Ex-Post Office chair accused of using ‘offensive’ term about job candidate

Former Post Office chair Henry Staunton used an “offensive and outdated term” about a candidate for a job, according to an independent probe into conduct at the state-owned group.

Nick Read, chief executive, was on Wednesday cleared “of all the misconduct allegations” made against him following the review, according to the Post Office, after Staunton publicly accused him of bullying.

But the report found that Staunton, who was sacked as chair of the Post Office by business secretary Kemi Badenoch in January, had used discriminatory language and “infantilising” terms about women during a meeting in January 2023, according to people who have read it.

Marianne Tutin, an employment barrister at Devereux Chambers who was brought in by the Post Office as an external investigator, upheld one allegation about Staunton, the people said.

Her report found that Staunton, who became chair in 2022, had said of one candidate for the role of senior independent director on the Post Office board’s words along the lines of: “She doesn’t look coloured, where does she come from?”

Tutin said the term used by Staunton was “offensive and outdated”, adding: “Whilst his desire to increase diversity at board level was no doubt genuine and to be welcomed, his approach fell far short of acceptable standards.

“I consider it unlikely Mr Staunton would have questioned the origin of a candidate with a British-sounding name,” she added.

Staunton, 75, said in a statement that he had not seen the report. He added: “The question I posed about the ethnicity of a candidate was seeking clarification in the context of our efforts to increase diversity. I understand that the term I used has now fallen out of favour and is one I will not use again.”

Tutin also criticised Staunton for having queried whether one candidate for the role would be a “pain in the arse”. The barrister said that while this may have been an “attempt at humour”, “discriminatory jokes” could “still amount to unacceptable behaviour”.

She added: “I do not consider Mr Staunton would have posed such a question in respect of a male candidate.”

Staunton in his statement said: “I was quoting a previous conversation that I had had when I was chair of another organisation in which a woman in a senior management role had said to me that she did not like appointing ‘girls’ because they were, in her experience, ‘pains in the arses’.”

The report examined 14 allegations that related primarily to the conduct of Read, who has run the Post Office since 2019, according to those familiar with its contents.

The Post Office declined to release Tutin’s report but said on Wednesday that after “several interviews and examination of documents by the barrister, Nick has been exonerated of all the misconduct allegations and has the full and united backing of the board to continue to lead the business”.

The company declined to comment further on Staunton or the findings.

The investigation into Read’s conduct came after a 12-page “Speak Up” document was submitted to the Post Office in September, setting out a series of allegations regarding conduct within the organisation. 

Staunton had accused Read of bullying the business’s former human resources director, Jane Davies, the author of the “Speak Up” document. 

The investigation was the latest development in the long-running Post Office scandal. It came to a head in recent months after a public outcry following an ITV dramatisation of the affair, in which more than 900 sub-postmasters were convicted in cases involving data from the company’s faulty Horizon IT system. 

Staunton was sacked from his £150,000-a-year chairmanship in January by Badenoch, a long-standing campaigner against political correctness.

He subsequently claimed in an interview with The Sunday Times that he had been told by a civil servant to stall payments to Horizon victims ahead of the general election — a claim denied by the government.

Staunton on Thursday called for Tutin’s report to be published, saying there were “serious questions about the way the investigation has been conducted, and, if the findings are as reported, not ones I can accept”.  

The Department for Business and Trade said ministers were “pleased to confirm that the independent barrister has cleared . . . Nick Read”.

“We feel this report has a drawn a line under the issue and now regard the matter as closed,” it added.

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