'Completely incorrect': Official defends Munby over Horizon scandal claims

Department for Business and Trade director says perm sec did not suggest compensation for Post Office victims should be stalled
Carl Creswell. Photo: Parliamentlive.tv

By Tevye Markson

27 Feb 2024

A senior civil servant in the Department for Business and Trade has defended Sarah Munby in the row over government advice to the Post Office in relation to the Horizon scandal.

Carl Creswell, a director at DBT, said claims Munby had suggested to the Post Office that it should stall payments to victims of the IT scandal in the run-up to the general election are “completely incorrect”.

Henry Staunton, who was sacked from his role as chairman of Post Office Limited by business secretary Kemi Badenoch last month, said Munby had told him in January 2023 – when she was permanent secretary at the then-Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – to “stall on spending on compensation” to wrongly-convicted subpostmasters. He released a memo which he claimed proved this.  

Munby, who became permanent secretary at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology in February 2023 following machinery of government changes that broke BEIS up, denied the assertion in a letter to Badenoch, published last week. She said: “It is not true that I made any instruction, explicitly or implicitly, to Staunton to in any way delay compensation payments”.

Asked by Business and Trade Committee member Antony Higginbotham in a session this morning whether ministers and officials asked the Post Office to slow down compensation payments to subpostmasters, Creswell, who is director of business resilience at DBT, said: “You would have thought that someone would have mentioned that to me if that were the intent. Not at all.”

Creswell added: “I worked very closely with Sarah Munby. She and I worked with Treasury to secure the funding needed for the schemes…the Overturned Convictions Scheme [and] the GLO Compensation Scheme.

“Every conversation I had with her, with ministers, with other senior civil servants in other parts of government, have all been about ‘how can we put out this money more quickly?’ So no, that is completely incorrect, that assertion.”

Creswell is in charge of Post Office policy. He is also is the senior responsible owner for the GLO compensation scheme, and  he oversees the Post Office’s delivery of compensation for both subpostmasters who have had convictions overturned and those who were not subject to criminal conviction but put in money from their own pockets to cover for the apparent losses caused by the Horizon system.

Creswell was also asked if the department’s current approach, based on his conversations with ministers and other officials, is to “stick with the current plan, current speed, go faster or go slower?”.

He said: “It’s definitely go faster and minister [Kevin] Hollinrake was clear about that yesterday.”

Hollinrake announced measures to speed up compensation to victims of the scandal, including upping the interim payment available to subpostmasters who have had convictions overturned from £163,000 to £450,000. Creswell said this is intended to “encourage more [overturned convictions] claims to be put forward”.

Additionally, Hollinkrake confirmed victims connected to another compensation programme, the Group Litigation Order Scheme, would now be able to receive an interim payment of 80% of their offer paid out while they fight for a better deal. Creswell said this idea had come from a postmaster who had spoken to Hollinkrake about his experience with the GLO scheme and how it can be improved.

Creswell added: “I think the phrase the minister used yesterday was ‘every day we are looking at ways to speed up the conversation’. And I’m not sitting here claiming we are going as fast as we should be. We definitely need to speed things up. And I’m pleased that your committee is looking at it and we will engage with your recommendations.“

More than 700 subpostmasters were convicted of theft, false accounting and fraud in the 15 years following the introduction of the Horizon IT system, produced by Fujitsu subsidiary ICL Pathway, in 1999. Hundreds more have faced accusations of wrongdoing.

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