frighten us off looking carefully at the point that bothers me: a person mixing up money, who is in a state of desperation because he or she is told that they owe £10,000 because of the Horizon system and who then commits an offence involving the DWP’s money and is prosecuted by the DWP. The Minister may be able to give me some assurance that this combination of offences, or this mixed offence, can be satisfactorily dealt with within the present terms of the legislation. He may have checked a number of cases already to see whether there are any examples where somebody has been driven to commit a relatively minor offence, prosecuted by DWP, because of the position they were in in relation to Horizon. Can he give us any helpful clarifying points on that?

Photo of Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Shadow Spokesperson (Business and Trade), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland)

My Lords, this Bill has always been about justice and getting it quickly for the victims of the Post Office/Fujitsu scandal. We can all agree—and have all agreed—that they have waited far too long.

I am glad that, in wash-up today, we are pushing this Bill through before the end of this Parliament, so that the individuals affected by it will receive the responses that they deserve from across Parliament as a whole—the Government, Opposition and other Benches. I am conscious that there are other important Bills that need to be debated today and tomorrow, so I will keep my comments brief. I know that there is a consensus across the House to see the overwhelming bulk, if not all, of the convictions overturned as soon as possible.

I have already spoken at length about my support for this Bill and what it does for those hundreds of innocent postmasters and postmistresses who went through our legal system and were not believed. They either pleaded guilty—the majority, 90% I think, pleaded guilty—to get lesser terms, and the other 10% were convicted and jailed. Some have now passed or have committed suicide; we need to and should remember them. This Bill exonerates and deals with them.

Likewise, I do not need to remind the House that Labour, in voting for this Bill, in no way wants to set any kind of legal precedent where the legislature overturns decisions of the judiciary, even when those decisions were wrong. These cases are unique and we need to deal with them. On these Benches, we have sympathy with the desire of the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot, to see those convicted by the Court of Appeal dealt with. It is a shame that, after everything that he has done, the noble Lord is unfortunately not in his place for Report.

I know that the noble Lord, Lord Sandhurst, and others came up with proposals or ideas at Second Reading for how we could work with, help and support the individuals who went through the Court of Appeal, going back and looking again and speeding up the process to support them. I hope that the Minister, in winding up on Report, will be able to say a few words about how government can support and help. We should look to facilitate that.

While we have been discussing how we can do our best to support the victims and right the wrongs, Paula Vennells has been giving evidence to the inquiry. She has admitted misleading MPs and said that she was “unaware” of the extent of the Post Office’s prosecution functions for years. In the first hour of her evidence this morning, I counted that she said “I do not recall” 11 times and “I cannot remember” on at least six occasions. Because of the events of the past 24 hours, the spotlight has obviously moved from the inquiry and the coverage that it was rightly getting, on to the general election. I am sure that, across this House, whatever the result of the general election, that spotlight will shift back to the decisions that the senior management team, the Post Office board and other individuals involved made and, importantly, back to the role that Fujitsu played in what happened in this terrible case.

We will not be able to revisit digital evidence today, nor what we can do with the Post Office board, nor how we deal with Fujitsu and Horizon. That will be for another day. At this stage, I look forward to the words of the Minister.

On the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, there is a concern around the DWP’s understanding of, and how much information it has on, those individual cases, as they are not part of this legislation. Looking at what happened in those cases will be very important.

Photo of Lord Fox Lord Fox Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Business) 6:00, 23 Mai 2024

My Lords, first, I apologise for arriving slightly late; I beg the leave of the House to speak.

It is an honour to follow the noble Lord, who has been very much engaged in this issue for so long, as have other noble Lords here. I echo the point about the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot—it is a shame that he is not here.

To address the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, I think I heard the Minister say in Committee that, in the event that such cases did start to involve the Horizon issue, these issues would be reviewed and brought to your Lordships’ House. I hope that my understanding is correct. There is a deeper issue around finding the people who have been affected by this, because there are quite a number who are essentially missing.

That brings me to a wider point: how this Bill, when it becomes an Act, will be administered by the department. The efficient, humane and understanding administration of the Act will be central to the feeling people have of finally getting justice. I am sure that the intentions will be good, but speed is really important. Although process is important, that process needs to be expedited in order to make sure that those people find some peace at last.

I want to pick up the point we discussed in Committee, about which the Minister and others had conversations afterwards, on the subject of the 13 cases. As was touched on by the noble Lord, these people have been burned by the legal system not once but twice. To persuade them to once again put their hand in the fire may be difficult. If the only way they can get justice is to go back one more time through the legal system, it is vital that all friction is removed from it by the department and the legal system—a representative of which I am pleased to see here. If we cannot use the Act to finally exonerate these 13 then we have to rely on a humane, rapid and frictionless legal system. Anything that the Minister can say about how that can be done would be the start of being reassuring. These people will have to have a metaphorical arm put over their shoulder to persuade them once more to enter the legal fray. It is important that they get that and as much help as possible.

In closing, I echo the point that this is a really important Bill. It has taken a very long time to get to where we are. The Ministers, His Majesty’s Opposition and, I hope, these Benches have done our best to make sure that it moves as fast as possible. Once it becomes an Act, I hope very quickly, the ball passes to the administration of it. Let us get that done as quickly as we have been able to get this Bill.

Photo of Lord Offord of Garvel Lord Offord of Garvel Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade)

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Sikka, for the attention he has brought to convictions prosecuted by the Department for Work and Pensions. Amendment 1 would result in convictions for relevant offences in England and Wales that were prosecuted by the DWP being quashed at Royal Assent. I reiterate the Government’s view, which I set out in a certain amount of detail in Committee earlier in this Chamber, that the cases prosecuted by the DWP were of a very different nature from those prosecuted by the Post Office and the Crown Prosecution Service.

The Government’s view is therefore that it is right that they remain excluded from the scope of the Bill and that these convictions should not be quashed through this legislation. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Beith, for his question; I can assure him that DWP prosecutions had nothing to do with the Horizon system. There are no instances that we are aware of where someone committed an offence prosecuted by the DWP because they were accused of Horizon shortfalls. With that, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Sikka Lord Sikka Llafur

I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 1 withdrawn.

Photo of Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Shadow Spokesperson (Business and Trade), Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland)

My Lords, as the Bill reaches its final stages, I have a few thank yous from my side. I put on record my thanks to my colleague and friend, the noble Lord, Lord Leong, for his support during the Bill’s passage, to our team in the Labour Lords office—Milton Brown and Cameron Iverson—for their support, to James Fisher in my office and to the Bill team. I also thank the Liberal Democrat Benches and the Government for the collective nature of our work on this.