Horizon scandal: ‘Justice delayed is justice denied,’ Tory Lord tells Minister in House debate

Postal, Postmasters

Thursday September 10th 2020

With postmasters around the nation still awaiting the start of the promised ‘Review’, the House of Lords this week heard Conservative, Labour and Independent Members call with one voice for urgent action…

A fundamentally flawed computer accounting system, Horizon, which indicated financial discrepancies where none existed caused hundreds of hard-working postmasters to lose their livelihoods, some being prosecuted and even threatened with imprisonment, over an extended period of many years.  

Despite repeated explanations that the apparent ‘discrepancies’ arose from a fault inherent within the system itself and not wilful actions of postmasters, and steadily mounting evidence proving this to be the case, senior Post Office management stubbornly refused to stop persecuting the innocents.

And the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters (NFSP) did nothing to prevent, or even protest against, this unprecedented miscarriage of justice.

It took a collective ‘class’ action and a campaign led by the ‘Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance’ – supported by the Communication Workers Union – to force the issue, winning a ground-breaking settlement of £58m, which unfortunately, once legal fees had been taken into account, provided inadequate compensation to those wrongly persecuted.

Subsequently, the campaign and the CWU have demanded of Government that full justice must be done, including a full Judicial Inquiry with statutory powers. Furthermore, the Historical Shortfall Scheme – set up by the Post Office in the wake of the legal judgement – lacks independence from the Post Office and is, in reality, insufficient and inadequate.  

A full public inquiry was promised to Parliament by Prime Minister Boris Johnson back in February, but falls short of this as it is now a non-statutory review rather than a full Judicial Inquiry – and it still has not commenced despite the Government claiming they are keen to press ahead with the review.

And, while everybody at the time appreciated that some delay was inevitable given the dire circumstances, after what is now a seven-month wait, with not even a Committee Chair having yet been appointed, patience is now wearing thin.

Lord James Arbuthnot, a former Conservative Social Security and Defence Procurement Minister himself, opened a House of Lords Debate earlier this week with a straightforward question asking for a progress update and a follow-up on the limitations of the Shortfall Scheme.

Representing the Government was Lord Martin Callanan, Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), who replied insisting that “we are making progress with the appointment of a Chair” and that Number Ten is “keen to see this review launched as soon as possible.”

Writer and television presenter Baroness Joan Bakewell highlighted once again the human cost of this affair, describing it as a “story of lost livelihoods, bankruptcies, prison and mental health problems.”

She added that “17 claimants have died, some without their convictions being quashed – the doctors of one spoke of the stress as a contributing factor – and there has also been a suicide.

Will the Government acknowledge the urgency of this review to bring peace of mind to those who have suffered and, indeed, to hear their evidence before it is too late?” asked the Baroness.

Paralympian Baron Christopher Holmes, winner of nine gold medals for Great Britain, told the House that postmasters had been “treated despicably” and called on the Government to “pay the legal fees of those brave sub-postmasters and post-mistresses who took the legal action,” adding that, of the reported £58 million headline settlement, all but £11m had gone on funding these costs.

Responding to these questions, Lord Callanan expressed his sympathies with the victims of injustice and accepted that the whole affair had been “indeed an appalling scandal,” while also insisting that the Government was “working as fast as possible to get the review under way”.  But he insisted that, with regard to the Shortfall Scheme, “it would not be right for the Government to interfere.”  

Lord Stuart Polak, former member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, quoted from a letter that a postmaster had written to him, in which she had vowed that she and others continued to “seek reasonable justice” and that “it is still our aim to have a full Judicial Inquiry.”

And former South Staffordshire Conservative MP Baron Patrick Cormack reminded Lord Callanan that he had “made similar comments three months ago, when my noble friend Lord Arbuthnot raised this subject. It is a disgrace.

The Government,” Baron Cormack continued, “have both an actual and a moral responsibility here. Can he remember the old adage that ‘justice delayed is justice denied’?”

Labour’s Lord Peter Hain also spoke strongly on the topic of the Government’s responsibility, reminding the Minister that “the Government are the 100 per cent owner of the Post Office—the Permanent Secretary of the Department is its accounting officer and there is government representation on the Board.

“The Government are ultimately responsible for this scandal and it is not good enough to keep delaying this with lots of process and reviews,” insisted the one-time Secretary of State for Work & Pensions.

And another Labour LordWilf Stevenson, who served as Gordon Brown’s senior policy advisor during his premiership, criticised the lack of power that this planned review would have by comparison to a full Judicial Inquiry.

                             Andy Furey

“How,” he asked, “will the reviewer compel witnesses, including Ministers, to give evidence, or see the papers necessary to assess, for example, whether lessons have been learned and that whistle-blowers in the Post Office will not be treated in such a disgraceful way again in the future?” To which Lord Callanan pointed to the fact that the review, and its chair “will draw conclusions and recommendations as they see fit. 

Commenting on the House of Lords Debate, CWU assistant secretary Andy Furey said: “I am pleased to see so many high-profile Members of the House of Lords from across the political spectrum are up in arms over this travesty of justice. 

“For far too long, hundreds of former postmasters have been waiting to clear their names and receive full compensation. The Government needs to respond positively and ensure there is full accountability of the people in positions of responsibility, whose actions created so much misery for so many.”