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Law exonerating subpostmasters should have ‘legally binding’ redress timeframe

A law aimed at quashing the wrongful convictions of subpostmasters caught up in the Horizon IT scandal should include a legally binding timeframe for redress offers, the chairman of the Business and Trade committee has said.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill “marks an important step forward in finally clearing” the names of hundreds of wronged branch managers who have had their lives “callously torn apart”.

Committee chairman and Labour MP Liam Byrne described it as a “problem” that a legally binding timeframe had not been implemented for offers to be tabled to subpostmasters once they have submitted their claims.

Fabian Society conference
Liam Byrne called for the Bill to have a ‘legally binding’ timeframe (Maja Smiejkowska/PA)

Post Office minister Kevin Hollinrake told the commons that fair financial redress would be provided to wronged subpostmasters “as promptly as we can”.

Mr Hollinrake said it was not in the gift of ministers to ensure all Post Office compensation is paid by the end of the year, but insisted the Government “absolutely” wanted that to happen.

The legislation will exonerate those convicted in England and Wales on the basis of the faulty Horizon accounting software in what has been branded the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history.

Those with overturned convictions will receive an interim payment with the option of immediately taking a fixed and final offer of £600,000, according to No 10.

Lead campaigner Jo Hamilton, who was one of the first to have her conviction overturned in 2021, described the legislation as a “distraction”, criticising the Government’s “constant broken deadlines”.

She criticised the Government for not providing members of the initial 555 subpostmasters, led by Alan Bates and known as the Group Litigation Order (GLO) group, financial redress in a “timely manner”.

Post Office Horizon IT scandal
Former sub-postmaster Jo Hamilton criticised the government for not providing financial redress in a ‘timely manner’ (James Manning/PA)

Reacting to the legislation, Mr Byrne said: “The proposed new law is an important step forward but it’s not job done.

“The Post Office is still left in charge of processing too many claims, when’s it patently not fit for purpose.

“There’s no legally binding timeframe for tabling offers to victims once their claims are in, and nor is there any standard guidance of what victims are entitled to.

“So, we’ve got a lot of work still to do to get this Bill right for victims who have suffered so much and for so long.”

The Government said it will bring forward “enhanced” financial redress for subpostmasters who, while not convicted or part of legal action against the Post Office, made good the apparent losses caused by the Horizon system from their own pockets.

They will be entitled to a fixed sum award of £75,000 through the Horizon Shortfall Scheme, and those who have already settled for less will have their redress topped up to this level, Downing Street said.

Downing Street said that under the law, convictions will be automatically quashed if they meet the following criteria:

– Were prosecuted by the Post Office or Crown Prosecution Service;

– Were for offences carried out in connection with Post Office business between 1996 and 2018;

– Were for relevant offences such as theft, fraud and false accounting;

– Were against subpostmasters, their employees, officers, family members or direct employees of the Post Office working in a Post Office that used the Horizon system software.

The Government hopes the Bill will receive royal assent and become law ahead of MPs’ summer holiday.

More than 700 subpostmasters were prosecuted by the Post Office and handed criminal convictions between 1999 and 2015 as Fujitsu’s faulty Horizon IT system made it appear as though money was missing at their branches.

The long-running saga was put in a fresh spotlight by ITV’s acclaimed drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office.

MPs heard on Wednesday that ministers had been cautioned about giving specific estimates on how many subpostmasters could be helped by the Government’s proposals.

Liberal Democrat former minister Alistair Carmichael thanked the Government for accidentally sending him its “top lines to take” when dealing with the issue.

He said the document included the passage: “So far we have identified up to around 800 cases that are potentially in scope. Note: if we use this number in public we are going to get held to it. There is a risk that we may deliver fewer overturns or award redress to fewer individuals, we will then have to explain that.”

Mr Carmichael suggested it showed officials believe accountability and transparency are “some sort of problem”, with Mr Hollinrake saying he had previously mentioned the “exact figure” before adding: “I am not afraid to be transparent or accountable for any of the delivery of these compensation schemes.”

Conservative MP Duncan Baker (North Norfolk) asked what progress has been made in ensuring Fujitsu compensate victims.

Mr Hollinrake replied: “The Secretary of State had a conversation yesterday with the global chief executive of Fujitsu so we are keen to make sure that Fujitsu contributes and it has already said that it will – it said it has a moral responsibility to contribute.

“(Mr Baker) mentions £1 billion, but we don’t know the final figure for compensation, but we would expect a significant element of it to come from Fujitsu.”