Sub-postmasters could own Post Office in long term, minister suggests

Compensation for sub-postmasters is Government's priority, Post Officer minister vows
Compensation for sub-postmasters is Government's priority, Post Officer minister vows - ITV
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Sub-postmasters could own the majority of Post Office shares in the long term, the Post Office minister has suggested as he vowed to prioritise compensation for Horizon victims.

Kevin Hollinrake is set to meet union figures on Wednesday who will make the case for shifting control of the Post Office from state ownership to branch managers.

It comes as the Government faces growing pressure to ensure fair payouts to more than 4,000 sub-postmasters affected by errors in Fujitsu’s IT software that saw them blamed for shortfalls which did not exist.

Responding to a report in Bloomberg he is considering mutualisation, meaning that Post Office staff would own most of the shares in the company, Mr Hollinrake told The Telegraph: “That’s not a position we’re at right now.

“We’ve always said mutualisation is one of the options for the Post Office in the longer term. But there are some very big-ticket items hanging over the Post Office right now, not least the compensation scheme and the rebuilding of the IT systems.

Kevin Hollinrake will meet with Post Office union leaders on Wednesday
Kevin Hollinrake will meet with Post Office union leaders on Wednesday - Eleventh Hour Photography / Alamy Live News

“Our position has been in the past and will remain so in the immediate future that it would be the wrong time to go down that route. That’s not to say it can’t be done at a later stage.

“I’m always happy to talk to people, certainly people who represent postal workers and sub-postmasters, but to suggest that the meeting is anything but an exploratory meeting to talk about a number of issues would be wrong.”

Sean Hudson, the Post Office branch secretary of the Communication Workers’ Union, told Bloomberg the current structure was “broken” and said giving sub-postmasters a greater stake in their company represented a “very attractive alternative”.

Sources at the Department for Business and Trade noted that the Postal Services Act requires the Post Office to be completely publicly owned but allows for a move to a mutually-owned structure in future.

They added it was not unusual for Mr Hollinrake to meet with a range of stakeholders and any change in ownership would require the Post Office to be financially sustainable.

It currently receives £235 million a year in subsidies aimed at improving IT systems and covering the costs of its rural branches.

Sir Edward Leigh, a Tory MP and former minister, urged Mr Hollinrake to consider the mutualisation of the Post Office in a Commons debate last month.

“We should pass control of this body to the people who do all the work who are in the front line. I hope the minister won’t dismiss that idea,” he said.

‘Big fan of mutuals’

Mr Hollinrake replied: “I’m a big fan of mutuals, I’ve spoken up in favour of mutuals many times on this side of the House as a backbench [MP].

“I’m very happy to keep those conversations going with him and certainly it’s not something I would dismiss out of hand.”

Alan Bates calls compensation offered to him 'cruel;' and 'derisory'
Alan Bates calls compensation offered to him 'cruel;' and 'derisory' - Sam Tobin/PA Wire

Last week, Alan Bates, a former sub-postmaster who has fought a two-decade battle for justice for his fellow Horizon victims, revealed he will reject a “cruel” and “derisory” compensation offer that he said amounts to around one-sixth of the sum he requested.

While Downing Street insisted Mr Bates was given a fair deal, a source close to Kemi Badenoch, the Business Secretary, vowed to ensure he “gets the compensation he deserves”.

The fourth of six phases of the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry is now “substantially” complete but evidence from a small number of witnesses including Gareth Jenkins, who is understood to have been instrumental in developing the software as a senior computer engineer at Fujitsu, is yet to be heard.

A Post Office spokesman said: “We are focused on assisting in providing compensation and redress to the victims of a shameful period in Post Office’s history.

“Post Office cannot fully move forwards until the past is addressed.”

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