Sacked and smeared for standing up for postmasters

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Sub-postmasters Lee Castleton and Noel Thomas celebrate the overturning of their convictions outside the Royal Courts of Justice in April 2021

FORMER chairman of the Post Office Henry Staunton dropped a bombshell on the Tories when he appeared before the Business and Trade Select Committee of MPs in Parliament yesterday afternoon.

Asked if he had been told to ‘slow down’ compensation payments to sub-postmasters who had been sacked, tried and jailed after being falsely accused of fraud and theft, he replied that a year ago he had met Permanent Secretary of the Department for Business, Sarah Munby.

He said: ‘She said money is tight at the Treasury and you need to really understand that… she repeated again, “money is very tight, this is no time to rip off the band aid” and I was left in no doubt… This was such an unusual conversation and I spent a fortnight of putting in quotation marks of what I was told.’

Referring to allegations made against him by Tory Secretary of State for Business and Trade, Kemi Badenoch earlier this month, Staunton went on: ‘I was of course accused of being a liar until, thankfully, I found this note just a few days ago and the focus has changed from “nobody said that” to “what does it mean”?’

Liam Byrne, chair of the committee, told Staunton: ‘The Secretary of State (Badenoch) in her letter to me last Friday, said these claims are completely fictitious and you have changed your story. Is that true?’

Staunton replied: ‘I haven’t at all. I think of course at the time, she said they were lies because I couldn’t find the file notes and she said they were a lie and couldn’t have been said. Since then, the tone of what she was saying about me has changed because I’ve found the file note, thankfully. So I can only rest by the file note and the story which I have told you.’

Byrne asked him: ‘You stand by what you have said in public that the message you received from a senior civil servant that compensation payments should be slowed down to minimise the financial liability?’

‘Yes I do,’ Staunton replied, continuing: ‘What I have done is stand up for the postmasters. In fact, the Post Office has had a chance to make a number of representations to you. So, if you don’t mind I will read out for a minute my views.

‘My statement is: What happened to these poor postmasters and their families is a tragedy and a scandal. They have been failed time and time again by a whole host of British institutions which are supposed to be there to protect the citizen and ensure fair play.

‘We all know that there was inaction all round by the judicial system, the government, Whitehall and particularly inside the Post Office until the ITV drama Mr Bates versus the Post Office and there was then a rocket put under things.

‘The Secretary of State, senior civil servants and Post Office officials are asking us to believe that everything was going swimmingly all along when it damned well wasn’t.

‘We all know that things were moving far too slowly and the reason why people have latched onto what I said in the Sunday Times was that finally someone was being honest about how deepseated the problems were and why nothing was being done.

‘I still think that more could be done at least to make compensation more generous and the process of getting justice less bureaucratic. But I will at least have achieved something if “the sunlight of disinfectant”, which the secretary of state so approves of means that the government now lives up to its promises.

‘What the public wants to know is why was everything so slow and why did everything remain so slow? I’ve spoken up on matters of genuine public concern and been fired and now subject to a smear campaign.’