Post Office chairman steps down amid 'tensions with government' in wake of Horizon IT scandal

  (PA Wire)
(PA Wire)

The chairman of the Post Office has stepped down amid ongoing tensions in the wake of the Horizon IT scandal.

Henry Staunton will depart from the role following a phone call with Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch on Saturday.

They agreed to “part ways with mutual consent” and an interim will be appointed “shortly”, the Department for Business and Trade said.

Mr Staunton only took up the post at the state-owned company in December 2022, following nine years as chairman of books and stationery chain WH Smith.

He had been tasked with leading the board of directors as the business reels from the fallout of what has been described as the UK’s biggest miscarriage of justice.

More than 700 subpostmasters and subpostmistresses were prosecuted by the Post Office after faulty accounting software Horizon made it look as though money was missing from their shops.

The saga prompted an outcry across the country after it was dramatised in the ITV series Mr Bates Vs The Post Office earlier this month.

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

Mr Staunton’s departure comes amid frustration in Whitehall over the company’s governance, including a row over the prospective appointment of a new senior independent director, Sky News reported.

The Government reportedly wants to hire a Whitehall insider to the role while Mr Staunton and a number of colleagues are said to have favoured Andrew Darfoor, one of the company’s existing non-executive directors.

But insiders told SKy News that Mr Staunton’s exit was not directly related to the Horizon scandal itself.

A Government spokesperson said: “In a phone call earlier today, the Secretary of State for Business and Trade and Henry Staunton, chair of Post Office Limited (POL), agreed to part ways with mutual consent.

“An interim will be appointed shortly and a recruitment process for a new chair will be launched in due course, in accordance with the Governance Code for Public Appointments.”

Business Secretary Mrs Badenoch said she “felt there was a need for new leadership” at the Post Office.

“The Post Office is rightfully under a heightened level of scrutiny at this time," she said.

"With that in mind, I felt there was a need for new leadership, and we have parted ways with mutual consent.”

Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch (PA Wire)
Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch (PA Wire)

Mr Staunton's imminent replacement comes as the government attempts to get a handle on the Horizon crisis.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak earlier this month announced the government will be introducing legislation, that will see victims "swiftly exonerated and compensated".

The government pledged blanket legislation to exonerate subpostmasters convicted in England and Wales will be introduced within weeks, and said hundreds of Post Office branch managers who were wrongly convicted could have their names cleared by the end of the year.

The prime minister said they were victims of “one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation’s history”.

Hundreds of subpostmasters were convicted of swindling money on the basis of evidence from the flawed Horizon accounting system, with MPs told the Post Office showed “not only incompetence but malevolence” in the way it acted against them.

The scale of the scandal has prompted the Government to adopt the unconventional approach of new legislation, rather than requiring individuals to challenge their convictions.

Ministers acknowledged the plan could result in some subpostmasters who did commit crimes being wrongly cleared, but insisted the process was the most effective way of dealing with the vast majority who were victims of a miscarriage of justice.

Downing Street said the “ambition” was for the plan to be implemented by the end of the year.

At Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, Mr Sunak said: “This is one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation’s history.

“People who worked hard to serve their communities had their lives and their reputations destroyed through absolutely no fault of their own. The victims must get justice and compensation.”

Those whose convictions are quashed are eligible for a £600,000 compensation payment, or potentially more if they go through a process of having their claim individually assessed.

Mr Sunak also announced a £75,000 offer for subpostmasters involved in a group legal action against the Post Office – with ministers setting aside up to £1 billion for compensation.

Post Office minister Kevin Hollinrake told MPs that just 95 out of more than 900 convictions have been overturned.