Andrew Bridgen secures an Urgent Question on compensation arrangements for those sub-postmasters and sub-mistresses who have been impacted by the Post Office Horizon software scandal.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy if he will make a statement on compensation arrangements for those sub-postmasters/mistresses who have been impacted by the Post Office Horizon software scandal.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Paul Scully)
First, I apologise, Mr Speaker, for the misunderstanding. I was prepared to make a statement, but obviously the current situation and affairs have got in the way. I am happy to provide an update on Horizon matters since I last made a statement in December. I met the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee last month, and last week the Select Committee published its interim report on the Post Office and Horizon IT scandal. The Government will consider the Committee’s recommendations and respond in due course.
People need to know about how this scandal came about and what protections are in place to avoid history repeating itself. That is why the Government established the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry to investigate exactly what went wrong. The evidence from postmasters who have participated since the inquiry hearings began last week has been harrowing to hear, and I thank those postmasters for their courage and their willingness to revisit the trauma they have experienced. Compensation cannot take away the suffering that affected postmasters have experienced, but we are determined that each eligible person gets what is due to them, and that that is paid as quickly as possible. Of the 72 postmasters whose convictions have been overturned, more than 95% have applied so far for an interim compensation payment of up to £100,000, of which 63 offers have been accepted and paid. The Government are pushing for final settlements for quashed convictions to follow as quickly as possible, and negotiations on the first two have begun. The Government are determined that all unjust convictions are quashed. The Post Office is reaching out to affected postmasters.
The Post Office is also in discussion with other public prosecuting bodies responsible for the convictions of postmasters that may have relied on Horizon evidence to ensure that those postmasters are also contacted and enabled to appeal. Offers have been made to over 40% of applicants and compensation has been paid to 764 postmasters who have applied to the historical shortfall scheme. So far, 28 postmasters are proceeding through a dispute resolution process aimed at achieving acceptable settlements. At least 95% of those cases should have been dealt with by the end of the year.
With compensation for overturned convictions and the historical shortfall scheme well under way, the postmasters on whom my attention is now focused are those who exposed the whole scandal by taking the Post Office to the High Court. I know that many hon. Members support the Select Committee’s view that it is unfair that they received less compensation than those who were not part of the case. I sympathise with that view too. I cannot yet report a resolution of that legally complex issue, but we are doing everything we can to address it.
The compensation that postmasters are due will exceed what the Post Office can afford, so the Government are stepping in to meet a good deal of the cost of that compensation. I recognise that is an unwelcome burden on the taxpayer, but the House, and I am sure taxpayers themselves, will agree that the alternative is unacceptable.
I thank the Minister for his response. As he is aware, the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who I am glad to see in his place, and I are the only remaining Members of the House who were part of the original Post Office review working party that was set up to address the issue over a decade ago. In the years that have followed, we and others have been repeatedly dismissed and fobbed off by all the previous incumbents of my hon. Friend’s current ministerial position when we called out what we saw at the time, the evidence we had uncovered and what, in retrospect, with so many cases, was an obviously flawed computer system and a huge miscarriage of justice.
The issue was first highlighted to me by my constituent Michael Rudkin in 2011. He had been forced out of his position as a national representative of sub-postmasters and his wife had been advised to plead guilty to a crime that she had not committed because of a flawed computer system, which Post Office officials were too arrogant to believe could possibly be to blame, and because of a Post Office management whose relationship with the sub-postmasters I described in this House as “feudal” in 2015.
My constituents are just two of the hundreds who lost their jobs, assets and reputations in what is the largest miscarriage of justice in this country’s recent history. Their lives have been affected for 20 years or more. There is no excuse for further delays to compensation. They were wronged by the Post Office and let down by Ministers and officials who apparently took the Post Office’s word without question. They deserve justice and adequate compensation now—not in months and years when the Department, which is partly culpable for the situation, finally gets its act together.
I have written to the Minister, as I have been passed a letter from the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Lord Callanan, addressed to Lord Arbuthnot, who was also part of the original Post Office working party and maintains a strong interest in the issue from the other place. The letter states that no formal request for the funding of sub-postmasters’ compensation has been submitted to the Treasury by his Department. Can the Minister clarify whether that is still correct?
Does the Minister agree that all the sub-postmasters who lost out due to the faulty Horizon accounting system should be compensated? I need not remind him that many hundreds of sub-postmasters are due compensation, not just those who have been wrongly convicted, who number at least 736, but the many hundreds—I suspect thousands—who made up shortfalls created by the faulty Horizon system out of their own pocket under threat and coercion from the Post Office but who were not criminally prosecuted. Can he inform the House whether a system has been set up to identify those individuals and put in place a scheme for their compensation?
I warn the Minister and the Government that it is better for us to get on the front foot with the issue, rather than let a claims management company look at the opportunity, which will undoubtedly result in more litigation and delay at a far greater cost to the Government, and ultimately the taxpayer. The Minister will have read the damning Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee interim report by now. It is time that we accelerated compensation, got closure for the sub-postmasters and ensured that it can never happen again.
I thank my hon. Friend for his work in the campaign for both his constituent and for many other sub-postmasters across the country, and I thank the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), whom my h F mentioned, and James Arbuthnot—Lord Arbuthnot—to whom I spoke earlier this week. I have spoken to Nick Read, the chief executive of the Post Office, and officials about this because, as I was quoted as saying in The Times last week, this, of all my wide range of responsibilities, is the one area that keeps me awake at night and absolutely drives me to get resolution.
My hon. Friend asked about the 555 and our commitment. As I have said, the 555 have been pioneers in this area, and I will absolutely work at speed. I do not want this to go on a moment longer than necessary, which is why we have tried to do everything we can to short-circuit any bureaucratic processes to be able to get on and compensate everybody fairly. The 555 postmasters who secured the group litigation order exposed this whole scandal by taking the Post Office to the High Court, and they performed a massive public service by doing so. I have written to the Select Committee with details of the costs and the preparations we have made with the Treasury.
When talking about this legally complex issue, we must remember the timeline of this and the timescale with which we are working. Horizon was installed in 1999, and the prosecutions started in 2000. In 2004, Alan Bates set up the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, and in 2009 press reports really started to look into the concerns about those prosecutions. Over this 20-year period, many different Ministers have been involved and there have even been Post Office reorganisations, but now—after this 20-year scandal, frankly—we want to make sure, at pace, that everybody, including the 555, get justice, answers and fair compensation.