Post Office victims not exonerated ‘being punished for efficiency and courage’

Victims of the Post Office Horizon scandal not being exonerated are being “punished for their efficiency and courage”, a leading campaigner has told Parliament.

New legislation to quash the convictions of affected subpostmasters will not include those whose cases have already been considered by the Court of Appeal or those who were prosecuted by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

There are at least 13 cases of subpostmasters whose convictions were upheld by the Court of Appeal or were refused permission for their case to be heard, and an estimated 62 who were prosecuted by the DWP.

Post Office Horizon IT scandal
Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom (Jordan Pettitt/PA credit)

Conservative peer Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom, a former MP who campaigned for justice for subpostmasters for years and sits on the Horizon Compensation Advisory Board, urged the Government to consider including these cases.

On those excluded because their case has been considered by the Court of Appeal, he said: “I’m very uncomfortable indeed about this.

“The Bill overturns many hundreds of convictions.

“The Government accepts, as it should, that some of the convictions overturned will in fact have been of subpostmasters who were actually guilty of a crime. That is the price that we pay for the exoneration of the innocent.

“Those who have been in front of the Court of Appeal, in exactly the same way as those subpostmasters who have been in front of other courts, may or may not be guilty.

“I don’t think it’s acceptable to tell them ‘you can go back to the Court of Appeal if there is new evidence’, because other subpostmasters are not being required to provide individual evidence of their innocence, a reversal of the burden of proof.

“These 13 are being punished for their efficiency and courage in being early in taking their convictions to the Court of Appeal…

“It stretches credulity to believe that the Court of Appeal would say, of all of the hundreds of convicted subpostmasters, these are the 13 that we would choose to remain convicted.”

His comments came as the Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill received its second reading in the House of Lords.

The Bill is set to quash convictions of theft, fraud, false accounting and other offences for subpostmasters who have suffered as a consequence of the Post Office Horizon scandal, and relevant cautions will be deleted from records.

The Bill will apply to all those convicted of such offences in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, who were prosecuted by the Post Office, Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) or Northern Ireland authorities in the years 1996 to 2018.

Those whose convictions are quashed will then be eligible to receive compensation payments from the Horizon Convictions Redress Scheme, which will be set up after the legislation is passed.

Former Labour Cabinet minister Lord Browne of Ladyton told peers that new evidence has emerged since the Court of Appeal upheld convictions of subpostmasters.

He said: “There is no doubt that the public inquiry has revealed considerable further evidence since those appeals were refused.

“There is no question.

“If any of those cases involve Horizon-generated evidence, they should be given the same consideration as the cases that have been prosecuted to conviction but not appeal.”

Labour former shadow attorney general Lord Falconer of Thoroton added: “The decision to exclude from exoneration those cases which have already been dealt with by the Court of Appeal, I am strongly against that.

“Everybody should be exonerated.”

Lord Falconer of Thoroton
Former Labour Shadow Attorney General Lord Falconer of Thoroton (Hannah McKay/ PA credit)

On those prosecuted by the DWP, Lord Arbuthnot said: “I would very much like to hear why the Government considers that DWP convictions are safe, when CPS convictions are not.

“And I would also like to hear what the DWP is doing to re-examine their convictions to make sure they have not relied on tainted Post Office evidence and investigations.”

He asked: “Should we consider, perhaps, widening the scope of the Bill, so that those convictions too are overturned?”

Responding to concerns about the exclusion of Court of Appeal cases, business minister Lord Offord of Garvel said: “This is a difficult issue.

“Including convictions that have been upheld by the Court of Appeal would override decisions taken by the senior judiciary.

“Of the 13 such cases that we know of, seven were upheld by the Court of Appeal and six were refused leave to appeal.

“They are excluded from the Bill because the Government believes that we should tread very carefully where judges in the senior appellant courts have considered a case on its merits.

“We recognise this approach may leave a small number of individuals concerned about the way forward for their cases.”

On prosecutions brought by the DWP, the minister said: “These cases, unlike many of the cases prosecuted by the Post Office or CPS involved wider corroborating evidence beyond that supplied by the faulty Horizon system and so are unlikely to be unsafe in the same way.”