Read Admits All 736 Post Office Convictions Are Unsafe

Nick Read, rendered in glorious Parliamentary Potatovision

I am not going to attempt to rehash the entire BEIS select committee hearing earlier today as you can still watch it in full here and you can read the transcript here.

If you want a blow-by-blow account you can read my live-tweets, carefully collated into a single, readable web-page by the brilliant thread reader app here.

The news lines which came out of the sessions (in my mind, anyway) are:

1) Nick Read describing all the 736 convictions of Subpostmasters (prosecuted at a rate of one a week between 2000 and 2013) as “unsafe”. Up till now we knew the Post Office considered Horizon to be an element in the prosecution of these cases, and we knew the PO had written to 640 of the 736, inviting them to appeal the convictions.

Now we know that there were 950 convictions between 2000 (when Horizon arrived) and 2015 when the Post Office finally stopped prosecuting (it all but stopped in 2013, but prosecuted two more in 2015, none in 2014) and that the Post Office believes 736 are unsafe. That’s a big deal and the longer just 72 of them have had their convictions overturned the more pressure there will be on the Post Office to find the remainder and help them get their convictions quashed and compensation paid.

2) The Post Office has spent “in excess” £300m fighting Subpostmasters (legal fees) settling with them and administering the claims process. I am not sure if this figure includes the Post Conviction Disclosure Exercise (which involved solicitors and 60 barristers examining more than 14 million documents for a year) or the legal fees at the Court of Appeal. I suspect it does.

3) The government has spent £5.7m handing out interim compensation to 57 Subpostmasters whose convictions have been quashed.

4) The government believes the Historical Shortfall Scheme will only cost them £153m in compensation (a previous estimate of £311m was recorded by BEIS here and reported by me here). There is a tiny bit of wiggle room – that £311m figure may have included operating costs, and the £153m doesn’t, but nonetheless it is much lower than the original estimate – though still 5x higher than the Post Office’s first estimate of a couple of hundred applicants and a cost of £35m (more on that here).

The number of successful applicants to the HSS has been confirmed at 2500 with a further 122 who have come forward after the scheme’s closure date (it was open from 1 May 2020 to 14 August 2020 with a limited extension period under “special circumstances” until 27 November 2020). To date only 777 offers have been made under the scheme (and anecdotally these are mainly smaller claims), but Nick Read said he wants 50% of applicants to have received an offer by the end of March and 95% by the end of the year. The minister, Paul Scully, added he wants it to be 100%.

Paul Scully, from an equally good camera

5) Paul Scully told MPs that he was meeting with lawyers representing some of the 555 civil litigants next week. This group (for new readers) were bound by the terms of a settlement they agreed at the Post Office which gave them £57.75m. Unfortunately legal and success fees left them with £12m to share between all 555, around £21,000 each – nowhere near enough for many who had lost years of their lives and hundreds of thousands of pounds.

I understand that one of the lawyers meeting the government next week will be David Enright from Howe and Co. Howe and Co represent 150 Subpostmasters who are core participants in the Statutory Inquiry. Of course they are not all the 555 and some of them may well not have been part of the civil litigation, which Paul Scully raised as a problem, saying:

“It’s actually about trying to understand some fundamental things about who exactly has legal oversight for the 555 now as opposed to what happened in the original litigation. Fundamental mechanisms like that. Which are again, seemingly apparent, but as soon as you scratch the surface, there’s a whole load of questions which need to be answered, which we’ll get sorted.”

Alan Bates, founder of the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance, and the only Subpostmaster to sign the civil litigation settlement agreement on behalf of the 555, recently announced he was seeking legal representation to sue the government after parting ways with Howe and Co. Let’s hope he signs a firm up soon.

6) Finally, a striking comment from Paul Scully in specific reference to proper compensation for the 555. He told the committee:

“Now the pandemic is starting to move towards the next stage this is by far and away the most pressing issue in my list of responsibilities as a minister.”

That is the most explicit statement of intent by any member of government I have heard in the last ten years. What’s the betting Scully gets reshuffled before there is any resolution? Let’s see…

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