Post Office scandal: TV drama forces Rishi Sunak to announce new law clearing 736 convicted subpostmasters

Victims of one of the worst miscarriages of justice in British history will get extra £75,000 and hope to clear their names by the end of the year

Kate Devlin,Archie Mitchell
Wednesday 10 January 2024 21:23 GMT
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Rishi Sunak announces new legislation to 'swiftly exonerate' Post Office victims

Hundreds of subpostmasters wrongly convicted in one of the worst miscarriages of justice in British history are to have their convictions quashed after an ITV drama prompted a public outcry.

Following a two-decade battle for justice, those caught up in the Post Office scandal will finally have their good names restored by the end of the year.

There will also be a new upfront payment of £75,000 for some of those affected after Rishi Sunak said innocent people embroiled in the fiasco would be “swiftly exonerated and compensated”.

Ministers denied they had acted because of public anger over the ITV programme Mr Bates vs the Post Office.

But No 10 suggested that ex-subpostmaster Alan Bates could receive an honour for his campaign for justice, just a day after former Post Office boss Paula Vennells finally bowed to intense public pressure and returned her CBE.

Sir Keir Starmer was also drawn into the scandal when the Crown Prosecution Service revealed it had prosecuted three postmasters while he was in charge. Labour said Sir Keir had been unaware of any cases prosecuted while he was director of public prosecutions. Most of the postmasters were prosecuted privately.

It came as:

  • A minister suggested the boss of Fujitsu should think “very carefully” about how the cost of the scandal should not fall on the taxpayer, while justice secretary Alex Chalk said “polluters should pay”
  • A former minister said he had tried to block the Japanese firm from securing more government contracts after 2010 but had been stymied by procurement rules
  • Emergency legislation was promised within weeks
  • Another 130 postmasters have come forward since the screening of the ITV drama on the scandal.
  • The government said Japanese company Fujitsu would be held to account if found guilty
  • But Sunak was accused of being “out of touch” by a now-cleared subpostmaster
‘Mr Bates vs the Post Office’ was screened over new year, prompting national outcry
‘Mr Bates vs the Post Office’ was screened over new year, prompting national outcry (ITV PLC)

Former Labour MP John Mann told the Independent: “It should not have taken an ITV drama for this compensation to be paid and these convictions to be quashed. But we also need to bear in mind there are a significant number of subpostmasters who paid the money and kept silent because they were worried about their reputation in the communities of which they were so key. They have not featured at all, they should get their money back”.

The scandal began when Fujitsu’s faulty Horizon accounting software made it appear as though money was missing from Post Office branches. Subpostmasters were forced to pay back many thousands of pounds, while hundreds were convicted based on the faults.

Despite warnings from subpostmasters, the Post Office was prosecuting those caught up in the scandal as recently as 2015.

Mr Sunak said they were victims of “one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation's history”.

Downing Street insisted Fujitsu would be held to account if it is found guilty of wrongdoing by an independent inquiry.

The prime minister's official spokesperson said: "We strongly believe that individuals, that businesses, will be held to account for one of the biggest miscarriages of justice this country has ever seen.

"We will not resile from that. But it is right that we allow an independent inquiry to get the facts, to set them out, and then we can act."

Sunak promised extra £75,000 upfront payments
Sunak promised extra £75,000 upfront payments (PA/EPA)

One minister, Malcolm Offord, went further, suggesting the boss of Fujitsu should think “very carefully” about how the cost of the scandal should not fall on the taxpayer.

A former minister also told the Lords he had tried to block Fujitsu from securing more government contracts in 2010 but had been stymied by procurement rules.

Francis Maude, who served as Cabinet Office minister under David Cameron, said it had been “impossible” to prevent Fujitsu getting more official work despite its “woeful” performance.

Postal minister Kevin Hollinrake said the whole country had been united by the ITV drama – which starred Toby Jones as Alan Bates – but denied it had prompted the government into action.

The whole country was “shocked by what they saw on television, and that has made it easier to push certain developments forward more quickly, but I believe that we would have arrived at this position in any event”, he said.

He admitted it would be “unprecedented” for parliament to overturn hundreds of convictions. Doing so would also create a risk that some who did steal are exonerated, although it is understood the government believes that would be a small number.

To minimise the risk they will be asked to sign a statement swearing they did not commit the crimes, meaning they can still be prosecuted at a later date.

Senior Tory MP David Davis, who has campaigned for years for justice for postmasters, said it “looks as though the government has responded correctly” but he urged ministers to force Fujitsu to contribute to some of the cost of compensating victims.

And he called for the government to accelerate their investigations so that those who “are really guilty” in the scandal can be convicted.

Jo Hamilton, who was wrongfully convicted in 2008 of stealing thousands of pounds from the village shop she ran in Hampshire, said the £75,000 payments showed Mr Sunak was “out of touch”.

The money “wouldn’t even cover the interest on what has been stolen from them”, she said.

Another victim Vijay Parekh, who served 18 months in prison, said the previously announced compensation of £600,000 would still leave some out of pocket.

Horizon scandal campaigner Alan Bates could be in line for a knighthood
Horizon scandal campaigner Alan Bates could be in line for a knighthood (PA)

He told GB News: “I’m glad that they've announced it, but that £600,000 they're talking about – there's people who have lost more than just £600,000.”

He said those responsible for causing the scandal should face justice: “We’ve done nothing, and we’ve been in prison. They have done something, so they need to be in prison because of what they’ve done.”

Former attorney general Dominic Grieve said he had “mixed feelings” about government overriding the judiciary: “It is a precedent that causes me considerable discomfort because it is contrary to an absolute principle of the rule of law – which is parliament may legislate but the application of the law is not for parliament itself ... but I do accept that it may be the only solution.”

Former director of public prosecutions Ken Macdonald KC also said he had “concerns”, warning “some people who are in fact guilty will be exonerated”.

Shadow business minister Jonathan Reynolds told MPs it was important the government was exonerating postmasters, not pardoning them, “because a pardon does imply guilt that is then forgiven”.

He added: “We stand ready to work with the government to deliver a solution that achieves the long-awaited justice and compensation.”

Retired high court judge Sir Wyn Williams is chairing an inquiry into the scandal and is expected to publish his recommendations in the late spring.

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