UK

PM ignores calls to repeat ‘lying’ allegation aimed at ex-Post Office chairman

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called for an investigation into claims the Government wanted to stall Horizon compensation payments.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons on Wednesday
Prime Minister’s Questions Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaks during Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons on Wednesday (House of Commons/UK Parliament/PA)

Rishi Sunak has sidestepped calls to repeat Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch’s claims that the former Post Office chairman was lying in the row over Horizon compensation payments.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer pressed the Prime Minister in the Commons as he called for an investigation into whether or not the Government had been seeking to delay payments to subpostmasters affected by the scandal.

Ms Badenoch accused Henry Staunton of choosing to “spread a series of falsehoods” and “provide made-up anecdotes to journalists” while also claiming he was being investigated over bullying allegations before his dismissal.

Mr Staunton countered by accusing Ms Badenoch of making “an astonishing series of claims”, with his spokesperson saying Mr Staunton was “not aware of any aspect of his conduct which could give rise to such allegations”.

The row emerged after Mr Staunton claimed he had been told by a senior civil servant to “stall” spending on compensation to subpostmasters ahead of the next general election.

Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions, Sir Keir asked: “Would the Prime Minister be prepared personally to repeat the allegation made by his Business Secretary that the former chair of the Post Office is lying when he says he was told to go slow on compensation for postmasters and limp to the next election?”

Mr Sunak replied: “As the Business Secretary said on Monday she asked Henry Staunton to step down after serious concerns were raised, she set out the reasons for this and the full background in the House earlier this week, but importantly we have also taken unprecedented steps to ensure that victims of the Horizon scandal do receive compensation as swiftly as possible and in full.”

Sir Keir pressed the Prime Minister, saying: “On Monday the Business Secretary also confirmed categorically that the Post Office was, and I’ll quote this in fairness to the Prime Minister, ‘at no point told to delay compensation payments by either an official or a minister from any Government department, and at no point was it suggested that a delay would be of benefit to the Treasury’, so that’s Monday.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer raised the issue of Horizon compensation payments during Prime Minister’s Questions
Prime Minister’s Questions Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer raised the issue of Horizon compensation payments during Prime Minister’s Questions (House of Commons/UK Parliament/PA)

“A note released by the former Post Office chair this morning appears to directly contradict that … I appreciate the Business Secretary has put the Prime Minister in a tricky position, but will he commit to investigating this matter properly? Including whether that categorical statement was correct, and why rather than taking those accusation seriously she accused a whistleblower of lying?”

Mr Sunak, in his reply, said: “It is worth bearing in mind as the Business Secretary said on Monday, she asked Henry Staunton to step down after serious concerns were raised.”

Sir Keir said he hoped Mr Sunak would “instigate that investigation into what was said on Monday because one of the features of this miscarriage is that where concerns have been raised they have been pushed to one side”.

Mr Sunak also said he did not ask ministers who held senior and relevant government positions at the time about an investigation reportedly carried out but not completed in 2016 that could have revealed issues with the Post Office’s Horizon IT system.

Sir Keir asked: “Considering the Prime Minister’s Foreign Secretary (Lord Cameron) was running the Government in 2016, and one of the Prime Minister’s current Cabinet Office ministers was the Post Office minister, has he thought to ask either of them what they knew in 2016?”

Rishi Sunak said: “No… we did the right thing which was to set up an independent statutory inquiry. That is the right way to resolve this issue. It’s the right way to get victims the truth and the answers they demand, but this Government is getting on getting them the compensation that they rightly deserve.”

Ahead of Prime Minister’s Questions, a report said a senior civil servant was alleged to have told Mr Staunton not to focus on “long-term issues” and to protect his organisation’s finances.

Mr Staunton was said to have been told during a meeting with Sarah Munby, who was then permanent secretary at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), to “hobble” into the next general election.

According to a note written down after the January 2023 meeting by Mr Staunton and shared with The Times, the businessman alleges that Ms Munby, who is now permanent secretary at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), also advised him not to “rip off the band aid” in terms of the Post Office’s finances.

But Ms Munby later hit back at the claims, denying that she asked him to delay payments.

In a letter to Ms Badenoch published by the Government, Ms Munby wrote: “I am able to give you the very strongest reassurance… that I did not at any point suggest to Mr Staunton, or imply to him in any way whatsoever, that there should be delay to compensation payments for postmasters.”

The top mandarin said they had “discussed Post Office operational funding, not compensation funding,” and that she had referred to the election in the context of “a multi-year turnaround programme” to address the organisation’s financial issues.

“None of this discussion about short-term and long-term issues related to compensation payments,” she added.

But referring to the row in the House of Lords, Tory former MP Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom, a long-time campaigner on the issue and a member of the Horizon compensation advisory board, said: “If you are a subpostmaster, of course, you don’t really care who said what to whom.

“There are two questions a subpostmaster will be interested in. When is the compensation going to be paid and when are the convictions going to be overturned?”

The Horizon IT scandal saw more than 700 subpostmasters and subpostmistresses handed criminal convictions between 1999 and 2015 as Fujitsu’s faulty Horizon system made it appear as though money was missing at their branches.

Hundreds of subpostmasters and subpostmistresses are still awaiting compensation despite the Government announcing that those who have had convictions quashed are eligible for £600,000 payouts.