Business Secretary Grant Shapps has apologised “unreservedly” to those caught up in the Horizon computer system scandal.
Making a statement on the GLO (group litigation order) compensation scheme, Mr Shapps set out further details in the Commons for MPs.
He said: “The Horizon scandal is nothing short of a travesty. Today I turn to those who’ve lost everything. Those who’ve been driven to bankruptcy, lost the savings they’ve worked all their lives for.
“Those who were falsely accused and lost their good name in our country’s courts and those who were falsely convicted lost their freedom, in our country’s prisons.”
He added: “I want say today that I’m sorry. I’m sorry for those years of pain, of hurt, of anguish and I apologise unreservedly for any part that my department has played historically in this miscarriage of justice.
“Because the Post Office is a public institution, it exists to serve the British people. The best of us, our postmasters could be subject to such intolerable injustice does not bear thinking about.
“This is a wrong that can never be put right, but I hope that the steps we’re taking today will be of some comfort to those who fought and continue to tirelessly fight for justice.”
Mr Shapps added: “We want postmasters who exposed the scandal through the High Court group litigation order (GLO) case to receive similar compensation to those available to their peers, that is what’s right and it’s what’s fair.”
“The majority view was that BEIS should deliver an alternative dispute resolution approach using information prepared from the GLO case, so this is the route that we will now follow.”
He went on: “I’m writing to members of the group litigation today with further information about how it will work. For too long, our postmasters have been left to endure devastating financial hardship and I’m therefore pleased to say that all Post Office and Horizon related compensation payments will be disregarded for benefits purposes.
“Once the disregard is in place, payments received by postmasters will no longer count towards the capital limit for means-tested benefits and pension credits will not therefore affect the eligibility to claim for these. The Government will legislate to put this disregard in place at the earliest opportunity.”
Mr Shapps said: “Those experts should be on board in early spring and that point (for) claims can start to be submitted and assessed.
“I hope that compensation will start to flow before the summer and that most cases can be resolved before the end of 2023.”
He added: “We are today announcing details of the funding available to enable postmasters to access initial legal support.”
Shadow business minister Chi Onwurah told MPs she welcomed “today’s statement and apology”, adding: “This represents an important step forward in delivering justice in what may well be the largest miscarriage of justice in our country’s history.”
Pressing the Business Secretary, she said: “The Government is the only shareholder in the Post Office, so it is right the Secretary of State takes responsibility for this.
“At the core of this unforgivable scandal is the belief that workers were dishonest and technology infallible. Perhaps that is not surprising given the Government’s track record on defending the rights of working people.”
She added: “So, will the Secretary of State tell us now how long he estimates it will take for this scheme and the other schemes to pay out the appropriate compensation?
“And can he tell me whether the aim of the scheme and the others is to put people back in the original position that they would have been, were it not for their involvement in Horizon?”
Ms Onwurah also pressed him on where the money for the scheme will be coming from and urged him to set out how he will ensure something similar “never happens again”.
Responding to Labour, Grant Shapps said: “She asked about timescales and as I mentioned in my comments for this particular part of the scheme, we aim to complete this by the end of 2023.
“I hope sooner and that’s why the large amounts of evidence – or rather large amounts of documents – that we are putting online this morning enables people to get on with processing their applications before making the formal applications early next year.”
The Business Secretary added: “In terms of the rest of the questions, Sir Wyn Williams is carrying out the formal inquiry, we’ll be able to, I hope, shed significant light on what went wrong and therefore provide a set of recommendations to prevent it from happening again.”