Sarah Munby: Top civil servant hits out in Post Office compensation row

Henry Staunton
Image caption,Sarah Munby has claimed she never told Henry Staunton (picture) to delay Post Office compensation payments

A top civil servant has denied telling former Post Office chairman Henry Staunton to delay compensation payments to victims of the Horizon scandal.

Sarah Munby has written to the Business Secretary to say Mr Staunton’s claims are false and discussions were focussed on the commercial side of the business.

It marks the latest twist in a bitter row between the government and the former Post Office chairman.

Mr Staunton said he wanted to focus on victims instead of a “political spat”.

In a letter published by the government late on Wednesday afternoon, Sarah Munby claimed she had never told Henry Staunton to delay payments.

Ms Munby wrote: “It is not true that I made any instruction, either explicitly or implicitly, to Mr Staunton to in any way delay compensation payments. I did not.

“Neither Mr Staunton’s note, nor the contemporaneous note that my office made, suggest otherwise.

“In fact, no mention of delaying compensation appears in either note.”

She added that the two discussed funding for the Post Office’s operations, rather than compensation funding, which she said is ring-fenced.

Ms Munby also denied reports that she told the former chairman to “hobble” into the next General Election instead of focusing on long-term issues at the Post Office.

‘Very clear recollection’

Former Post Office chairman Henry Staunton earlier released a note he claims proves he was told to stall compensation payments to postmasters.

And his spokesperson issued a response on Wednesday evening saying his recollection of the conversation was “very clear” and because he felt the government’s view was so surprising, he made a note of it immediately afterwards.

His memo records a senior civil servant saying “now was not the time for dealing with long-term issues” and they should “hobble” up to the election.

The row between Mr Staunton and the government first erupted at the weekend when the former Post Office chair – who was sacked in January – said in an explosive interview with the Sunday Times that he had been told to slow down compensation payments victims.

Between 1999 and 2015, hundreds of sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses were wrongly prosecuted after faults with Horizon made it look like money was missing from their branches.

The government has promised to quash convictions and pay compensation, but concerns have been raised over the speed and complexity in victims securing financial redress, with just 33 claims fully settled out of the 938 postmasters convicted.

In January last year, Mr Staunton emailed himself and colleagues, including Post Office chief executive Nick Read, notes of a conversation he had with Sarah Munby, then the most senior official at the Department for Business.

In the memo, he laid out the serious financial challenges facing the Post Office, which included the growing bill from the Horizon scandal.

As chairman Mr Staunton was tasked with righting the wrongs of the long-running scandal.

On Wednesday, Mr Staunton reiterated that “the clear message” he took away from that conversation was that some way needed to be found “of avoiding any additional call on the Treasury this side of the election”.

‘Rip off the band-aid’

Ms Munby told Mr Staunton she understood the “huge commercial challenge” of the financial position facing the Post Office, according to his notes.

But she warned him that “politicians do not necessarily like to confront reality”.

Sarah Munby headshot
Image caption,Civil servant Sarah Munby

His memo recorded Ms Munby saying that the Post Office needed to know that in the run up to the next General Election there was no appetite to “rip off the band-aid [sticking plaster]”.

“Now was not the time for dealing with long-term issues,” the memo said, and that the Post Office needed a plan to “hobble” up to the election.

In response to the memo, Ms Munby said that she did had not seen the meeting as an opportunity to give instructions, but to discuss Mr Staunton’s views on the Post Office’s performance as a commercial business.

Mr Staunton’s memo indicates the conversation appears to have been broader than merely discussing compensation for the sub-postmasters.

Sources close to Mr Staunton said he understood from the conversation that “long-term issues” included the compensation payments to victims of the scandal.

They said as a relatively new chair of a scandal hit business Mr Staunton would want to take decisive action over a long running scandal and he interpreted the civil servant’s comments as a warning against taking such action.

On Wednesday, Mr Staunton’s spokesperson added he could not “explain why Ms Munby appears now to have a different recollection of the context of the conversation”.

He added: “The real tragedy is the plight of the wrongfully convicted postmasters and their families and that this is what we should be focussing on rather than the unseemly political spat… which this seems to have degenerated into.”

Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch had also denied the Post Office chair had been told to stall payments, saying there was “no evidence” to support the claim and accused him of spreading “made-up anecdotes”.

She insisted the government had done “everything it can” to speed up payments to those wrongfully prosecuted and that it would be “a mad thing to even suggest”.

At Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, Sir Keir Starmer called on the prime minister to commit to releasing correspondence relating to the row.

The Labour Leader quoted the campaigning former sub-postmaster Christopher Head, saying “we need to see the correspondence between the Post Office, the department and UKGI because all of the time everything gets shrouded in secrecy.”

When he was asked repeatedly whether he wanted to repeat Ms Badenoch’s allegations relating to Mr Staunton, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak declined to do so.

Sir Keir also raised the BBC’s recent investigation which revealed David Cameron’s government knew the Post Office had ditched a secret investigation in 2016 that might have helped wrongly accused postmasters prove their innocence.

Mr Sunak declined to commit directly to releasing the correspondence and said the current inquiry into the Post Office Scandal was the “right and proper way to get truth the victims deserve”.

Some Conservative MPs the BBC has spoken to privately questioned the wisdom of Ms Badenoch attacking Mr Staunton so vociferously. “Why add oxygen to the row?” they asked.

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