UK

Details of law to exonerate wronged subpostmasters announced

The Post Office minister said the ‘unprecedented intervention’ will ‘deliver long overdue justice to postmasters’.

Post Office minister Kevin Hollinrake
Kevin Hollinrake Post Office minister Kevin Hollinrake (UK Parliament/Maria Unger/PA)

Details of legislation to exonerate subpostmasters wronged in the Horizon scandal have been set out by the Government.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak earlier this year announced blanket legislation to clear their names after a TV drama thrust the saga into the spotlight and sparked public outrage.

More than 700 Post Office branch managers around the UK were prosecuted between 1999 and 2015, after the faulty Horizon accounting software made it look as though money was missing from their shops.

Post Office minister Kevin Hollinrake on Thursday said the “unprecedented intervention” will “deliver long overdue justice to postmasters”.

Campaigner and former subpostmistress Jo Hamilton told the PA news agency “I’ll believe it when I see it”, adding: “Any promises they’ve made they’ve not kept.”

Announcing some of the details of the law in a written ministerial statement, Mr Hollinrake said it will quash convictions defined by a “clear and objective criteria”.

The legislation will specify who the prosecutor was in relevant cases, and will “quash these prosecutions where the prosecutor is, in effect, discredited”, he said.

Crown Prosecution Service cases will be included within the Bill’s scope, but no convictions from the Department for Work and Pensions as none have been overturned.

Convictions will need to relate to alleged offences during the period that the Horizon IT system was in use and to offences which relate to the scandal – for example theft and false accounting.

The convicted person will need to have been working in a Post Office that used the software and be either a subpostmaster, one of their employees, officers, or family members, or a direct employee of the Post Office, in order to be eligible.

The law will apply to convictions in England and Wales, but ministers will work with the Scottish and Northern Ireland governments to ensure compensation can be paid to victims there too.

Mr Hollinrake said the Government’s legislation was likely to also clear the names of people “who were, in fact, guilty of a crime”.

He said this was a “price worth paying” in order to quash convictions for many innocent people.

Reacting to the details of the new legislation, Ms Hamilton told PA: “Well, I guess it’s the only answer to overturn loads of them and encourage people to come forward.

“But they need to be concentrated on paying the group who actually took them to court in the first place.”

Asked if she believed people would be exonerated any time soon, Ms Hamilton said: “No, I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t, honestly.

“I would just say, I’ll believe it when I see it, because they’ve never stuck to anything. Any promises they’ve made they’ve not kept.

“So I would be very cynical.”

It comes as Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch is embroiled in a row with the former Post Office chairman over Horizon compensation payments.

She accused Henry Staunton of lying after he claimed he had been told by a senior civil servant to “stall” spending on compensation to subpostmasters ahead of the next general election.

Ms Badenoch referred to the dispute on Thursday, tweeting: “It’s important that people have trust in all we’re doing to get them justice. It’s frustrating dealing with false allegations that break that trust, but we won’t be distracted.

“The law is expected to come into effect by the end of July and apply to convictions in England & Wales.”

In terms of measures to mitigate the risk of clearing those guilty of offences, Mr Hollinrake said people will be required to sign a statement to the effect that they did not commit the crime for which they were convicted in order to receive financial redress.

If people are found to have signed the statement falsely in order to gain compensation, they “may be guilty of fraud”, he said.

The minister said: “We are keen to ensure that the legislation achieves its goal of bringing prompt justice to all of those who were wrongfully convicted as a result of the scandal, followed by rapid financial redress.”

A spokeswoman for the Prime Minister said the Government wanted to see the legislation “introduced very soon”, with it “in place by the end of July” to ensure compensation can be paid by then to those postmasters still waiting to be exonerated.