PM Rishi Sunak plans bill to exonerate UK Post Office scandal victims

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Rishi Sunak announced a law to quash the convictions and speed up compensation to some 980 UK Post Office workers wrongfully convicted of theft and false accounting, as he seeks to draw a line under a long-running scandal that’s risen to the top of the political agenda in recent days.

The government will introduce primary legislation that would overturn the convictions of so-called sub-postmasters who were prosecuted between 1999 and 2015, Sunak said during Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday.

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“This is one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation’s history,” he said in the House of Commons. “We will make sure that the truth comes to light, we right the wrongs of the past, and the victims get the justice they deserve.”

Sunak has been under pressure to respond since an ITV drama, Mr Bates vs. the Post Office, which aired last week drew broader attention to the plight of those wrongly accused. Politicians across the UK’s main three political parties have faced criticism for their roles in failing to resolve the injustice sooner.

The scandal was triggered by faults in a Fujitsu Ltd. computer sys-tem called Horizon that was used by UK post offices and inaccurately reported shortfalls in their accounts, resulting in private prosecutions of innocent branch managers for theft. Many were imprisoned and some victims committed suicide.

Some 3,500 people were caught up in the scandal, with many using their own money to settle the shortfalls reported by the ac-counting software, postal services minister Kevin Hollinrake on Wednesday told Times Radio. While the government had already made final settlements totaling £148 million to 64 percent of the postmasters, of the 980 who were convicted, only 93 have managed to overturn their convictions, he said.

Hollinrake later told the House of Commons it would take “some weeks to deliver the legislation, and acknowledged the blanket approach risked some “unjust acquittals.” But the alternative, he said, was to “put all cases through the courts, further dragging out the distress for many innocent people.”

Postmasters involved in a group litigation against the Post Office will be offered an additional up-front compensation payment of £75,000 ($95,000) in order to resolve their cases, Hollinrake said, to save them having to go through a full assessment of their cases.

They will be entitled to a full assessment if they “believe they are entitled to more,” he said.

Amid widespread outrage, ministers have pledged to act on the conclusions of a public inquiry that’s expected to report its findings later in the year. On Monday, former Post Office Chief Executive Officer Paula Vennells said she would hand back an honor awarded to her in the name of the monarch.

Fujitsu, the Tokyo-based technology giant which supplied Horizon to the Post Office, will be liable to pay compensation to the ac-cused workers if a public inquiry finds it responsible, the govern-ment has said. “I don’t think it’s right that just the taxpayer picks up the tab for this,” Hollinrake told Times Radio. Fujitsu’s shares have dipped slightly since the start of the year.

A spokesperson for Fujitsu said it is taking part in the inquiry and has apologized for the suffering of victims. The company is a major provider of public sector contracts in Britain and still supplies Horizon to the Post Office.

Read more: Widespread false convictions for UK post office ‘thefts’ spur outrage

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