Post Office wasn’t asked to stall compensation, says government

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Henry Staunton stood down as Port Office chairman last month

The government says it “utterly refutes” claims by the Post Office’s former chairman that he was told to delay compensation payments to victims in the Horizon scandal.

Henry Staunton told the Sunday Times he was instructed to “stall” payments ahead of the election.

But a government spokesman denied this and said it had sped up compensation.

The compensation was for subpostmasters wrongly prosecuted for stealing money because of faulty software.

Hundreds of subpostmasters were prosecuted because of glitches in the Horizon IT system between 1999 and 2015 in what has been called the biggest miscarriage of justice in UK history.

The scandal has come under renewed focus following the broadcast of the ITV drama Mr Bates Versus the Post Office.

Mr Staunton was appointed Post Office chairman in December 2022, but stood down last month after Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch said “new leadership” was needed to tackle the scandal.

In his interview with the Sunday Times, Mr Staunton said shortly after joining the Post Office he was told by a senior civil servant to slow down the rate of compensation payments, apparently to help the government’s finances.

“Early on, I was told by a fairly senior person to stall on spend on compensation and on the replacement of Horizon, and to limp, in quotation marks – I did a file note on it – limp into the election,” he said the paper.

“It was not an anti-postmaster thing, it was just straight financials. I didn’t ask, because I said: ‘I’m having no part of it – I’m not here to limp into the election, it’s not the right thing to do by postmasters’.”

A government spokesman denied the allegations, adding: “The government has sped up compensation to victims, and consistently encouraged postmasters to come forward with their claims. To suggest any actions or conversations happened to the contrary is incorrect.

“In fact, upon appointment, Mr Staunton was set concrete objectives, in writing, to focus on reaching settlements with claimants – clear evidence of the government’s intent.”

Mr Staunton also told the Sunday Times that when he was informed he was losing his job, Ms Badenoch had said: “Someone’s got to take the rap.”

However, a source at the Department for Business told the BBC that his claims were “rubbish”.

“He received a letter from a senior civil servant early in his tenure requesting he prioritise getting compensation to postmasters. This sort of blame-passing was a feature of Mr Staunton’s time in the Post Office and emblematic of his lack of control over the organisation and why the board needed new leadership.”

A spokesperson for Mr Staunton told the BBC his client would be making no further comment but that he stood by the accusations made in the Sunday Times.

Labour’s shadow business secretary, Jonathan Reynolds, said: “The Horizon scandal is widely accepted to be one of the worst miscarriages of justice in British history.

“Under no circumstances should compensation to victims be delayed and to do so for party political purposes would be a further insult to subpostmasters.

“The Labour Party has called for all subpostmasters to be exonerated and compensation paid swiftly so that victims can begin to draw this awful chapter to a close.”

Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said Mr Staunton’s claims were “deeply disturbing” and called for ministers to explain to Parliament “exactly what has happened at the earliest opportunity”.

The slow pace of overturning convictions and making compensation payments has led some to call for a mass exoneration of those affected.

Mr Saunders told the Sunday Times that Post Office chief executive Nick Read had written to the Justice Secretary Alex Chalk with legal opinion from the Post Office’s solicitors, Peters & Peters, that in more than 300 cases convictions were supported by evidence not related to the Horizon software.

“Basically it was trying to undermine the exoneration argument,” Mr Saunders said. “It was ‘most people haven’t come forward because they are guilty as charged’ – i.e. think very carefully about exoneration.”

A spokesperson for Post Office said: “Post Office is very aware of the terrible impact from this appalling scandal and miscarriage of justice. We refute both the assertions put to us and the words and phrases allegedly used, and are focused on supporting the government’s plans for faster justice and redress for victims, as well as helping the Inquiry get to the truth of what happened.”

The spokesperson added: “In no sense did the Post Office seek to persuade government against mass exoneration. We remain firmly committed to supporting faster justice and redress for victims”.

LISTEN: The extraordinary story of a decade-long battle with the Post Office, fought by their own sub-postmasters, on BBC Sounds.

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