Subpostmasters step closer to ‘hard-won exoneration’ after MPs back law change

Hundreds of wrongfully convicted subpostmasters are a step closer to achieving “hard-won exoneration” after MPs backed a law change.

The Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill, which received an unopposed third reading on Monday, proposes to quash convictions and pay compensation to those affected by the Horizon IT scandal.

Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch told the Commons that “a wrong is finally being put right”.

Kemi Badenoch
Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch (Peter Nicholls/PA)

Convictions will be automatically quashed if they meet the necessary conditions, which include if they were for certain offences between 1996 and 2018 connected to Post Office business and the Horizon system was being used at the time.

The long-running scandal, which has been branded the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history, received widespread attention after ITV screened its acclaimed drama Mr Bates Vs The Post Office.

Opening the third reading debate, Ms Badenoch said: “For the postmasters wrongly accused of, convicted and punished for crimes they never committed, this Bill means hard-won exoneration, with their convictions wiped clean from the slate.

“A wrong is finally being put right, but as honourable members know these postmasters will also receive the fair compensation they deserve through the Horizon conviction redress scheme.”

She added: “I’m keen to remind (MPs) that it does not set a precedent for our involvement in other judicial matters.”

The MP for Birmingham, Hodge Hill said: “The point about speed really is lit up by a single fact, the total budget for compensation is around £1.2 billion, as of last Wednesday £196 million has been paid out.

“The implication of that is that 80% of the budget for compensation has not been paid out, after all of this time, after all of the heartbreak, after all of the trauma, after all of the scandal, 80% of the budget for redress has still not been paid out.”

He added: “I would have expected a timetable for paying out that redress alongside this Bill today and the reason that we should be concerned about this is that the track record of making payments is not good.”

Withdrawing his amendments to the Bill, Mr Byrne said: “I accept that the amendments that I put forward, particularly around speed, may not yet be at that state of affection that would satisfy all sides of the House, especially those with more experience working on those cases than I have.

“But the problem is there, people are not getting paid fast enough, they are not being supplied with the right amount of information upfront at the beginning of their claim and I think the scope of this Bill has been drawn too narrowly.”

Kevin Hollinrake
Post Office minister Kevin Hollinrake (James Manning/PA)

Post Office minister Kevin Hollinrake said: “The Government has listened carefully to representations across the House regarding extension of the Bill to Northern Ireland.

“The Government recognises the unique challenges faced by the Northern Ireland Executive in bringing forward legislation to quash convictions to a similar timeframe as the rest of the UK.”

Intervening, interim leader of the DUP Gavin Robinson said: “We are indebted to (Mr Hollinrake), we recognise that this is a huge step forward for those subpostmasters in Northern Ireland who felt that there wouldn’t be light at the end of the tunnel.”

Earlier, the UK Government resisted attempts to include Scotland in the Bill with MPs voting 265 to 42, majority 223, against a motion from the SNP.

Speaking for the SNP, Marion Fellows (Motherwell and Wishaw) said it was “absolutely disgraceful” that Scotland would not be included in the legislation.

She told the Commons: “This is a Westminster problem, Westminster must and should sort it out, and it’s easily done.

“Ask for a legislative consent motion and you’ll get it, the Scottish Parliament will put a Bill through to exonerate these postmasters but they cannot do it, they cannot mirror exactly what is done in this place until this Bill goes through all of its stages.”

Ms Fellows claimed “party politics” was behind the UK Government’s position, adding: “Why should Scottish postmasters wait longer for justice?”

Mr Hollinrake said “legal controversies” prevented the Bill being amended to include Scotland.

He said: “(Ms Fellows) said this Parliament is sovereign. Absolutely it is sovereign, but on these matters her Parliament is also sovereign.”

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