Post Office (Horizon System) Offences (Scotland) Bill

– in the Scottish Parliament am 3:36 pm ar 30 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party 3:36, 30 Mai 2024

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-13407, in the name of Angela Constance, on the Post Office (Horizon System) Offences (Scotland) Bill at stage 3.

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party 3:45, 30 Mai 2024

I am very pleased to open the stage 3 debate on the Post Office (Horizon System) Offences (Scotland) Bill. Following the United Kingdom Government’s Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill receiving royal assent on Friday, we have brought forward the stage 3 debate, as we had committed to doing, thereby securing justice for the victims of the Post Office Horizon scandal as quickly as possible. [ Interruption .]

Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party

I am sorry to interrupt, cabinet secretary. I ask members who are leaving the chamber to do so quickly and quietly, please, because the cabinet secretary is trying to make her contribution.

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

Thank you, Presiding Officer.

In taking the bill through Parliament, I am pleased to have worked with colleagues from all parties in the chamber to ensure that the bill delivers the best possible outcome for Scottish sub-postmasters. We cannot ever fully remedy the hurt and harm that have been caused to those who have suffered a miscarriage of justice, but I am grateful to parliamentary colleagues for ensuring that we have, at this stage, moved swiftly and worked effectively together to do what is within our power to address matters. Once again, I pay direct tribute to the sub-postmasters and their supporters, who have endured so much and done so much to ensure that the true story of the Horizon scandal has been recognised.

As members know, the aim of the bill is to provide a quick, fair and equal solution for all sub-postmasters who were wrongly convicted as a result of the impact of the defective Horizon information technology system. Through the bill, we will ensure that Scottish sub-postmasters are not disadvantaged compared with those in the rest of the UK in respect of the quashing of their convictions, and that they are able to access the UK Government’s compensation scheme.

To recap, the bill provides that convictions for relevant offences will automatically be quashed when the bill comes into force. The bill sets out five conditions that must be met for a conviction to be a “relevant offence” and therefore be quashed. The fact that the conditions have deliberately been designed so as not to require any element of discretion in order for them to be applied allows for the automatic quashing of convictions that fall within the bill’s ambit.

The five conditions relate to the date of the offence, the type of offence, the need for an individual to have been working in a post office and for the conviction to have arisen in connection with post office business, and the need for the Horizon system to have been in use by that post office at the time.

At stage 2, we agreed to an amendment that removed the exclusion of High Court appeals from the bill. That will ensure fairness in the way in which we deal with people who might have sought to challenge their conviction by lodging an appeal in the past, especially at a time when the flaws in the Horizon system were not known about.

Today, we have agreed a further amendment that reflects the final form of the UK Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Act 2024. That amendment makes it clear that, where an offence was alleged to have been committed over a period of time or on unknown dates that fell within a particular period, the offence will still be considered relevant, even in cases in which the Horizon system was being used in the post office business for only part of the period. As I have set out, that amendment will ensure that a common approach is taken across the UK, and it will avoid anomalies relating to the timing of the Horizon system coming into place.

I had signalled my intention to seek to shorten the timeframe for receiving royal assent. Once the bill has passed stage 3, we will begin the formal process for securing that assent. In the meantime, officials are already working closely with justice partners, the Post Office and UK Government counterparts to ensure that we have the frameworks in place to quickly identify and notify those individuals whose convictions are quashed by the bill.

At stage 2, I committed to working with those who had lodged amendments in order to respond to the desire for transparency and reporting on the bill’s impact. I was therefore pleased today to lodge a further amendment, requiring Scottish ministers to prepare, publish and lay before the Scottish Parliament a report on the act’s operation as soon as is reasonably practicable after one year has elapsed since its commencement. The report must include the number of convictions in respect of which Scottish ministers have given notification under section 4 to a convicting court and to a person, and it will also provide information on the steps that have been taken by Scottish ministers to identify convictions that have been quashed by the act and to give notifications.

Although the report will not get into the specifics of individual cases, it will include general information on the processes that have been followed by ministers, such as details of the organisations that Scottish ministers engaged with in order to identify convictions and the steps that were taken to notify individuals—for example, the engagement of tracing agents. I hope that that amendment to the bill reassures members that I have fully considered their concerns about transparency.

I am grateful for the consideration that the Parliament has already given to the bill. Indeed, the amendments that were lodged by the Scottish Government at stage 2 and today are a reflection of that consideration, and I have no doubt that they will result in a significantly stronger bill.

Some amendments have, ultimately, not been pressed or agreed to. Although there are sound reasons for the outcome that we have reached, I recognise the very good intentions behind those amendments and I welcome the engagement and scrutiny that members have provided and brought to bear.

I am also grateful to members of the Parliament for their shared recognition of the urgency of the bill. The swiftness with which we have been able to introduce this key piece of legislation and conclude its parliamentary consideration is testament to what we can achieve when we are united in a shared commitment—a commitment to addressing the horrific miscarriage of justice that has ruined the lives of many; to helping Scottish sub-postmasters to clear their names; and to ensuring that they are treated on a par with their counterparts in the rest of the UK.

