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Post Office (Horizon System) Compensation Bill | Commons debates

It is timely to be having the debate on the day we rise for Christmas, as we know that there will be many decent people affected who, 20 years on, are spending yet another Christmas without proper compensation. It has been a short but sobering debate on the victims of the Horizon scandal and how the Government intend to ensure justice is delivered. I am pleased to sit opposite the Minister again and to hear his commitment to a full and fair process, and I am pleased that the Bill is going through this place. However, the need to extend Government powers to deliver the compensation scheme is, of course, disappointing news to those affected.

I will not keep the House long to summarise our support for the Bill, to thank all those who have campaigned for so long and to ask the Minister to respond to some important points that have been raised. As Members have set out, the Bill extends the powers for the Government to deliver one of the compensation schemes for some of the victims of the Horizon scandal beyond August 2024. I join others in thanking those who have got us to this point. I pay tribute to the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, which has campaigned for decades for compensation and justice. We could not have a debate in this place on this topic without thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who has been tireless in his work. I thank Lord Arbuthnot for his work in this area, and many others.

The Horizon scandal is one of the most insidious injustices our country has ever seen. Getting compensation to all victims as quickly as possible is vital if we are to right this injustice. As the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali), made clear at the start of the debate, Labour will work with the Government to do whatever is required to deliver justice.

There were some good speeches. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) worked hard as a Minister and is right to be proud of what he did in this area. It is good to see that he has eased himself back into the Back Benches. I noted his praise, which is increasingly rare, for Boris Johnson for starting the process for the inquiry. I am sure the Minister noted his lesson that if we were doing this from scratch, the Business Department would perhaps have run all the compensation schemes in the first place. The hon. Gentleman is right that we talk about doing things “at pace” in this place all the time, but we just mean quickly. We need to keep up the speed, which has been sadly lacking, given that we are 20 years on from the original scandal.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham gave a full, comprehensive and compelling speech. His quotes from his constituent Tom Brown were very moving, given that his constituent did not survive to receive his compensation. My right hon. Friend spelled out the indignity of his experience, describing how he was the pillar of his community, and how awful the situation had been for him and his family. I noted my right hon. Friend’s suggestion about the need for counselling for some people, because this has been extraordinarily impactful—way beyond financial terms.

My right hon. Friend also talked about the lessons that the Government need to learn. I noted his advice for Ministers and future Ministers. Without jumping to any conclusions, Mr Deputy Speaker, I took that advice, as did the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow. He talked compellingly about the clear evidence that the Post Office knew what the problems were, yet still spent all that money defending the indefensible. He was right to make that point so powerfully.

Questions about Fujitsu and others were well made by the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson). My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) made a good final speech, in which he called on the Minister to explain why the target has been missed and what more can be done.

This may be a relatively straightforward, simple piece of legislation, but it does relate, as all Members have said, to one of the UK’s most widespread miscarriages of justice. We have heard tales of people who have been affected. So many of them spent their 60th birthday in prison as a result of errors. Other people lost their entire life savings repaying shortfalls. My hon. Friend the shadow Minister talked about Seema Misra, who was pregnant with her second child when she was convicted. She had an absolutely awful time. Local press reports at the time described her as “a pregnant thief”, which is horrific. We need to keep those stories at the heart of everything we do while we try to make sure that people get the compensation they deserve.

Mr Deputy Speaker, we support the passage of this Bill, but we do have some questions that we would like the Minister to address, many of which have been set out today. The key one is what the Government will do in this extra time to ensure that compensation is delivered as quickly as possible. The Minister said that the Government are setting a target of 90% being completed within 40 working days. He used the expression, “promptly without being rushed”. Will he elaborate a bit on what that means in terms of the resource and the capacity that will hopefully increase the number of cases moving through the system to get to a happy conclusion?

Alan Bates, who has been widely praised in this debate and who leads the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, is reported as saying:

“It’s all well and good extending the deadline, but the Government has to try to meet the current deadline. The lives of the victims who have lived with this for a long time are not being extended.”

That is a good and sobering point. It would be helpful if the Minister said more about how he is going to speed up that work.

The Minister also made broader remarks. Can he clarify from his earlier remarks how many people have reached a settlement using the £600,000 offer that he announced? He said something about a proportion, but it would be helpful if he could give us a number. Does he have any estimate of the proportion of victims that he considers to be fully compensated? Does he have a timescale for the completion of compensation for those he considers not to be fully compensated? When does he hope to have all this done by?

The Minister has been asked how he will ensure that mistakes like this are not made again. Obviously, we have the inquiry, which is carrying on at its own pace. I do not know whether he has done any work on learning those lessons, so that we do not make mistakes like this again.

As we close the debate, I wish to end by again putting on the record our thoughts for all the victims who have not had their cases solved and who face another Christmas without justice.