The chair of the department of business and trade select committee has called on the government to consider enshrining deadlines on payments to subpostmasters into the Post Office Compensation Bill, which is currently processing through parliament.
The bill is an attempt by government to speed payments to subpostmasters that fell victim to the Post Office Horizon scandal, which wrecked the lives of thousands of people after subpostmasters were blamed for accounting shortfalls that were actually the result of computer errors.
Liam Byrne described this as a “Mr Bates clause”, in reference to Alan Bates, the subpostmaster who has led the fight for justice for subpostmasters for two decades. He said a hard deadline for payments should be enshrined into the bill.
Byrne’s question followed a letter from Bates, who is chair of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA), to Kevin Hollinrake, under-secretary of state at the Department for Business and Trade. In the letter, Bates described the slow pace of paying members of the JFSA money they are owed. “I am sure you will agree that this is not an acceptable rate of progress and certainly not in the best interests of the victims in the group who continually look for closure of the painful events they have endured which continue to drag on year after year,” he wrote.
In a separate letter to Hollinrake, Byrne said he has had sight of Bates’ letter, which he said “provides more disappointing statistics on the number of claims received, accepted and offers made”.
Byrne wrote: “I am sure you agree that it is vital the new legislation meets the Mr Bates Test for rapid payment.” He said Bates has “suggested ways in which the process could be speeded up, including financial penalties for claims not processed to agreed targets and for claims where no agreement has been reached”.
Then, during the latest business and trade select committee hearing, Byrne asked Kemi Badenoch, secretary of state for business and trade, whether there could be a debate about enshrining hard deadlines on payments into the bill. “The million, billion dollar question is, can we commit on the face of the bill for a hard deadline making sure the payments are paid to those who have suffered the greatest injustice?” he asked.
Badenoch said she will do everything in her power to make sure the former subpostmasters get what they need as quickly as possible.
“Whether putting a deadline on the face of the bill is the right approach, that is not something that I can say for certain,” she said. “We are certainly looking into it, but I want to reassure not just the committee, but all those subpostmasters and subpostmistresses that have been affected that we are working night and day to get this sorted for them.”
Bates is chair of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, which took the Post Office to the High Court in 2018, proved the Horizon system was to blame for accounting shortfalls, and were awarded £57.75m between them after the trial. But once legal costs were taken out, they were only left with £11m to share between over 500 if them. This did not come close to repaying the money they were forced to pay the Post Office, never mind compensating them for their suffering.
The government, which fully owns the Post Office, repeatedly said the compensation awarded after the High Court case was full and final. But the JFSA campaigned to force the government to pay them fair compensation. In March 2022, the government made a U-turn and began negotiating financial redress with the JFSA, but it has been over four years since their court victory and most of the JFSA members are still without full financial redress.
Computer Weekly first exposed the scandal in 2009, revealing the stories of seven subpostmansters and the problems they suffered as a result of the Horizon system (see timeline of all articles below).
Also read: What you need to know about the Horizon scandal.
Watch: ITV’s Post Office scandal documentary, Mr Bates vs The Post Office: The real story.