The Government are, of course, the shareholder of Post Office Ltd, and in that role we make sure that there is a wide network of branches across the whole country, and we provide subsidy for the Post Office to do so. We also recognise, however, that it is a commercial business

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and we allow it to operate as such. Furthermore, as I am sure most hon. Members are aware, the vast majority of post office branches are operated not by Post Office Ltd, but by sub-postmasters. They are independent businesspeople who choose to contract with Post Office Ltd to provide post office services, usually from a small business such as a shop.

Small businesses are the lifeblood of the local economy in so many communities, and Post Office Ltd needs to ensure that it supports its sub-postmasters properly. I am pleased that the Post Office takes that role very seriously and that it has made significant improvements to the way in which it works with its sub-postmasters, not least following many of the cases that hon. Members have raised.

The Post Office already ensures that new sub-postmasters receive full training on all aspects of their role, including the Horizon system, through both classroom and in-branch training. There is also a dedicated helpline available to sub-postmasters to help resolve any issues they are having.

Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): I am listening carefully to the Minister, but surely he accepts that there is a fundamental problem with the Horizon system, because we have heard complaints right across the country from all sections of the population, as well as from the sub-postmasters themselves.

George Freeman: I will come to the quality of the system. It is difficult on the face of it to characterise either the training or the helpline as having been inadequate. The vast majority of people who use or have used the Horizon system since it was introduced 15 years ago have in fact done so successfully. However, there is always room for improvement and the Post Office has implemented a business support programme to that end, including improvements to training, with both classroom and new online training available 24/7; improvements to the Post Office’s support helpline, including new ways of identifying and proactively supporting branches in difficulty; and new processes to help sub-postmasters manage their branch and protect against fraud.

I now come to some of the points that have been made about the Horizon IT system. It is used by tens of thousands of people working in the post office network, performing more than 6 million transactions every working day in branches up and down the country, so it is essential that it functions correctly. Like any large IT system, it is subject to rigorous testing, independent audit and industry accreditation. Nevertheless, in the light of the concerns raised about serious glitches in the Horizon system, the Post Office commissioned an independent firm of forensic accountants, Second Sight, to investigate.

Second Sight produced two independent reports—one in 2013 and the other earlier this year—both of which found there was no evidence of systemic flaws in the system. That is an important point that I would like to reiterate in response to the shadow Minister’s point: there is no evidence of systemic flaws in the system. Second Sight’s reports have, rightly, pointed out some areas where the Post Office could have improved how it

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operates, particularly on the training and support that it provided in some individual cases. As I said earlier, the Post Office is acting on those points.

The general secretary of the National Federation of SubPostmasters, George Thomson, told the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee in the last Parliament that the NFSP

“represent 7,000 sub-postmasters…If there was a systemic problem…we would be absolutely inundated.”

He went on to say:

“Over the 15 years, the Horizon system has been fantastically robust.”

As well as improvements to training and support, the Post Office also launched a mediation scheme so that any current or former sub-postmaster who felt they had problems with the Horizon system could bring forward an application. They would have their cases thoroughly reinvestigated both by the Post Office and by Second Sight, and, if appropriate, proceed to mediation to seek to resolve any issues.

It is important to understand that the mediation scheme is independent of the Government. That is the right approach for something that is a contractual matter between two independent businesses, and we should remember that sub-postmasters are independent businesspeople who have contracts with Post Office Ltd.

Mediation is, of course, a voluntary process. Both parties need to consent to it, and for it to be successful there needs to be a reasonable chance of coming to a common understanding. Sometimes mediation will not be appropriate or will not succeed, but it is important to note that mediation cannot overturn a criminal conviction. I will come back to that point.

My hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire and others have been critical of the mediation scheme and how it is progressing. He mentioned that 90% of cases are being excluded from mediation, but that statistic is not borne out by the information provided by the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution, which oversees the mediation scheme and is independent.

Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab): Given the number of postmasters and postmistresses who have been attending MPs’ surgeries to discuss this matter, does not the Minister agree that one miscarriage of justice is one too many and that the Post Office has to be accountable for this system?

George Freeman: I absolutely accept that the Post Office must be accountable for any miscarriages and I will make a suggestion at the end about how we might address that.

My hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire raised the case of his constituent Mr Rudkin. As he will understand, I cannot comment on that or any other individual case, because their details are rightly confidential, but I reiterate an offer that has been made to all hon. Members who have a constituent in the scheme: Post Office Ltd has offered to meet to discuss individual cases in detail, provided the applicant gives their consent. I am aware that Post Office Ltd has repeated that offer to my hon. Friend in the last fortnight,

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and I hope that he and others will take up that offer. I would be delighted to convene the meeting in my office in the Department if that helps.

