Law to exonerate wronged subpostmasters moves a step closer

Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch said the legislation aims to ‘right the wrongs of the past’ connected to the Horizon scandal.

Richard Wheeler
Wednesday 20 March 2024 18:03 GMT
A Post Office sign in central London (Aaron Chown/PA)
A Post Office sign in central London (Aaron Chown/PA) (PA Wire)

Hundreds of subpostmasters caught up in the Horizon IT scandal have moved a step closer to having their convictions quashed after MPs supported a law change.

The Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill received an unopposed second reading on Wednesday, with Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch insisting the state must act “as quickly as possible”.

The legislation seeks to exonerate those convicted in England and Wales on the basis of the faulty Horizon accounting software, which made it appear as though money was missing at their branches.

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.

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.

MPs heard only 102 of 983 convictions have been overturned.

Ms Badenoch told the Commons: “The Government can’t turn back the clock or undo the damage that’s been done.

“But we will seek to right the wrongs of the past as best we can, by restoring people’s good names and ensuring that those subject to this tragic miscarriage of justice receive fair and full redress, this Bill represents a crucial step in delivering that.”

She added: “We recognise that postmasters have suffered too much for far too long, which is why convictions will be quashed automatically when the Bill receives royal assent. Removing the need for people to apply to have their conviction overturned.”

On the need to act swiftly, Ms Badenoch said: “Any further delay would add further insult to injury for postmasters who have already endured what I believe is an arduous wait.”

She added: “The Government’s position is that it will be Parliament and not the Government that is overturning the convictions so there will be no intrusion by the executive into the proper role of the judiciary.

“And second, this legislation does not set any kind of precedent for the future. It recognises that an extraordinary response has been necessitated by an extraordinary miscarriage of justice.”

There is a difficult trade-off between natural justice and a fast and low-stress solution for the postmasters. That is what this Bill is attempting to achieve.

Conservative MP Sir David Davis

Ms Badenoch said the new primary legislation will be followed by a “route to rapid financial redress” on a similar basis to the overturned convictions scheme, which is currently administered by the Post Office”.

She added: “My department, and not the Post Office, will be responsible for the delivery of redress related to the quashing of these convictions.”

Ms Badenoch also said she would be “very happy to consider a sunset clause”, which would mean the Bill would expire on a particular date.

But Conservative former minister Sir Robert Buckland said: “When it comes to a sunset clause I do think we need to be careful, because we don’t want to end up frustrating the purpose of this Bill which is to deal with the hundreds of people who have lost faith in the system and who might be difficult to track down and identify.

“So I think we should be cautious about a sunset clause, I’m not particularly in favour of that, but I do think we need to emphasise the exceptional nature of this legislation.”

Labour MP Kevan Jones (North Durham) asked the Government to consider a system of compensation that “cuts out the Post Office”, saying: “There’s no trust there amongst these subpostmasters and, frankly, do I have any faith personally in the Post Office? No I don’t.”

Ms Badenoch said this is why her department would look after the redress delivered in relation to quashing convictions.

Conservative former minister Sir David Davis described the Bill as “the best of a bad job”, but said he would support it despite his reservations.

He said: “There is a difficult trade-off between natural justice and a fast and low-stress solution for the postmasters.

“That is what this Bill is attempting to achieve.”

For Labour, shadow business secretary Jonathan Reynolds welcomed the legislation before saying: “Any incoming Labour government would never use this kind of action again.

“There are very exceptional circumstances to this case that make it unique rather than to set a precedent for handling any further injustices.”

The Bill will undergo further scrutiny in the Commons at a later date and will also be considered by the House of Lords before it becomes law.

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