‘Brutal’ decisions required to sort out Post Office mess, says select committee chair

Liam Byrne, chair of the business and trade select committee, tells Computer Weekly about the group’s focus on getting Horizon scandal victims what they are owed

If the government produces a bill that does not remove the Post Office from the process of delivering financial redress for former subpostmasters and fails to set hard deadlines, MPs believe they have the necessary support to amend it.

Speaking to Computer Weekly, MP Liam Byrne, chair of the business and trade select committee, said the committee is determined to get fast and fair financial redress for victims of the Post Office scandal. “We are ruthlessly focused on this,” he told Computer Weekly, adding that the Post Office should be completely removed from the processes of paying former subpostmasters what they are owed, and that a deadline for payments across all financial redress schemes should be set.

Despite more than two decades of suffering for many subpostmasters and four years having passed since the High Court judgment, most subpostmasters are yet to receive the compensation they are due. The Post Office has a number of different compensation schemes, but progress to pay subpostmasters, many of whom are in financial difficulty, is too slow. Many have died before receiving the money they are owed.

Byrne has been an MP for 20 years, and was deployed by former Prime minsters Tony Blair and Gordon Brown on challenging tasks in the Home Office and at Number 10, but he said nothing compares to the Post Office mess. “I have seen a lot of problems in government, but I have never seen anything like this profoundly broken system,” said Byrne.

He described a triple systemic failure in corporate governance at the Post Office, in the government shareholder and in political oversight. “The board has failed, the shareholder has failed and the political overseer has failed,” said Byrne.

He called it a mess and said people deserve justice. “You have to make some pretty brutal decisions, in my opinion, on taking the Post Office out of delivering remedies, because it is not fit for delivering redress schemes,” said Byrne.

This is one of the select committee’s recommendations, and if the government does not include this – as well as hard deadlines for financial redress – in its upcoming bill, the committee will seek to amend it. He is calling the tests the “Mr Bates tests” after campaigning former subpostmaster Alan Bates, and has said there is enough support in the House of Commons to amend any bill to include these if required.

Rushed report

The select committee will publish its “short” report on the Post Office tomorrow (07 March 2024), which Byrne said has been “rushed out the door” because the committee is not sure when the bill to overturn wrongful subpostmaster convictions and pay compensation to scandal victims will arrive. “We want to make sure that parliament had a cross-party select committee report that says what we want the bill to achieve and here are the tests for the bill,” said Byrne.

He said the current spat between Post Office CEO Nick Read and former chairman Henry Staunton is a “sideshow” that will not detract the committee from its “focus on cheques in the post to former subpostmasters.” However, Byrne added that it underlines how there is chaos at the top of the Post Office, and that it “helps substantiate the argument for taking the Post Office out of the mix”.

Whether the government takes the Post Office out of the financial redress process or not remains to be seen. “There is a chance that the government might resist amendments to add deadlines and take the Post Office out of the process, so I have then got to win support in the House of Commons to make the amendments,” he said.

Byrne believes the support for these amendments are there. “You can win a vote in the Commons on a justice matter,” he said. “From the beginning of the year, my strategy has been how to get enough political capital to win a vote in the House of Commons.”

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).

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

Also watch: ITV’s Post Office scandal documentary, Mr Bates vs The Post Office: The real story.

Read all Computer Weekly articles about the scandal since 2009

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