MPs will attempt to amend law on overturning Post Office scandal convictions

MPs will propose amendments to legislation that aims to overturn wrongful subpostmaster convictions and speed their financial redress.

Liam Byrne MP, chair of the business and trade select committee, welcomed the introduction of the Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill, but said the “job is not done”.

MPs on the select committee had recommended the bill include legally binding deadlines for financial redress for victims of the Post Office Horizon scandal and that the Post Office be completely removed from the financial redress processes.

While the government did remove the Post Office from involvement in the majority of claims, it will still be in charge of about 100 cases, which Byrne said is “too many”.

The government also refused to add legally binding deadlines on payments, citing the risk of their inclusion slowing down payments.

Between 2000 and 2015, 736 subpostmasters were convicted of crimes including theft and false accounting after the Post Office prosecuted them using flawed evidence from the Horizon retail and accounting system used in thousands of branches.

Thousands of subpostmasters were forced to repay losses that didn’t exist, many were made bankrupt and the lives of subpostmasters and their families were ruined.

Computer Weekly first exposed the scandal in 2009, revealing the stories of seven subpostmasters and the problems they suffered as a result of the Horizon system (see below timeline of all Computer Weekly articles about the scandal).

Following publication of the bill, Byrne said: “The proposed new law is an important step forward but it’s not job done. The Post Office is still left in charge of processing too many claims (about 100), when’s it patently not fit for purpose.

“There’s no legally binding timeframe for tabling offers to victims once their claims are in, and nor is there any standard guidance of what victims are entitled to. So, we’ve got a lot of work still to do to get this bill right for victims who have suffered so much and for so long.”

Announcing the bill, Post Office minister Kevin Hollinrake addressed the issue of legally binding deadlines for payments, saying: “The select committee recommended that the government introduce legally binding timeframes to deliver redress for sub-postmasters, with financial penalties for non-compliance.

“I strongly support the committee’s desire to speed up redress, but we feel that its proposed regime would have the opposite impact. It would potentially mean imposing penalties on forensic accountants or others who are helping postmasters to prepare their claims. Doing that would probably cause some of them to withdraw from this work, which would slow down the delivery of redress.

“Furthermore, we do not want to be in the position of rushing postmasters into major decisions about their claims and the offers they receive, which would possibly mean that some are timed out of redress altogether.”

Alan Bates, the former subpostmaster who led the fight for justice for over two decades, said that there needs to be independent oversight of the financial redress: “All we know is what we are told by the Post Office and the government. We need some independent oversight.”

Under the bill, which the government hopes to be law before the summer recess, subpostmaster convictions for theft, fraud and false accounting will be automatically quashed if they were prosecuted by the Post Office or Crown Prosecution Service for offences carried out in connection with Post Office business between 1996 and 2018. It includes convictions of subpostmasters, branch employees, family members or direct employees of the Post Office working in a branch that used the Horizon system software.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak said: “We owe it to the victims of this scandal who have had their lives and livelihoods callously torn apart to deliver the justice they’ve fought so long and hard for, and to ensure nothing like this ever happens again.”

• Also read: What you need to know about the Horizon scandal

• Also watch: ITV’s documentary – Mr Bates vs The Post Office: The real story

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