The bill is unprecedented. However, I hope that members will recognise it as the only way of ensuring that Scottish sub-postmasters are not left behind. I therefore urge all members to join me in their support for the bill.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that the Post Office (Horizon System) Offences (Scotland) Bill be passed.

Photo of Russell Findlay Russell Findlay Ceidwadwyr 3:52, 30 Mai 2024

What we saw in the Scottish Parliament yesterday represented the worst kind of politics: entitlement and double standards taking priority over respect for the rules and for the public. Today, with this expedited legislation, we see a better side of what the Parliament can do. The bill was published just 16 days ago, and cross-party work has ensured that it passed quickly and smoothly while also ensuring that it received proper scrutiny and improvements where necessary. Once it has been passed, Scotland’s wrongly convicted sub-postmasters will have their names instantly cleared and their criminal convictions quashed.

For any Parliament to overturn decisions that were arrived at by independent courts and judges is unprecedented and not done lightly. Last week, and again today, the cabinet secretary has recognised the gravity of the measure. I suspect that we are unlikely to see it happen again. It is notable that the Lord Advocate has been unwilling to say whether she supports the approach; her previous comments have suggested that she does not. This legislation is necessary, due to the seriousness and scale of this egregious and sickening mass miscarriage of justice.

The UK Government’s legislation was the template for the Scottish legislation; the UK bill was published on 13 March and received royal assent last week. Scottish National Party ministers said that they wanted the UK legislation to extend to Scotland. That was a strange position for them to take, as they usually find cause to complain about any perceived UK Government meddling. That manufactured fight was wholly unnecessary and not in the interests of Scotland’s Post Office victims.

It has always been apparent that Scotland’s proudly distinct legal system would require its own distinct bill. It is the most effective way, and it is the right one. Scotland’s sub-postmasters were prosecuted not by the Post Office but by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, and some of the criminal charges brought against them are unique to Scots law. Therefore, it is right that members of the Scottish Parliament should have been able to scrutinise the legislation, as we have done. My party has faith in the Scottish Parliament, even if Scottish National Party ministers do not.

After a bout of needless posturing from the Scottish Government, stand-alone Scottish legislation was duly published. In practical terms, we have already seen why that has been beneficial, as the bill has been amended and improved over the past 16 days.

Last week, the cabinet secretary secured an amendment to the Scottish legislation; that amendment, which Scottish Conservatives supported, allows convictions to be quashed even when a previous court appeal failed, and Ms Constance has worked with UK ministers to ensure that compensation will still apply in any such cases. Today, members have agreed to an amendment in the name of the cabinet secretary, which I supported, to require that a post-legislative report be published and laid before the Scottish Parliament. Neither of those changes would have happened if the UK act had been extended to Scotland. Even if the Westminster law had applied here, as the Scottish National Party said it wanted, this Parliament would have had to pass more legislation to make the specific changes, adding to the delays for victims who have already suffered for far too long.

All this political activity has been in response to a television drama that aired in the first few days of this year. “Mr Bates vs The Post Office” has had an extraordinary impact, bringing to life what was ostensibly a story about an information technology system. It sparked collective public fury at the injustices that had been inflicted on decent and honest hardworking men and women, who were branded as thieves, whose protestations of innocence were ignored, and who were criminalised and crushed by a faulty computer system and a dishonest Post Office and prosecutors who took what they were told at face value.

People who were wrongly convicted in Scotland are now on the cusp of having their convictions quashed, but we will probably never be able to establish how many sub-postmasters passed away before justice was done. Fiona Cowan died of an accidental overdose after being charged; Caren Lorimer pled guilty only to avoid being jailed and separated from her young son; and Mary Philp was forced to resign in shame. All those women were innocent, but none of them is alive to see this day.

We also cannot possibly know the full extent of the harm that was inflicted on people and their families. Sisters Rose Stewart and Jacquie El Kasaby were ordered to hand over thousands of pounds after being falsely accused; Rab Thomson was forced to plead guilty to a crime that did not even happen; and Keith Macaldowie contemplated suicide after being forced to resign and pay thousands of pounds.

This legislation is not—and should not be—the end of the story. The Post Office inquiry will reach its findings, and justice may yet follow for the real criminals.

Photo of Baroness Katy Clark Baroness Katy Clark Llafur 3:58, 30 Mai 2024

Scottish Labour supports the bill and the blanket exoneration of anyone whose conviction was based on Horizon evidence. Everyone who has been affected should have their convictions quashed and be given access to the compensation fund. We note the cabinet secretary’s assurances as to who will be covered by the bill. We were particularly concerned that family members who were not employees, and others who had pled guilty to protect someone else—perhaps a loved one—should be included. We will support the bill as it has been drafted. We appreciate that its drafting was done on the basis of the UK Government’s legislation that was passed last Friday.

