Post Office chairman ousted amid row with government

UK

The chairman of the Post Office is on the verge of being forced out of the role amid frustration in Whitehall over the state-owned company’s governance as it reels from the Horizon IT scandal.

Sky News has learnt that Henry Staunton, who only became chairman of the Post Office in December 2022 after a long career in FTSE boardrooms, is expected to leave amid mounting tension with the government.

Sources said this weekend that Mr Staunton’s departure had yet to be finalised but that it was likely to be imminently.

Kemi Badenoch, the business secretary, is understood to have taken the decision to replace him.

The hunt for a new chairman will come as the government tries to force through legislation that will more quickly compensate hundreds of sub-postmasters who were wrongly convicted over the faulty software which triggered Britain’s biggest miscarriage of justice.

One insider said there had been several sources of tension between the Post Office chairman and the government in recent months.

Among them, they said, was a row over the prospective appointment of a new senior independent director to replace Ben Tidswell, who is due to step down in the coming months.

Mr Staunton and a number of colleagues are said to have been keen for Andrew Darfoor, a former financial services executive who is one of the company’s existing non-executive directors, to take the position.

However, the government is understood to want to appoint a Whitehall insider to the role as it looks to strengthen the Post Office’s corporate governance.

Tensions also arose last year over the mistaken payment of bonuses to Nick Read, the chief executive, which were linked to its cooperation with the Horizon inquiry.

Insiders said, however, that Mr Staunton’s exit was not directly related to the Horizon scandal itself.

The government’s shareholding in Post Office Limited is managed by UK Government Investments (UKGI), which is also responsible for the public’s stakes in Channel 4, the Met Office and other state-owned companies.

The Post Office relies on government funding to operate, and has been struggling in recent years amid tougher competition across the sectors in which it operates.

Mr Staunton previously chaired Phoenix Group, the insurance company, and WH Smith, the high street retailer.

His executive career included a stint at ITV, while he held other boardroom seats at companies such as BSkyB – which was the listed company that owns Sky News – and Ladbrokes.

The decision to replace him comes as the government tries to exert a firmer grip on the fallout from the Horizon crisis, with Rishi Sunak pledging new laws to “swiftly exonerate and compensate” those affected.

“People who worked hard to serve their communities had their lives and their reputations destroyed through absolutely no fault of their own,” the PM told MPs earlier this month.

“The victims must get justice and compensation. Sir Wyn Williams’ inquiry is undertaking crucial work to undo, to expose what went wrong, and we’ve paid almost £150m in compensation to over to 2,500 victims.”

The eventual bill is expected to total in the region of £1.5bn, although more victims of the Horizon scandal have continued to come forward since the broadcasting of an ITV drama, Mr Bates vs the Post Office.

Sky News revealed earlier this month that Kemi Badenoch, the business secretary, was seeking urgent talks with Fujitsu to thrash out a compensation package for sub-postmasters affected by the scandal.

Ms Badenoch wrote to Takahito Tokita, the Japanese company’s chief executive, in the wake of an acknowledgement from Fujitsu bosses that it had a “moral obligation” to contribute to the compensation bill.

“As you may know, my department is at the forefront of our government’s efforts to right the wrongs of the past,” Ms Badenoch wrote earlier this month.

“I am committed to ensuring that postmasters affected get the justice they deserve.

“This is why the UK government announced new legislation…to overturn wrongful convictions and a plan to ensure swifter access to compensation.”

The Department for Business and Trade declined to comment on Saturday, while Mr Staunton could not be reached for comment.

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