Post Office should be handed over to postmasters, former boss says

By John Mercury March 3, 2024

The Post Office should be “handed over” to postmasters, its former chairman has said, accusing the government of using it as a “fig leaf” for stalling and evasion.

In a letter seen exclusively by Sky News, Henry Staunton told the business and trade committee the government has “consistently hidden behind the Post Office’s skirts, spinning their way away from trouble”.

He also accused the Department for Business and Trade of not owning up to their “failings” or doing “the decent thing” by sub-postmasters.

Hundreds of sub-postmasters were wrongly convicted of theft and false accounting based on evidence from faulty Horizon IT software between 1999 and 2015.

Mr Staunton, who was sacked in January, wrote to Liam Byrne, the chair of the business and trade committee, after an explosive meeting on Tuesday.

MPs were told by the former Post Office chairman that its current chief executive, Nick Read, was under investigation.

Former Post Office chairman Henry Staunton
Image:
Former Post Office chairman Henry Staunton. Pic: PA

Mr Staunton was answering questions about an internal probe into his own behaviour and about allegations he made that he had been told to stall on compensation payments to victims while he was chairman.

In the letter he said: “The government cannot continue to dodge its responsibilities, pretending in public to be all heart and compassion, while it allows stony-faced lawyers to rack up their hours doing their best to prevaricate and penny-pinch.”

Read more:
What is the Post Office scandal, why were postmasters prosecuted, and what is Horizon?

Postmistress felt she had to grovel for compensation

Describing “deep dysfunction” within the Post Office, he also called for a “hard, concrete deadline” for victim compensation, “ideally no more than six months”.

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Former sub-postmaster Alan Bates: Post Office should be sold to Amazon for £1

He also said the company needs to be “removed completely” from the compensation process and called for an independent body to take over.

In his damning assessment, Mr Staunton said postmasters are “dying as the government attempts to evade its obligations. It’s the oldest trick in the book.”

As well as stating compensation should be increased by £600,000 to £1m for each convicted post master, he said the Post Office should be taken out of government control by “handing it over, lock, stock and barrel to the post masters themselves.”

The letter, Mr Staunton stated, is about setting down “some further thoughts on what now needs to be done”.

It is the latest in a war of words between Mr Staunton and government officials.

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Justice our priority, says PM

Last week, business secretary Kemi Badenoch told the Commons there was “no evidence whatsoever” of Henry Staunton’s account that he was told to stall on compensation payments.

The slow pace at which former sub-postmasters are receiving compensation has, however, led to fierce criticism from victims, lawyers and politicians.

Read more:
Former Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells formally stripped of CBE
Fujitsu ‘to have received £3.4bn’ despite role in Post Office scandal

Earlier this week the government announced new measures to speed up the process, including an interim payment of £450,000 for those who have had convictions overturned.

A source at the Department for Business and Trade said: “While the government continues to do all it can to deliver justice for the postmasters, Henry Staunton is still making this all about him: trying to deflect from his terrible tenure as chair of the Post Office and the newspaper interview he gave that has fallen apart under scrutiny.

“We won’t be distracted by this constant mud-flinging, and we hope Mr Staunton will now decide a period of silence is the best way forward.”

In response to the part of Mr Staunton’s letter regarding the compensation process, the Post Office referred Sky News to answers given by its chief executive Nick Read to a parliamentary select committee, when he said: “We are very clear that whatever the government decide and determine is the right course of action, we will follow it.

“If people and the government believe that the right level of trust is not in the Post Office and there is a better mechanism, we will fully support it, whatever it looks like. I am not precious about this: I am acutely conscious that we want to get the best mechanism. Whether it is with or without us, I do not mind.”

Regarding the suggestion by Mr Staunton that the Post Office should be given over to postmasters, the Post Office referred Sky News to comments made by Mr Read, when he said: “As we look towards the next Comprehensive Spending Review, I intend to work with government on the various means by which we could deliver on a longer-term aspiration to facilitate profit-sharing between Post Office Limited and postmasters when circumstances permit.

“As we become commercially sustainable and no longer reliant on government subsidy, looking for new ways to ensure postmasters share fairly in that success is the right thing to do.”

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