We agree that the use of tainted evidence that was provided by the Post Office in criminal cases across the UK represents one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in recent history. However, we are disappointed that Scotland’s separate and distinct legal system did not provide more protection than was offered in the rest of the UK, and that justice partners failed to recognise miscarriages of justice when so many high-profile concerns had been raised by campaigners, trade unions, the media, representative organisations, politicians across the political spectrum, and so many others.

The bill deals only with convictions, but many who were not prosecuted also faced injustice and repaid false shortfalls, which were often large amounts of money; were suspended from work or dismissed; were made bankrupt; had family breakdowns; were branded as thieves in their communities; or had problems with their health. Lives were destroyed and individuals were imprisoned. All those who suffered deserve justice.

Across the UK, nearly 1,000 people were convicted on the basis of Horizon evidence. Increasing concerns developed about those convictions over many years and there were high-profile campaigns to expose the injustice. By 2013, individuals in the Crown Office were attempting to stop prosecutions in Scotland. Answers need to be given to the serious question why those voices were not listened to at the time and why the Crown Office wished to believe the Post Office when so many believed that it was simply not credible that so many previously law-abiding citizens were acting in an illegal way, with cases being based on evidence from a computer system and a lack of other evidence or corroboration. It raises serious concerns about how cases were marked and the operation of the courts.

In early 2015, the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, of which I was a member, held a special evidence session on the subject, given the strength of the concerns, and we took evidence from people who had been affected and from the Post Office. By that time, the issues were well within the public domain and there had been a number of parliamentary debates on the subject. Given that, after years of campaigning, the fact that it was a TV drama that led to the introduction of legislation across the UK should be a source of shame for the justice system.

In 2015, a group of 555 people took the Post Office to court, and in 2019 the Post Office settled the cases for more than £57 million. The Court of Appeal in England quashed 39 convictions in 2021. Despite that, however, allowing the normal operation of the courts and the justice system to deal with cases on a case-by-case basis has been unsuccessful. It is necessary for the bill to require the Crown Office to review every case to ensure that every conviction that was based on tainted evidence is quashed.

The Post Office may have lied, and it is clear that the politics of privatisation and the wish to please the then Conservative and Liberal coalition Government by closing down any problems may have been factors, but the justice system across the UK also has serious questions to answer. We support the bill, but there are lessons to be learned on how a publicly owned body behaved and the ethos that should operate in organisations that we own. Those things are not resolved by the bill, and I hope that the Parliament will continue to pursue them to make sure that this does not happen again. Lessons must be learned.

Photo of Maggie Chapman Maggie Chapman Green 4:03, 30 Mai 2024

I am pleased to speak on behalf of the Scottish Greens in support of the Post Office (Horizon System) Offences (Scotland) Bill. It is right that we take this extraordinary step and exonerate those who were wrongly convicted as part of the Post Office Horizon scandal.

We have come to stage 3 of this important bill even more quickly, perhaps, than some of us had expected, but I am glad that Westminster made the matter a priority in the last week of its Parliament. To misquote the Scottish play, nothing in this UK Government’s life became it like the leaving of it. The timing means that the bill will be passed just days after the Post Office’s former chief executive gave evidence at the public inquiry into the Horizon IT system. We could not have had a starker reminder of why the bill matters, for the evidence—both what has been said at the inquiry and what has not been said—shows that, however unprecedented the situation is, it was not unlikely to happen.

Anthony Montgomery, who is a professor of occupational and organisational psychology at Northumbria University, has written this week about organisational cover-ups. He has pointed out that the Post Office miscarriages of justice join “a long list” of institutional and corporate scandals, including the injustices of infected blood and the Hillsborough and Grenfell disasters. He said:

“The corporate drive to hide the truth is not random, but ... inevitable”

when protecting the company is seen as an ethical business principle, and business leaders are rewarded for making profit and shareholder value their paramount goals. He said that what is described as “bad” corporate culture

“simply means that everybody clearly understood the real vision and objectives, and committed to doing what was needed.”

That is why it is not enough to treat the Post Office Horizon scandal as a one-off freak event, to let it be quietly forgotten, and to continue with business as usual. The injustice that has been endured by Post Office sub-postmasters, workers and their families and communities is not only the injustice of a particular system that has gone wrong; it is the inescapable, final result of unfettered toxic capitalism itself.

That is why I proceeded with further amendments to the bill this afternoon. My amendments would have made no changes to the bill’s main provisions—to the urgent and essential work of quashing the terrible and oppressive convictions. They simply asked the Scottish Government to report on the law that we have, the law that we lack, and the support that we can give to those who are seeking justice.

There must be real consequences when people play with other people’s lives for profit, status and reward, and there must be real changes to a system that too often listens to the loudest voices—those amplified by privilege—and fails to hear the truth.

Today, we acknowledge that truth, we recognise injustice, and we extend our solidarity, our sorrow and our gratitude to those who have fought with courage and compassion for this moment.

I am pleased to support the bill.

Photo of Alex Cole-Hamilton Alex Cole-Hamilton Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol 4:06, 30 Mai 2024

It gives me great pleasure to rise for the Liberal Democrats in support of an important and historic piece of legislation.

When I think of the sub-postmasters in my constituency, I think of public servants who, for very little money, offer a service above and beyond the call of duty in more cases than not. I see a reflection of the duties that we perform as parliamentarians in the community service that they offer. They perform a public role, but they also offer a pastoral element of support to the customers who regularly visit their post offices.

It is so sad that it has taken us so long to get to this point, and it is so sad that it has taken an ITV drama to bring the matter to the public consciousness, sufficient to see the legislative change and amendment that should, by rights, have happened many years ago. I am glad that we are here but, in truth, we should have arrived at this point long before now.

It is frustrating that much of the process has been defined by confusion about whether the Government backed blanket exonerations in the first place. Opposition parties called for the Lord Advocate to address the chamber for weeks to offer clarity before she finally did so. That clarity was that it was up to us. We have finally risen to that challenge and the challenge of her words in the pages of the legislation.

For the sake of the victims of the scandal, I am glad that we are making some progress. What has happened has been one of the most egregious and appalling miscarriages of justice in our national story. Livelihoods have been destroyed, reputations have been damaged, and lives have been ruined. We have heard heartbreaking testimony in the chamber this afternoon about individual cases involving lives that were cut short and lives that were ruined.

One Scottish victim recently spoke of how he planned suicide and had to be sectioned due to the trauma that he had experienced. That is somebody who was just going about his daily job, thinking that he was doing it right. He realised that the sums did not add up, and he had the finger pointed at him by his employers. He simply could not understand where the mistake had taken place. In some cases, the people who were accused started to believe that they must have done something wrong. False confessions were extracted on that basis. That gentleman said that the Government’s lack of clarity on whether he would have to go back to court to have his conviction overturned had made things worse. Sadly, he is just one of many, but we have righted that wrong today.

We know that around 100 people were wrongly convicted by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service in this country, based on evidence that was provided by the Post Office. In recent weeks we have seen that evidence unravel in glorious technicolour during the national inquiry and through the testimony of people such as Paula Vennells.

Former Post Office workers across all four of our island nations have rightly, and tirelessly, pursued the justice that they were denied for so long. It is vital that they now get the justice and redress that they are entitled to as quickly as possible. I know that the UK Parliament has risen, but that should not be an impediment to the financial recompense that those workers so rightly deserve.

I am glad that this Parliament speaks with one voice today in passing this legislation. My party is proud to support it.

Photo of Audrey Nicoll Audrey Nicoll Scottish National Party 4:10, 30 Mai 2024

I am pleased to speak in this stage 3 debate on the Post Office (Horizon System) Offences (Scotland) Bill, which is an emergency bill that allows the Scottish Parliament to legislate at pace to overturn convictions that are linked to the Post Office Horizon IT system.

We are all familiar with the faulty software and the Horizon accounting system that aimed to reduce fraud in local Post Office branches but became the focus of one of the most significant injustices in our legal history. I pay tribute to the sub-postmasters who, despite being bullied and intimidated by the Post Office, have worked tirelessly to expose the failings of a greedy and reckless corporation, the sole shareholder of which is the UK Government.

The quickest and easiest route to overturning the numerous miscarriages of justice would have been for the UK Government to extend its own bill to cover sub-postmasters in Scotland. Unfortunately, the Scottish Government’s repeated requests for that to happen were refused. Nevertheless, the bill that is before us at stage 3 should serve symbolic and practical purposes under the overturned convictions scheme that has been established by the UK Government.

Photo of Audrey Nicoll Audrey Nicoll Scottish National Party

Not today; thank you.

I welcome the fact that many wrongful convictions have already been overturned. However, it feels as if the pace of progress is far too slow, so the bill will help to expedite the process. I note the recognition by the Law Society of Scotland that cases relating to the Horizon system dramatically affected a significant number of people who have been seeking justice for many years, and that taking a case-by-case approach to such a significant number of convictions would be a slow mechanism that might impede those affected in obtaining the recognition and compensation that they deserve.

During the stage 1 debate, members told heartbreaking stories of the shameful way in which their constituents were treated by the Post Office over many years. That was compounded by the fact that the Horizon system was faulty but, as Clare Adamson said in her stage 1 contribution, it took a television drama to shift the dial on the issue.

We know that many people who suffered those injustices have not come forward and that not everyone who was wrongly accused is still with us. I therefore welcome the proposals in the bill for the wrong that those individuals suffered to be addressed.

I welcome the amendments made at stage 2 to ensure that everyone whose conviction meets the criteria in the bill will have that conviction quashed, regardless of any previous appeal decisions. Maggie Chapman articulated the rationale for that very well in her stage 2 contribution in support of a Government amendment.

