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.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Offord of Garvel Lord Offord of Garvel The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Business and Trade) 7:35, 21 February 2024

There is a lot to unpack there. I will take it in three pieces, if your Lordships do not mind. I will start with the Henry Staunton spat; then we will talk a little bit about the compensation; and then we can talk about the convictions, overturning them, and general progress on that matter.

On the dismissal of Henry Staunton and the following row that has ensued, as I said before, it is a shame that we are doing this in public because obviously, there are HR matters here. A senior director has been removed from his post, and due process needs to be delivered and his confidentiality respected.

However, I can shed light on this. This has been helped by further documents today being put in the public domain. In addition to the file note of the Secretary of State’s conversation with Henry Staunton at the weekend, we now have Mr Staunton’s file note to himself after his meeting in January 2023 with Sarah Munby and very helpful clarification from Sarah Munby of her recollection of what happened, with back-up notes. Accordingly, all the minutes are now at the disposal of the public and in the Library.

In summary, the row here is on two allegations that have been made by Mr Staunton—that he was sacked because someone had to “take the rap” and that he was instructed by a senior civil servant, the Permanent Secretary, to slow down the process of compensation and justice for postmasters. It is now absolutely clear from the correspondence and the notes published, and even from reading Mr Staunton’s own note, that the reason for his dismissal was not that he had to take the rap, but quite the opposite. He was in post for just 14 months—from December 2022—and was given three specific priorities by Sarah Munby. The first was to accelerate and expedite the compensation to the postmasters. Therefore, he was not there to take the rap. His dismissal, which was designed to be done in private but has now come out in public, was simply because there were governance issues around his chairmanship.

Interestingly, taking account of the various discussions that we have had in this House on this matter, noble Lords, especially on the other Benches, have been quite clear that they feel that there has obviously been a breakdown in governance and that the Government were not exercising their governance powers appropriately. That is what Sir Wyn Williams will look at in detail. We have a new board. Three new non-execs of a higher calibre were appointed in 2023. There are now two postmaster directors on the board. A senior independent director is required to be appointed and, most importantly, the government shareholder, UKGI, is represented on that board.

In addition, you can imagine the amount of public and departmental scrutiny that is happening. There are monthly meetings with post office executives. A lot of conversations are going on with Post Office management. Within those conversations, quite rightly, without naming names, non-exec directors and UKGI have raised concerns on the governance and chairmanship of the Post Office.

Under previous regimes, it would appear that, when concerns were raised on other matters, they were ignored. In this case, concerns have been raised and not ignored but taken into serious consideration. That demonstrates that we have a different sort of governance now in the Post Office. If I was coming at this from a private sector basis, as a shareholder, I would want to know what is going on inside the company. If non-exec directors came and told me there was a problem on the board, I would take that very seriously. That was then discussed between the Secretary of State and Henry Staunton and specific governance issues and concerns were raised by the board. As I said, the board is run by the chair. If the board is at odds and therefore not functioning properly, we must change the chair. It is as simple as that.

So, on the first point, that he was there to take the rap, the memos and meeting notes clearly show that he was dismissed because we had a governance issue.