Post Office Governance and Horizon Compensation Schemes - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:35 pm on 21 February 2024.

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Photo of Lord Fox Lord Fox Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Business) 7:35, 21 February 2024

My Lords, as we have heard, with every day that passes, more questions seem to come up.

In Parliament, the Secretary of State’s Statement was strident—I would say unusually strident—but no matter how loudly and aggressively she asserts her side of the issue, it will not go away without answers and evidence. I support fully the questions that the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, just asked—I will try to interrogate some other areas—but we need answers in order to support or otherwise the Secretary of State’s position. These are answers that the Government can give, not ones they can push into the Wyn Williams inquiry.

Minutes from a call on 27 January show that Kemi Badenoch said to Henry Staunton that she had received

“a briefing on the governance issues at the Post Office and that the complaints against”

Staunton

“are so serious that the government need to intervene”.

The Secretary of State said in Parliament that this included issues raised by other directors on the board. From whom did she receive the briefing on the governance in POL, and where are the notes on its contents? When were the directors’ issues first raised with the Secretary of State, and what form did these complaints take? Were they, for example, letters, emails, calls or meetings? Were any directors’ complaints submitted formally, and how many directors were involved in those submissions?

The Secretary of State’s public statements and comments conflate two issues. One is the possible disquiet as to Staunton’s progress on tackling governance within POL, and the other is an entirely separate accusation of bullying. Does the Minister agree that these two need to be properly separated? The conflation is adding to the confusion. As far as I can see, as yet, there is no documentation to support the bullying part of the Secretary of State’s response. The Secretary of State said that a “formal investigation” was under way into the complaint against Staunton. Who is leading this investigation and when was it started? Staunton says that he was not informed of this bullying complaint, so can the Minister confirm if, when and how Staunton was informed of this bullying complaint and whether he has yet to be contacted by an investigator?

Government, departmental and Post Office capacity is only so large. This very public and bitter argument is a major distraction. Given the huge quantity of energy that is being expelled on this dispute, all other activities suffer. Today, the Prime Minister declined to repeat the Secretary of State’s accusations, and if the Secretary of State misled Parliament, she clearly breached the Ministerial Code. Therefore, does the Minister agree that if we do not get a Cabinet Office inquiry, the Government’s ethics adviser should be asked to investigate this issue now?

Without publishing all the personal correspondence with the various intermediaries that link the Post Office with the Government, it cannot be established beyond any doubt who is telling the truth in this very public dispute. The problem for the Secretary of State and for the Government is that Mr Staunton’s central accusation has credibility. What we see is glacial progress in settling the Horizon victims’ cases. That was his central point. In one answer on Monday, the Minister outlined the bureaucratic appeal process open to those offered unacceptable settlements, and of course, these appeals slow things down considerably. Can the Minister at least acknowledge that this time-consuming and energy-sapping appeal process could largely be avoided if the original offers were at an acceptable level in the first place?

I have one final question. All pretence of an arm’s-length organisation has gone; the Government have the power to intervene and control. Will the Government step in and speed things up by making the process simpler, probably by collapsing the three schemes into one? Overall, will they ensure that the offers of compensation are realistic in the first place, so that all the sub-postmasters who have offers can accept them and move on?