I will move on to the points that my hon. Friend made about whether there may have been miscarriages of justice where sub-postmasters have been prosecuted and convicted. The Post Office handles large amounts of public money every day and operates a trusted role in communities, so it is vital that it has processes in place to protect that money and guard against fraud or theft. The Post Office can bring prosecutions against an individual, but it is down to the courts to determine whether they are guilty.

If an individual has been convicted and feels that their conviction is unsafe, they should explore the legal avenues open to them. They should seek advice on whether they can appeal their conviction, or raise their case with the Criminal Cases Review Commission. That is the correct way to deal with these issues if people believe there have been miscarriages of justice. The House cannot overturn a court ruling; nor, indeed, can mediation.

Alex Chalk (Cheltenham) (Con): It is of course for individuals to decide whether they plead guilty and there is of course an avenue of appeal. Is it not important to note, however, that for many of these people the time for an appeal will be long past, so they remain the victims of a grave injustice?

George Freeman: As I say, if any individuals feel that their conviction is unsafe, they can always explore the legal avenues open to them. Where large numbers feel that that is the case, as is alleged, it is perfectly possible for them to bring a class action together. I do not accept that there is a fundamental injustice in the process that prevents people from bringing claims. I accept, however, that it is absolutely vital, where there is a legitimate claim against the Post Office about how it has treated its sub-postmasters, that those claims must be looked at properly.

In the limited time available, I want to move on to the Post Office’s approach. Both tonight and elsewhere, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire and others have raised the very serious dissatisfaction felt about the way in which the Post Office has handled relations with its sub-postmasters. When this debate was called, I spoke to the Post Office to understand the situation. I have received a letter from its chief executive, Paula Vennells, which I shall send to my hon. Friend and others who have spoken and place in the Library. The letter sets out just how seriously the Post Office has taken this matter. Ms Vennells says:

“We have gone to great lengths...because I was determined that, if there were problems with the Horizon system, these had to be identified and resolved.”

I will happily pick up any issues that my hon. Friend or others feel are not addressed in the letter.

As I have already said, the mediation scheme is rightly independent of the Government. It was established jointly by the Post Office and the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, working with Second Sight, and it is overseen by an independent chair, a former Court of Appeal

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judge. It is right that the details of individual cases should be confidential and that the Post Office respects that.

Andrew Bridgen: The Minister should be aware that one of the criteria given by the Post Office for removing cases from mediation was if a very large claim was involved. Those sub-postmasters who have suffered the greatest loss and the greatest injustice were therefore immediately excluded from the mediation system.

George Freeman: That is a very interesting point, which I will be happy to take up with my hon. Friend, perhaps in the context of what I am about to suggest.

Although it remains the case that there is no evidence that the Horizon system is flawed, if any individual feels that their conviction is unsafe, they can pursue the legal avenues available to them. I do not see any reason for the Government to intervene in this matter by instigating a full judicial inquiry. However, I am struck by the extent of the concern expressed tonight by Members from both sides of the House and during the lead-up to this debate, including some of the specific testimony heard tonight. I will be happy to convene a meeting in the Department, perhaps led by my hon. Friend, with the support of others from across the House—to deal with the point he has just made and one or two others that have been made this evening—and to invite the Post Office to come to that meeting with representatives of sub-postmasters to try to iron out the issues.

My hon. Friend has raised other points that are a matter for the Post Office, rather than for the Government. I have no doubt that the Post Office has listened closely to this debate and will be in touch with him to answer his questions. I agree with him that this matter has gone on for far longer than anyone would wish and, for whatever reason, has been the cause of huge difficulties, trial and unnecessary hardship for a number of the sub-postmasters who have been affected.

The important thing now is for the final cases in the mediation scheme to progress to mediation, and I urge all the parties involved to continue to work together to make that happen. That will help the individuals with cases remaining in the scheme to reach resolution, and it will mean that the Post Office can, working closely and collaboratively with its sub-postmasters, carry on with its essential role of serving communities.

I repeat that some of the points made tonight in the House merit investigation. I will happily convene a meeting in the Department to put those specific points to Post Office Ltd. The system may have generally worked well for the vast majority of users, but that in itself is no reason not to ensure that those who have been legitimately unable to deal with the system should not be penalised unfairly. They certainly should not be made the victim of criminal judgments when their crime is nothing more than being unable to cope with a new IT system. I look forward to raising those points with the Post Office.

Question put and agreed to.

11.30 pm

House adjourned.