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Post Office chairman Henry Staunton ousted amid row with government

The chairman of the Post Office is 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, was this weekend told by Kemi Badenoch, the business secretary, that he was to be replaced amid mounting tension with the government.

Sources said this weekend that Ms Badenoch had notified him of the decision in a telephone call on Saturday afternoon.

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.

Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch said: "The Post Office is rightfully under a heightened level of scrutiny at this time.

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

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 by 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."

Mr Staunton could not be reached for comment on Saturday.

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.

Read more:
Fujitsu boss admitted staff knew of Horizon bugs
Former sub-postmaster 'overwhelmed' after conviction overturned

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 prime minister 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 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 Ms Badenoch 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 latest shake-up of the Post Office's leadership comes in the same month that Paula Vennells, its former chief executive, surrendered her CBE after growing public and political pressure.

Kevin Hollinrake, the postal affairs minister, has said he would support prosecutions of those involved in the scandal and its cover-up.

Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch will appear on Sunday Morning with Trevor Phillips, which starts at 8.30am tomorrow.