I also welcome today’s amendments that have altered the criteria for a relevant offence, thereby ensuring that, where the offence was alleged to be committed over a period of time, there is no requirement for Horizon to have been used throughout that period; it requires to have been used only for some of the period.

I also welcome the inclusion of a reporting requirement in the bill, which is absolutely appropriate in these unique circumstances, and I welcome the cabinet secretary’s commitment to provide the Criminal Justice Committee with an interim update.

We do not have the power to turn back time, but we do have the power to stand up for those who have been so badly wronged, to publicly declare that wrongdoing and, so far as is possible, to help them find the place where they would have been in their lives but for that injustice.

Photo of Jamie Greene Jamie Greene Ceidwadwyr 4:14, 30 Mai 2024

I start by paying credit to the fact that our current and former First Ministers are in the chamber. That signifies the importance of the bill that we are passing this afternoon, and I welcome their presence.

I begin my remarks by repeating what I said at the stage 1 debate. As many others have done, I pay tribute to the sub-postmasters and their families up and down this country. What happened to them should never have happened, and it should never happen again.

I do not have any party-political points to make today. I know that it is an election period, but I do not think that the victims of this scandal have much interest in our grievances with one another. I also need to be clear that I have always been uncomfortable with legislation of this nature. Quashing court convictions en masse should never come easily or naturally to us, as politicians. However, in the circumstances, it is absolutely the only thing that we could do.

Emergency law is not ideal either, and I have made that clear in the past. Let me explain why. Sadly, even though we will pass the bill today, there remains a cohort of people for whom the bill offers no recourse or much comfort and, at the very least, there still remains some doubt about whether they are covered by it or whether they will benefit from it.

I take the two examples that I used last time and which have been much rehearsed in the chamber already today. Both examples are from my home town of Greenock, as it happens.

The first is that of Keith Macaldowie. He has no conviction to quash today, but he was given that disgraceful ultimatum to resign or be prosecuted, and the effect of that on him was incalculable. The bill does nothing for him or for people like him. What is on offer, however, is compensation, and the Horizon shortfall scheme that has been set up by the UK Government is welcome, but far too many people are not aware of it or how they can use it. It is incumbent on both Governments to make sure that every victim of the scandal receives every bit of compensation that they deserve.

The second example, which has again been rehearsed today and which we discussed at the amendment stage, is that of Ravinder Naga. The point was well made by Martin Whitfield that he did not work for or in the Post Office, but it was a family business. When told that £35,000 was missing from their post office, he did what any of us would do to protect their mother: he took the blame and he was convicted. He got 300 hours of community service and he still has a criminal record. The very fact that media reports today are saying that his lawyers have publicly stated that they have no idea whether this bill will exonerate him is symptomatic of a failure on our part to offer much-needed clarity ahead of stage 3. In fact, his own lawyer said—I am paraphrasing—that he could not be sure whether his client would be cleared by the legislation and implied that he hoped that he may be.

Victims should have that clarity already. In fact, it seems to me that they will know whether they have had their convictions quashed only when ministers fulfil their obligations under section 4 notifications. They should not have to wait that long; they should know already.

Equally frustratingly, we are passing laws today when we have no idea how many people will be exonerated. The financial memorandum talked about 1,000 to 2,000 people and the Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs has talked about a number of around 200. The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission said that it has written to 73 people, and the Crown said that it could be around 54. Notwithstanding the reporting duty that has been added, it is not good enough that neither we in the chamber today nor the Government know exactly how many people will wake up with quashed convictions, because we have bypassed the stage 1 elements of evidence gathering and reporting that a committee of the Parliament would normally do. That sort of detail would have been unearthed in due course, and we should reflect on that.

My final observation is that this should not and cannot be the end of the journey. There are still many unanswered questions. The Crown Office has questions to answer. The current and former Lord Advocates have questions to answer about why so many people were prosecuted simply on the basis of the evidence that was provided and went unchallenged. Why did nobody question why all those dozens of people had suddenly turned into thieves, criminals and fraudsters overnight? Perhaps more will come out of that in due course.

The bill exonerates the victims of miscarriages of justice, not those who wrongly prosecuted them. They are not exonerated. The victims need compensation, whatever their circumstances. They also need a commitment from us, as politicians, that we will ensure that nothing like this ever, ever happens again.

Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Llafur 4:19, 30 Mai 2024

It is a pleasure to follow Jamie Greene’s contribution, in which he highlighted a lot of the unanswered questions that have come out through this process. I am grateful to the cabinet secretary for giving as strong a confirmation as it has, I think, been possible for her to give with regard to the specific case that we talked about. Nevertheless, there are still other cases in which people are left unsure of what is happening, and a number of individuals are still not being paid their pensions because of decisions that the Post Office took about guilt or innocence.

