Post Office Horizon scandal’s victims need justice, not SNP constitutional point-scoring | Scotland should welcome new nuclear power station – Murdo Fraser

It seems there is no situation so tragic that the SNP will not try to turn it into a constitutional football

Whilst the focus elsewhere is on the contaminated blood scandal, it is another horrendous injustice which will be occupying Holyrood this week. Two afternoons of parliamentary business are being devoted to considering the appalling Horizon Post Office situation, where hundreds of innocent sub-postmasters across the United Kingdom were unfairly accused of theft and fraud.

The personal impacts of this were horrendous. Hundreds lost their livelihoods, some having to hand over tens of thousands of pounds. Others were prosecuted, some went to prison, some took their own lives, seemingly in disgrace. For all those affected, the financial and emotional impact was enormous.

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And yet, as we now know, these victims were innocent. There were serious issues with the Horizon software, and, horrifically, we now know that, at the top of the Post Office, the problems with Horizon were well-known, yet they did nothing to stop the prosecutions.

Campaigners have fought for years to clear subpostmasters of wrongful convictions for theft and false accounting (Picture: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images)Campaigners have fought for years to clear subpostmasters of wrongful convictions for theft and false accounting (Picture: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images)
Campaigners have fought for years to clear subpostmasters of wrongful convictions for theft and false accounting (Picture: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images)
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Emergency Post Office Horizon legislation introduced to Scottish Parliament

Now, at last, the UK Government has accepted that all those convicted require to be exonerated, and emergency legislation has been introduced at Westminster to address this. In parallel, there will be substantial compensation paid out to those who have suffered. It is the least that they should expect.

‘Utterly furious’

Proving that there is no situation so tragic that it cannot be turned into a constitutional football, the SNP have tried to exploit the Horizon scandal for political purposes. In an interview on April 23, the then First Minister, Humza Yousaf, said he was “utterly furious” about the fact that the UK Government had chosen not to extend their legislation to Scotland.

And yet, the decisions made to take prosecutions in Scotland were a matter not for the Post Office, but entirely one for the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service here. Had the UK Government tried to introduce a Bill to deal with Scottish justice matters, we can only imagine that the very first people to complain would be SNP ministers. But they try and turn the current situation into a constitutional grievance.

The stance of Scottish ministers seems to put them at odds with the Lord Advocate, who indicated to Holyrood back in January that she was opposed to blanket exoneration for those convicted based on Horizon evidence, although she sought to clarify that position in a further statement last Thursday.

Alarm bells failed to ring

But questions still remain about the conduct of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, which surely had a duty to weigh the credibility of the Post Office evidence on Horizon before taking prosecutions here. We know that concerns were raised about the integrity of the Horizon system with the Crown Office in 2013, but it was a further two years before a decision was taken to discontinue prosecutions that relied on that evidence.

We also know that there were 11 cases which have been identified in which individual prosecutors decided to suspend consideration of proceedings and thereafter take no further action, as a direct result of their concerns with the accuracy of the Horizon system. Why was this not ringing alarm bells at the top?

Whilst it is good to see legislation in Westminster and Scotland proceeding, and compensation being paid to those treated so unjustly, serious questions remain about the prosecution service in Scotland. Attempting to throw up chaff by SNP ministers by making this a constitutional fight won’t make these serious questions disappear.

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We should welcome new nuclear power station

Any hopes that John Swinney’s appointment as the new First Minister and leader of the SNP would lead to a more consensual approach towards the UK Government were quickly dispelled last week with his reaction to the Secretary of State’s announcement that he was considering building a new nuclear reactor in Scotland.

Appearing before the Lords Constitution Committee on Wednesday last week, Alister Jack told peers that he had asked the Energy Minister to plan for a small nuclear reactor for Scotland, believing that in 2026, after the next Scottish Parliament election, there would be a pro-UK government elected at Holyrood which would be prepared to give such a development permission.

The reaction was predictably furious from the SNP, with the new First Minister describing it as “menacing”. It might have been hoped that, freed from the shackles of the coalition with the Greens at Holyrood, the SNP would take a more pragmatic approach towards energy policy in Scotland, but it seems that is not the case.

It is, of course, the position under the devolution settlement that planning powers are devolved to Holyrood and there has never been any suggestion from the Secretary of State, or anyone else in the UK Government, that that should change. Once again, we have the SNP playing constitutional games in trying to suggest that somehow Westminster would overrule devolution to see a nuclear reactor built here. But that was never what Alister Jack suggested, rather that a different Holyrood administration would take a more sensible approach towards our energy policy.

Nuclear power may be contentious, but those with a real interest in energy policy recognise that it has an important part to play in terms of meeting our net-zero ambitions in an affordable and reliable manner. We cannot rely entirely on renewables, which may provide intermittent power. Nuclear, which provides base load in low-carbon fashion, has to be part of our energy mix.

Scotland led the way for many years in developing the nuclear industry at sites such as Dounreay, Torness, Hunterston and Chapelcross. That expertise can still be put to good use, and we should welcome the opportunity that a new generation of reactors can provide.

Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife