14 May 2024
Post Office: Horizon & Sub-postmasters

Like many of my Parliamentary colleagues across the House, I am appalled by the treatment of the sub-postmasters who were accused of theft based on flawed evidence from the Horizon IT system. Victims' accounts of the impact of these prosecutions are harrowing: some served prison sentences; many had their livelihoods and life savings decimated; marriages broke down; four committed suicide; others passed away before being able to clear their names; and many were ostracised by their local communities and consequently failed to find alternative work.

While we cannot undo the damage that has been done, we must establish what went wrong. In 2020, an independent public inquiry into the Horizon IT scandal was established. In 2021, the Government placed this inquiry on a statutory footing, which allows its Chair, Sir Wyn Williams, the necessary powers and time to conduct an in-depth analysis of the decision-making processes that led to the scandal. I pay tribute to Sir Wyn Williams and his inquiry for their ongoing work.

Since the 2019 Group Litigation High Court Case, the Government has been working hard to right the wrongs of the Post Office Horizon scandal. The Horizon Shortfall Scheme, which was set up in 2020, has paid out £113 million in compensation, and initial offers have been made to all of the main group of claimants. The Group Litigation Order scheme, launched last year, has paid out £42 million, which includes interim payments. Indeed, through the Overturned Convictions Process, £42 million has been paid, and since October last year, claimants have been able to access £600,000 in a fixed sum award.

Moreover, the Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill, introduced on 13 March, will quash convictions brought about by erroneous Horizon evidence, clearing the names of many people who have had their lives ruined.

Horizon Shortfall Scheme Cohort -

The Government has brought forward enhanced financial redress for postmasters who were not convicted, or part of legal action against the Post Office, but who still suffered considerably due to Horizon failures. These individuals, also known as the Horizon Shortfall Scheme cohort, have the option to receive a fixed sum payment of £75,000.  

Post Office (Horizon System) Compensation Act -

The Post Office (Horizon System) Compensation Act ensures that the trailblazers who exposed the scandal do not miss out on compensation because of an arbitrary deadline. The Government is determined to make compensation claims as soon as possible, and by the current deadline of August 2024. However, time needs to be taken to assess more complex claims, so postmasters receive full and fair compensation and are not unduly rushed into a decision on their claims. 

Prosecutions -

I understand that there is great concern about the role of the Post Office in prosecuting these cases. The Post Office rightly decided to stop undertaking private prosecutions in 2015. Any company can bring private prosecutions in this way: this is not a special power of the Post Office.

Tax treatment -

I have received assurances that the Government wants to see all victims affected by the Post Office Horizon IT scandal compensated fairly and swiftly. Work will continue across government and with the Post Office to ensure the postmasters get the full compensation they deserve and that payments and associated taxes are fair and proportionate. The Government's compensation scheme for Group Litigation Order case postmasters has opened and details, including information on how to apply, can be found online at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/compensation-scheme-for-group-litigation-order-case-postmasters.

Paula Vennells -

As you may be aware, Paula Vennells has been formally stripped of her CBE. The Government's focus continues to be on ensuring swifter access to compensation and justice for the victims.

Paula Vennells: Bonuses -

While I note the strength of your feelings on this matter, bonus payments to staff and management are a commercial and operational matter for Post Office Ltd.

Taxpayer -

The Government has been clear that it should not be the taxpayer alone who funds these compensation schemes. The inquiry is committed to concluding by the end of this year and reporting shortly after. At that point, Ministers will know who was responsible for what, and they should then be able to identify who can be made responsible through potential financial contributions, rather than the taxpayer alone.

Post Office Prosecution -  

The Metropolitan Police have confirmed that the Post Office is under criminal investigation over potential fraud offences committed during the Horizon scandal. Officers are investigating potential fraud offences arising out of these prosecutions for example “monies recovered from sub-postmasters [operators] as a result of prosecutions or civil actions”. Further, investigations are already under way over two former Fujitsu experts, who were witnesses in the trials, for perjury and perverting the course of justice. 

£600,000 Compensation -

Regarding the amount of compensation available, I understand that every sub-postmaster who was wrongly convicted and has had their conviction overturned will be given the option of settling their claims for compensation for an up-front sum of £600,000, without the need to bring a formal claim.

However, if an affected sub-postmaster does not want to accept this offer, it remains open to the individual to settle their claim via individual assessment with the Post Office. I understand that the Post Office has been engaging with legal representatives on the principles and process for assessing pecuniary claims.

Complexity of assessments -

Once convictions are overturned, people can get rapid compensation through the fixed-sum award of £600,000, or go through the full assessment process.

While I note your concerns about this process, I understand the complex nature of assessing what level of compensation is due. However, I understand that the Government is determined to make the process quicker, easier and fairer.

Bonuses for Prosection -

I am aware of reports that Post Office investigators were offered monetary bonuses for successful prosecutions. While I share your concerns about these allegations, this is a matter for the statutory Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry. It would be wrong to prejudice its work by commenting further.

Sub Metric -

While bonus payments are a matter for Post Office Ltd, I understand that all current Post Office employees who received a bonus for co-operating with the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry have voluntarily returned the remuneration associated with this sub-metric.​

Caroline Richards -

I am aware of the Independent article that states a Post Office manager who helped to wrongfully convict a sub-postmistress during the Horizon scandal is handling victims’ compensation claims.

On this matter, a Post Office spokesperson said: “Claims in the Horizon Shortfall Scheme are assessed by an independent advisory panel of external experts. There is a full governance process for each and every claim. Our sole aim is that every Postmaster affected by the scandal receives full and fair redress as swiftly as possible.”

Reports that Post Office spent £100 million on legal action -

I am aware that a draft report uncovered by the BBC suggests that the Post Office spent £100 million on legal action, despite knowing that its defence was untrue. While I share your concerns about these allegations, this is a matter for the statutory Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry. It would be wrong to prejudice its work by commenting further.

DWP Prosecutions -

I am aware that the Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill will not quash convictions where the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was the prosecutor. I understand that prosecutions brought by DWP relied on evidence independent of Horizon such as the surveillance of suspects, collation and examination of cashed orders from stolen benefit books and girocheques, handwriting comparisons, and witness statements.