There is still much work to be done, so—as Maggie Chapman reflected on in her contribution—the bill is in no way the end of the story, as the process is on-going. I understand why the Government was unable to support some of the amendments that fell today, but they still posed questions that members of this Parliament should look to address.

I put on the record again my appreciation of the work that was done by the cabinet secretary and by my colleague Pauline McNeill. Through hard work, within a very short timescale, they prevailed, and there has been forward movement in that respect. To echo Jamie Greene’s concerns about emergency legislation, it is interesting to think about where we would be now if we could have dealt with these matters in another way.

However, all that rests on the challenge that the Post Office presented by not telling the truth. We know that, in 2013, representatives of the Post Office came up to Scotland to meet senior procurators fiscal because they were worried that the Crown Office was planning to stop prosecuting cases. Perhaps they were concerned that, if the Crown did that, the alarm bells would start ringing both north and south of the border, and people would start to question the cases that were being prosecuted across the United Kingdom.

We need to be clear that those Post Office representatives were wholly concerned with protecting the reputation of the Post Office, and not with the growing number of victims who were having their lives destroyed by a faulty computer system. As Alex Cole-Hamilton rightly pointed out, one of the things for which our communities look to their post offices is the element of public service. I am aware of post office workers who have prevented the withdrawal of substantial sums from someone’s bank account in fraudulent claims. They are on the front line in dealing with so many of the problems with which our constituents come to us. For them to have been treated in the way that they have been by their employer—by the organisation that was the umbrella group for where they worked—is truly atrocious.

It is sobering to think about where we would be today if the Post Office had not lied—I choose my words very carefully, Presiding Officer—to the Crown, and had stopped prosecuting those cases in 2013. How many lives would not have been ruined, and how many lives would not been lost?

There are on-going questions, which will, I know, stay on the cabinet secretary’s desk. I hope that she is able, in summing up, to mention some of them, in particular the very low number of applications—from only 19 individuals—to the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission. We need to know why that figure is so low. I know that the situation has been difficult to assess, given the passage of time, but these cases are relatively recent. I do not believe that the Crown should be struggling as much as it has been to find the details of the individuals who have been prosecuted, on whom the consequences of what has happened have had a dire impact.

With regard to prosecutions, effort clearly needs to be put into finding those who are responsible for this horrendous scandal. Again, in looking to the amendments that were not successful today, I am given to understand that a significant number of detectives are working on the Post Office case, which is on-going. I understand that the investigations are looking at questions of perverting the course of justice, perjury and potential fraud by senior officials at the Post Office—as well as at Fujitsu, which should get a mention today—and at least 20 potential suspects have been identified.

When the bill is passed, it will be an important moment. Nevertheless, although it is an important moment for those who have observed the case from outside and for those individuals who have been affected, it is just one moment in an on-going campaign. That campaign needs to continue, not only to ensure that nothing like this scandal happens again—which is said so frequently about many things—but, more importantly, so that the people and their families, friends and communities who have suffered can see that we will hold to account the people who caused it.

Photo of Maggie Chapman Maggie Chapman Green 4:24, 30 Mai 2024

I will be brief in my closing remarks, because what matters today is not the party-political points that we make or our speeches in support of the bill. What matters is that we all support it, and what matters even more is that those who were wrongly convicted in the egregious Post Office Horizon scandal will have their convictions quashed.

I am grateful that the bill will pass today, and I thank all those who have ensured that it has been possible to get to this point so rapidly, while still providing real and effective scrutiny.

I am pleased to have had the opportunity to lodge amendments and speak to them, even if members decided not to add to the Westminster model on the issues that I raised.

It is vital that we learn lessons from this grave injustice, that we work to ensure that we make real change and that we remember that it is an example not of corporate systems failing but of them doing exactly what they are designed to do—protecting their own interests—and almost getting away with it.

Earlier this week, I read with interest an article that said that the Metropolitan Police is preparing for a large criminal inquiry into the issue. Of course, we have watched the public inquiry, and we wait with interest for its conclusions, but those are not for now.

In closing, I remember again all those who have been affected by the scandal—the sub-postmasters, their families and their communities. Today is for them, and it is for them that we will pass the bill.

Photo of Michael Marra Michael Marra Llafur 4:26, 30 Mai 2024

Scottish Labour welcomes the swift process of the bill’s progress through the Parliament over the past couple of weeks, and we will gladly vote for it at decision time.

All of that could have happened at any point over the past decade and more, when it has obviously been required. Today, members have told the stories of victims and their families, and the repercussions of that gross and grand scandal.

We hope that the victims and their families feel that their long fight for justice, which followed the longer fight to be believed, is at last progressing. Martin Whitfield rightly said that this is just a moment in that longer process.

Paula Vennells’s appearance at the Post Office inquiry over recent days has begun to put a face, for the general public, to those who are culpable for the situation, and criminal charges must follow, as other members have said. The cover-ups, the lies and the corporate culture of self-serving greed that were laid out in emails and hard-wrung testimony cannot be masked by tears from the people who give evidence to the inquiry.

