Horizon scandal: PM announces mass exonerations for sub-postmasters

In the last 25 years there have been few moments of hope for those caught up in the Post Office scandal. Today, perhaps was one. ITV News' Carl Dinnen, Paul Brand and Robert Peston report

Legislation will be introduced to exonerate all sub-postmasters who were wrongly convicted amid the Post Office Horizon scandal.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said a new law would be introduced so people wrongly convicted in the scandal are “swiftly exonerated and compensated”.

Speaking at the start of Prime Minister’s Questions, he said: “Today I can announce that we will introduce new primary legislation to make sure that those convicted as a result of the Horizon scandal are swiftly exonerated and compensated.

“We will also introduce a new up-front payment of £75,000 for the vital GLO (group litigation order) group of postmasters.”

He added: “We will make sure that the truth comes to light, we right the wrongs of the past and the victims get the justice they deserve.”

Former sub-postmaster Vipin Patel welcomed the announcement, telling ITV News "it will put people’s mind at rest and ease".

"They can actually start moving on with their lives, not thinking they are criminals all the time."

The legislation will not apply to Scotland and Northern Ireland because they have their own separate legal systems.

Downing Street will work with their governments to ensure sub-postmasters in those nations can also be cleared.

The prime minister's official spokesman said: "We want to work with relevant bodies in Scotland and Northern Ireland on this matter, it's not something we can do cross-UK."

Ministers and officials are thought to have been in talks late into Tuesday night to discuss how to speed up the process of overturning the wrongful convictions of hundreds of former Post Office workers.

The news will be a triumph for those who have spent years campaigning to have their convictions quashed, but others may opt to pursue long-running legal cases and have their stories heard in court.

The announcement comes nine days after the ITV drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office first aired 25 years after the dodgy software was used.

James Strong, who directed the programme, told ITV News that he hoped to raise awareness about the scandal but the impact already made has been beyond his "wildest dreams".

If you, or someone you know, has been affected by the Post Office IT Scandal - you can get in touch with your story. Email our specialist team - investigations@itv.com .

After watching the PM's announcement live from the Commons public gallery, Mr Strong said: "It's quite astonishing to see the impact of what we did... and to see tangible hopefully change to rectifying these wrongs is quite unbelievable and beyond our wildest dreams".

What is the Post Office Horizon scandal?

In 1999 the Post Office introduced digital accounting software named Horizon - created by Japanese tech firm Fujitsu - which replaced the paper-based process of the past.

But it soon became clear to some sub-postmasters that the software was creating discrepancies in their accounts, making it look like cash was missing.

A sub-postmaster is someone not directly employed by the Post Office, who runs a separate retail business which hosts a Post Office facility on their site. The idea is that an in-house Post Office would drive customers to their business.

But many didn't - and the Post Office, which has the power to run private prosecutions, sought to have many sub-postmasters convicted of fraud and theft.

Between 1999 and 2015, 736 sub-postmasters were wrongfully convicted but concerns with the faulty Horizon system were raised in court as early as 2003.

By 2012, potential problems with Horizon were so apparent the Post Office launched a review to satisfy politicians who had been complaining on behalf of their aggrieved constituents.

The Post Office however continued prosecuting sub-postmasters until 2015 but the miscarriage of justice was confirmed in 2019 when the High Court ruled that Horizon was to blame.

A number of compensation schemes were introduced by the government and £87 million was eventually paid out through the Horizon Shortfall Scheme to more than 2,500 sub-postmasters who lost money but weren't convicted.

The government has agreed that all wrongly convicted sub-postmasters are entitled to compensation of £600,000 but they can only be paid once their convictions have been quashed.

To date, just 93 convictions have been overturned.

Some 550 sub-postmasters successfully sued the Post Office, winning £58 million collectively but court costs had to be paid from that sum before it was shared amongst them, meaning they received significantly less than £600,000.

How will the mass exonerations work?

A blanket overturning for all victims allows for those wrongfully convicted to claim the standard £600,000 compensation payout, which was introduced in September.

Sub-postmasters who have already received initial compensation payments or have reached a settlement with the Post Office of less than £600,000 can be paid the difference.

While many are likely to be pleased with the mass exoneration, some sub-postmasters currently appealing their convictions are expected to wait for their day in court.

The government has said it would continue to fund the legal costs of the sub-postmasters to ensure they receive independent advice before making a decision.

There are concerns that blanket exonerations could result in people who actually did steal money being wrongly awarded hundreds of thousands in compensation.

Business minister Kevin Hollinrake told the Commons that sub-postmasters will be asked to sign a statement to declare they did not commit the crime before receiving compensation.

He said: “As far as possible we want to avoid guilty people walking away with hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money, but we cannot make the provision of compensation subject to a detailed examination of guilt.”

He added: “All we ask is that as part of their claims of compensation postmasters sign a statement to the effect they did not commit the crimes of which they are accused.

“Anyone subsequently found to have signed such a statement untruthfully will be putting themselves at risk of prosecution of fraud."

Downing Street hopes to have the convictions of subpostmasters hit by the Horizon scandal quashed before the end of the year.

The PM's spokesman said: “The ambition is to do that this year and we will introduce the legislation within weeks.

“We are confident it will be well supported within the House.”

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