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Stormont Justice Minister Naomi Long Alamy Stock Photo
Horizon IT scandal

NI excluded from quashing of Post Office convictions - but Naomi Long says 'door not shut'

The new Bill will exonerate those convicted in England and Wales on the basis of the faulty Horizon accounting software.

STORMONT’S JUSTICE MINISTER has said she is “very disappointed” in the UK government not including Northern Ireland in a Westminster law aimed at quashing the wrongful convictions of subpostmasters caught up in the Horizon IT scandal.

However, Naomi Long said the door is not shut on adding the North to the law. 

The Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill will exonerate those convicted in England and Wales on the basis of the faulty Horizon accounting software.

Northern Ireland and Scotland are excluded from the Bill, with the UK government having pledged to work with those devolved administrations to find ways for them to expunge wrongful convictions.

More than 700 subpostmasters in the UK were prosecuted by the Post Office and handed criminal convictions between 1999 and 2015 as Fujitsu’s faulty Horizon IT system made it appear as though money was missing at their branches.

Long said there were around 25 affected subpostmasters in Northern Ireland.

She claimed her Stormont colleagues – First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly – had been given an indication on Tuesday from Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove and Northern Ireland Office minister Steve Baker that the UK government was open to showing flexibility around including the region in the proposed law.

She said that made its exclusion from the Bill introduced in the Commons yesterday particularly frustrating.

“Obviously we’re very disappointed that (Post Office) minister Kevin Hollinrake has decided to go ahead … with the Post Office convictions expunction legislation, without including Northern Ireland and indeed Scotland,” she told reporters at Stormont yesterday. 

“We have written again to the minister and asked him to consider adding Northern Ireland to the legislation as it goes through the House of Commons, because there will be an opportunity to amend the legislation,” she said. 

Long said it is “not just the simplest way and the quickest way to deal with it but the right way to deal with it in terms of ensuring that there is parity of treatment for people in Northern Ireland with those right across the UK who were affected by the Post Office scandal”.

“It now remains to be seen whether ministers will step up and take that opportunity,” she said. 

Not too late

Long said it was not too late to add Northern Ireland by amending the legislation as it proceeds through its parliamentary stages.

“I don’t think the door is completely shut when it comes to whether Northern Ireland may be included as it goes through its passage of the House because then it could be added at amendment stage,” the Justice Minister said.

Long said introducing specific legislation at Stormont would be “slow and cumbersome”.

She said it would also be using a “sledgehammer to crack a nut” given the relatively small number of people involved.

Long said an alternative approach in Northern Ireland could see the creation of an administrative scheme, rather than primary legislation, but she said that would mean every affected individual would have to apply to have their cases reviewed.

“I don’t think all is lost, I think there is still an opportunity at amendment stage for us to be able to get those amendments done,” she said.

“Government could do that very simply because we’ve pointed out to them where the amendments would be needed. If Government don’t do it, then I would hope that some of our MPs will step up and do that and hope that the Government would then accept those amendments, and work with us to actually deliver this,” Long added. 

Proposed amendment

Long indicated that her party colleague and North Down MP Stephen Farry would be prepared to propose such an amendment at Westminster.

The minister said while there were complications presented by Scotland having a different legal system, she said the only real change to the Bill required to reflect the Northern Ireland situation would be the inclusion of reference to the region’s Public Prosecution Service, in addition to the Crown Prosecution Service in England and Wales.

The minister said she did not accept an argument advanced by the UK overnment that Stormont should deal with the issue because justice was a devolved issue.

Press Association