Although the bill process has been swift, it has not been without concerns. Members across the chamber clearly retain significant doubts about the Crown Office’s position, given the apparent reluctance of the Lord Advocate, in her testimony in the Parliament, to accept that defects in the Horizon system were known and publicly reported as far back as 2009. Although the defects were widely known in legal circles, as prosecutions continued, calls for reconsideration were silenced or ignored. Katy Clark pointed out that voices in the Crown Office were raising concerns as far back as 2013. They were not listened to. Why not?

All of that shows that it was vital that this legislation was considered here, and I still struggle to understand the Government’s reluctance to see legislation passed in this Parliament. We heard that the former First Minister was “utterly furious” and believed it to be “outrageous” that it was suggested that we do so. In recent days, it has been increasingly difficult to understand much of what the SNP Government does, but it is absolutely clear that legislation should have been considered here, and for good reason, because we are here to scrutinise the institutions that have been caught up in that process.

The Crown Office still defends its right to believe trusted institutions, brands and the establishment in the face of the evidence that is put in front of it. I find it difficult to give much credence to the calls that say, “Never again”. We can think of Hillsborough, bloody Sunday and institutional child sexual abuse—cases that have been rolling on for years.

However, there are issues that are coming alive in processes only today, such as the infected blood scandal and the Eljamel inquiry about what has happened to people in Tayside. All of those matters have common traits. Do we believe the brand, the badge, the uniform or the school tie? What do we invest in those signs and symbols? Do we believe the victims and the evidence, no matter how difficult they might be to believe or to hear? It is a question of power, and it is about the proximity of politics to institutions. It is about how we address those issues, because I fear that we will be here again.

We will gladly vote for the bill.

Photo of Sharon Dowey Sharon Dowey Ceidwadwyr 4:30, 30 Mai 2024

As my colleagues have said, the Scottish Conservatives welcome this long-overdue legislation and its expedited process, and we support mass exoneration of the Scottish victims of this appalling scandal. It is right that we act quickly to correct as best we can this shameful episode in the Post Office’s history.

Contributions from many members across the chamber reflected the real strength of feeling and the raw emotions that the situation has provoked. However, I do not think that we will ever be able to feel and appreciate the pain and injustice that Post Office workers have suffered.

Russell Findlay made a strong speech on how tragic the whole affair has been and on the terrible consequences that it has had for many people and their families. We can never really reflect how hard it has been for Post Office workers, who are often the most upstanding members of the community, to have their reputation destroyed for no good reason. That is why, as Alex Cole-Hamilton said, it is vital that the legislation be implemented as soon as possible. The bill might not be perfect, but it is workable and it will deliver the resolution that Post Office workers deserve.

I note the concerns of many legal experts that the bill could set a precedent and that it represents interference in the judicial system. Although it is right that we acknowledge those concerns, we believe that the bill takes the right approach. These are exceptional circumstances, and they deserve an extraordinary response.

I welcome the changed approach that has been taken in section 1, which means that convictions that have already been reconsidered by the High Court will not be excluded from exoneration under the bill. My party also supports the approach in section 5, which deals with alternatives to prosecution. It is only right that everyone who received any warning or fiscal fine in relation to the scandal receives exoneration.

I will pick up on points made by Russell Findlay, Audrey Nicoll, Katy Clark and Michael Marra about the SNP Government’s approach to the process. We must all admit that more could have been done and that action could have been taken sooner by all involved, but we must reflect on why the SNP Government in Scotland did not act more quickly to resolve the issue. Throughout the past few months, the SNP has tried to deflect blame and responsibility instead of focusing solely on what can be done to help the situation. [Interruption.]

Photo of Sharon Dowey Sharon Dowey Ceidwadwyr

Those shouting at the back were not here for the whole debate, so they do not know what was said. As the cabinet secretary said, today shows what we can do when we work together, united in a shared commitment.

The scandal has, once again, thrown up in lights the role of the Crown Office in Scotland and the need for reform. As Jamie Greene said, in Scotland, the Crown Office was responsible for prosecutions, and it appears to have taken very questionable and downright dubious decisions long after it became aware of issues with the Horizon system. There has still been no real accountability for those failings, and further investigation is undoubtedly required so that we can uncover how and why those prosecutions happened as they did.

Martin Whitfield was right to highlight the Post Office itself. Earlier this month, we found out that the Post Office, which is inevitably at the centre of this scandal, has been stripped of its status as a specialist reporting agency. That certainly cannot right the wrongs that it has caused, but it might come as a small comfort to those who have suffered due to the scandal.

I thank the cabinet secretary for working with us to improve our amendment 22 at stage 2 and bring back a similar amendment at stage 3.

The bill is necessary to give Post Office workers who did nothing wrong the exoneration that they have deserved for many years. Although the bill cannot reverse time, it will give victims of this scandal some small measure of justice for what they went through. Scottish ministers now have a duty to quickly identify the relevant convictions and to inform the victims as swiftly as possible. I expect that to be a top priority for them, as it must be. I hope that we all learn the lessons of this scandal, so that a similar situation is never allowed to happen again.

Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party 4:35, 30 Mai 2024

I start by thanking my officials, who have worked exceptionally hard on preparing the bill and bringing it forward at pace. I pay tribute to their painstaking work and to their patience, not least for putting up with the cabinet secretary. [ Applause .] Clap for the civil servants.

I also reiterate my thanks to parliamentary colleagues across the chamber. I of course emphasise that working together is not a one-way street. It requires everybody to communicate and change a wee bit in order to move forward together at least a bit. I am appreciative that Parliament as a whole agreed to the bill being an emergency bill, notwithstanding the challenges that it presents and the opportunities that it brings. Should the bill pass at decision time, as I very much hope and anticipate it will, it will do so only one week after the UK bill was passed at Westminster. That in itself was accelerated because the general election was announced.

I will not revisit or rehash past arguments. I know that the UK Government legislates all the time for Scotland, and sometimes I co-operate with it and sometimes I object. Today is not about the politicians, our political parties or our institutions—it is wholly and squarely about sub-postmasters in Scotland and their friends and families who have been affected tragically by the scandal.

The bill’s central aim is, of course, to quash wrongful convictions that resulted from the use of the defective Horizon IT system. I hope that the bill is a recognition of the scale of the miscarriage of justice and that it will go some way to allowing everyone who has suffered to feel vindicated. That will help to restore their reputations among the communities that they serve.

I share the discomfort that Jamie Greene expressed with primary legislation automatically quashing convictions, but the nature and scale of the miscarriage of justice has meant that the legislation has been absolutely necessary—although, as justice secretary, I have to put it on record that it does not set a precedent. The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission did not just put a letter in the post with a first-class stamp; I know that it went to extensive efforts. It employed tracing agents and went above and beyond. However, the low response speaks to the scale at which people have lost faith in our justice system. That is why it is now necessary to remove the onus from individuals and put it back on to the state, where the responsibility in this instance lies.

As I have said, I recognise that the scale of the scandal goes beyond those who were prosecuted and convicted. Many sub-postmasters were forced to repay supposed shortfalls that were created by the faulty software. They deserve not just our sympathy but our support. As others in the debate have said, saying that there are many lessons to learn does not quite capture the magnitude of the change that has to take place. However, I have faith and hope that the Wyn Williams inquiry is the route to address the issues that go beyond the bill.

For my part, I will continue to engage with the relevant UK ministers once they are in place after the general election, most likely on compensation, because the most recently announced scheme is still to be established. Again, the Scottish Government will look to make targeted interventions to ensure that people are informed of their rights.

One theme that has come up in today’s debate is the collective sense of shame that it took a TV programme to “shift the dial”, as Audrey Nicoll said. By way of personal atonement, I commend to people Nick Wallis’s book, entitled “The Great Post Office Scandal”, in which he narrates that the Post Office holds a unique position in our society across all the home nations of the UK. As history students will know, the General Post Office predates the industrial revolution, the British empire and the establishment of Britain itself. It is the oldest Government agency and, until recent times, it was the main interface between state and citizens.

The impact of the injustice is profound and shocking, and its reverberations will be felt for some time. I quote the words in July 2021, in Nick Wallis’s book, of Seema Misra, who was the former West Byfleet sub-postmaster. She said of herself and her husband:

“In 2005, Davinder and I invested our own money in a Post Office branch and retail business. We were proud to have become part of such a famous British institution. When I was sentenced to prison on my eldest son’s tenth birthday, all our dreams and hopes were destroyed ... When I was convicted of theft in 2010, my faith and my belief in justice was shattered. I was pregnant at the time. My despair caused me to think of suicide ... Thoughts of my unborn child kept a bit of hope, and me, alive.”

I will also quote the words of Jaswinder Barang, who, when her conviction was overturned at the end of 2020, spoke outside Southwark Crown court of the solidarity of those affected and the campaigners. She said:

“When we have had our down days, we’ve been there for each other.”

On the day when her conviction was overturned, she said:

“I can now get on with the rest of my life. It is the worst thing to be found guilty for something that you haven’t done. I am a law-abiding citizen ... Today is absolutely wonderful.”

Although the bill cannot change the past, I am profoundly grateful to colleagues in the chamber for helping to get it through Parliament quickly, which allows us to at least go some way towards righting the wrongs that have been done and providing some comfort—and, I hope, the pathway to redress—for those who have been so unfairly treated.

I am delighted that members have indicated their support for this important bill, which means that it will be passed at decision time to help to rectify the injustice, quash the wrongful convictions and enable Scottish sub-postmasters to access the financial redress that they rightly deserve.

Photo of Alison Johnstone Alison Johnstone Green

That concludes the debate on the Post Office (Horizon System) Offences (Scotland) Bill at stage 3.