Statement by Sir Alec Shelbrooke MP on 9 January 2024
I welcome commitments by Minsters this week to urgently investigate options to speed up appeals, applications under the compensation scheme and routes to exonerate all innocent victims of the Post Office (Horizon) scandal. The ITV televised drama has shone a light on an issue that MPs have been raising on behalf of their constituents for over a decade, and I’m pleased that the drama has captured the public’s attention in the way it has.
As a constituency Member of Parliament, I have been involved in this case since 2013 when, in conjunction with my colleague and then Member of Parliament for North East Hampshire, James Arbuthnot, I represented a constituent - a former postmaster elsewhere in the country who had retired to my constituency – who was a victim of the then unknown Horizon scandal. Together with a handful of MPs cross party, we were pushing for our constituents to be included in the initial investigation by Second Sight Support Services Ltd to consider and advise on whether there were any systemic issues and/or concerns with the Horizon system, including training and support processes. As it turned out, this was the beginning of a long fight for justice for a great many postmasters across the country who bravely challenged the Post Office as a collective – the Justice for Postmasters Alliance.
Since 2013, I have not been made aware of any postmaster operating a business in Elmet & Rothwell having been impacted by the Horizon scandal; however, I have written to all registered Post Office branches in my constituency offering support and guidance should they realise retrospectively that their businesses were impacted by the scandal.
There is no mistaking that this case has been a miscarriage of justice and one that is now, rightfully, being corrected after extensive court cases and appeals. Whilst it is true to say the cogs of British justice turn slowly, there has been an on-going process to get to where we are today for a number of years. It is testament to the postmasters that they kept going. It took from 1999 – when then Prime Minister Tony Blair introduced the Horizon IT system – until 2012 for issues with the faulty system to be taken seriously in Parliament. Throughout those thirteen years, the concerns of postmasters were seemingly ignored by officials and even in 2012, once James Arbuthnot began to bring together the group of MPs with affected constituents, those in positions of responsibility, such as then Post Office Minister, Sir Ed Davey, chose to believe the word of Post Office officials over campaigners and MPs representing innocent postmasters. As you will have seen in the ITV drama, which I have to say is very well researched and accurately portrays my recollection of events around 2013, a protracted legal process was then launched by the Justice for Postmasters Alliance.
In February 2020, following a series of successful court appeals, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson launched an independent public inquiry into the scandal. In May 2021, the government expanded this to put the inquiry on a statutory footing. The inquiry, led by former High Court Judge, Sir Wyn Williams, reported its interim findings in July 2023, which were accepted in full or in part by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in October 2023. Following this, the government introduced the Post Office (Horizon System) Compensation Bill to the House of Commons on 29 November 2023 and it quickly received its second and third reading on 19 December. It then received its first reading in the House of Lords on the same day, and the second reading is scheduled for 16 January. I cannot imagine that Members of the House of Lords would block this Bill, so I anticipate it will be approved and receive Royal Assent in coming weeks, enabling the release of full compensation.
As many will be aware, although the Post Office Ltd has operational independence, it is a private limited company of which the UK government is the sole shareholder. In practice, it is therefore the case that the cost of funding the compensation scheme will effectively fall upon the British taxpayer. It is with this in mind that I was pleased to hear the current Minister and fellow Yorkshire MP, Kevin Hollinrake, who not only championed the cause of the postmasters as a backbench MP but has since delivered the commitments above as a Minister, indicate that the government will explore options to mitigate the cost to the British taxpayer, e.g. possible options to recover funds from external companies who were awarded the Horizon contract by the government of 1999 and who may be responsible for some of its failings.
Having represented a victim of this scandal as a constituency Member of Parliament, I have nothing but admiration for those postmasters who fought the Post Office and won. My commitment to them, as it was for the constituent I represented, is to make sure there is systemic change so such a miscarriage of justice can never happen again and I will be working with my colleagues, including Minister Kevin Hollinrake and the Lord Chancellor, to ensure that the Post Office (Horizon System) Compensation Bill, the appeals of those wrongly convicted and wider reform is delivered promptly.