Rishi Sunak fails to express confidence in Post Office chief under investigation

28 February 2024, 18:34

Post Office chief executive Nick Read giving evidence to the Business and Trade Select Committee in the House of Commons
Post Office Horizon IT scandal. Picture: PA

The Prime Minister was challenged in the Commons about the leadership of Nick Read.

Rishi Sunak has declined to express confidence in Post Office chief executive Nick Read after it emerged he is under investigation.

The Prime Minister told MPs that it would be “inappropriate” for him to comment when challenged in the Commons to back Mr Read’s leadership of the company.

His response came a day after Downing Street offered assurances over Mr Read after former Post Office chairman Henry Staunton highlighted the existence of an 80-page report compiled by the organisation’s HR director.

Mr Staunton, who claims he has been the victim of a “smear campaign” since his public fallout with Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch, said his own behaviour was only referenced once in the document about Mr Read.

Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions, Labour MP Kevan Jones (North Durham) told the Commons: “After yesterday’s revelation that Nick Read, the CEO of the Post Office, is under investigation for an 80-page report written by the former head of HR at the Post Office, does the Prime Minister and the Business Secretary have confidence in Nick Read’s leadership at the Post Office?”

Mr Sunak replied: “It would clearly be inappropriate for me to comment on an investigation before it has been completed.

“Our focus remains working closely with the Post Office to ensure it delivers justice for postmasters caught up in this historic scandal and that is why we will imminently bring forward legislation that we promised.”

Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch
Mr Staunton claims he has been the victim of a ‘smear campaign’ since his public fallout with Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch (James Manning/PA)

On Tuesday, asked if the Government and No 10 has confidence in Mr Read, a Downing Street spokeswoman said: “Yes.”

Downing Street would not be drawn on when No 10 became aware of the investigation into Mr Reed, with the Prime Minister’s official spokesman saying he would not comment on “internal matters”.

Labour former minister Dame Angela Eagle questioned why Mr Sunak had opted not to comment, adding: “And yet he allows his Trade Secretary to comment freely, loudly and often on Twitter.

“Is he content with her activities and her behaviour in this respect?”

Mr Sunak replied: “The Business Secretary set out her position explicitly and clearly in the House last week, and actually since then, and despite some of the claims that were made by the party opposite, the former permanent secretary at the department has completely refuted the claims that were made, and yesterday the current CEO and the director of business resilience at the department refuted Mr Staunton’s recollection.”

Downing Street was repeatedly challenged about Ms Badenoch’s decision to reveal that Mr Staunton had been the subject of a bullying investigation.

Mr Staunton said the investigation was actually into Mr Read.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “I’m not going to offer any further commentary on HR investigations and HR matters.”

Asked if Ms Badenoch lied to the Commons, he said: “I have nothing further to add to what the Business Secretary has already said on the floor of the House in relation to this matter.”

Mr Staunton’s comments about the 80-page report came at an evidence session with MPs on the Business and Trade Committee on Tuesday.

He previously said he had been told to delay payouts to subpostmasters affected by problems with the Horizon computer system, which led to Ms Badenoch accusing him of spreading “made-up anecdotes”.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has declined to express confidence in Post Office chief executive Nick Read (PA)

Asked if he was informed that his behaviour was under investigation in November last year, Mr Staunton said: “What there is, actually, is Mr Read fell out with his HR director and she produced a ‘speak up’ document which was 80 pages thick.

“Within that was one paragraph… about comments that I allegedly made.

“So, this is an investigation, not into me, this is an investigation made into the chief executive Nick Read.

“That one paragraph you could say was about politically incorrect comments attributed to me which I strenuously deny.

“This was not an investigation into me, this was an investigation based on the 80-page document prepared by the HR director.”

A Post Office sign
The Post Office said it was investigating a complaint against a number of people including Mr Read (Lewis Stickley/PA)

Mr Staunton continued: “This 80-page document was actually taking a terrible toll on Nick Read.

“He said: ‘I’m not being supported by the board, this is just bad news for me and my family, I’m going to resign tomorrow, I’ve just had enough’.”

The Post Office said it was investigating a complaint against a number of people including Mr Read, but that he had never offered to resign.

The Horizon IT scandal saw more than 700 subpostmasters prosecuted by the Post Office and handed criminal convictions between 1999 and 2015 as Fujitsu’s faulty Horizon system made it appear as though money was missing at their branches.

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

By Press Association