The Telegraph 2024-02-18 16:30:24

End Gaza fighting now, says Sir Keir Starmer

Sir Keir Starmer has called for an end to the fighting in Gaza “now” as he edged towards backing demands for an immediate ceasefire.

The Labour leader, addressing the Scottish Labour conference in Glasgow, added that an offensive that Israel is said to be planning in Rafah “cannot happen” and that the area “cannot become a new theatre of war”.

While he added that a ceasefire could not be “one-sided”, he repeatedly stressed on Sunday that he wanted to see an end to hostilities immediately.

He declared: “The fighting must stop now”.

Previously, Sir Keir has refused to back demands for an immediate ceasefire. He has instead stated support for a “sustainable” halt to fighting which would not mean Israel would be expected to unilaterally down arms.

The apparent shift in Labour’s position comes ahead of a Commons vote this week that threatened to reopen divisions over the issue.

Anas Sarwar, the Scottish Labour leader, has openly demanded an immediate ceasefire, in a call which was backed by Scottish Labour delegates.

While Sir Keir told the conference that he wanted to see the return of hostages taken by Hamas on October 7, he added that he also wanted “an end to the killing of innocent Palestinians” and “an end to the fighting”.

He added: “Not just now, not just a pause. But permanently. A ceasefire that lasts. Conference, that is what must happen now. The fighting must stop now.

“Any ceasefire cannot be one-sided. It must stop all acts of violence, on both sides, and it must lead to a genuine peace process.

“Because the offensive threatened in Rafah – a place where 1.5 million people are now cramped together in unimaginable conditions with nowhere else for them to go – this cannot become a new theatre of war.

“That offensive cannot happen.”

On Sunday, Mr Sarwar claimed that Labour was in talks with the SNP over their ceasefire motion.

A similar vote in November saw eight shadow ministers break ranks to back an immediate ceasefire, with some 56 Labour members defying a three-line whip and backing an SNP amendment to the King’s Speech.

David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, has declined to say how Labour MPs might vote.

“I haven’t seen the motion, it’s not yet put down, we will scrutinise that motion as is our way in Parliament and we will take it from there,” he told the BBC.

“But let us be clear, yes, we will have a vote in Parliament this week but it’s not that vote that will bring about a ceasefire, it’s the diplomatic action.”

He also sought to play down the idea that the party was divided on the issue.

“I fully understand that Scottish colleagues want the fighting to stop now, we’ve been saying that for weeks, so we agree with them.

“You can have a ceasefire that lasts for a few days. We want the ceasefire to last and to be permanent and to move towards the diplomatic solution. It will only be a political solution that brings an end to this.”

In an open letter to Labour MPs ahead of Wednesday’s vote, Stephen Flynn, the SNP’s Westminster leader, had told them that “the time for equivocation is over”.

However, he claimed on Sunday that claims that Labour were in talks with the party over the ceasefire motion were “not true”.

Mr Flynn added: “Nevertheless, I am more than willing to meet with Sir Keir Starmer to discuss this hugely important issue prior to Wednesday’s vote.”

What went wrong in Britain’s ‘most depressing’ town

A seaside resort with a thriving cultural scene, a string of Blue Flag beaches, and beautiful countryside for miles around: welcome to Falmouth, the most depressing town in the UK.

This surprising and unwanted accolade has arrived thanks to a poll by, a website on which users can submit reviews – generally humorous and usually negative – of the places in which they live.

The historic port on Cornwall’s south coast was a surprise entry to this year’s list of the country’s 20 gloomiest towns and cities, but a late surge saw it rocket to the number one spot, beating perennial butt-of-the-joke places such as Peterborough (second), Luton (11th) and Swindon (13th).

The number one ranking has left many in Cornwall baffled, and even the poll’s organisers seemed a little taken aback by the shock result.

“We have to admit, we know absolutely nothing about Falmouth,” the team admitted. “We Googled it and it looks picturesque – but we’re sure it’s a facade it trades on, and who are we to question the wisdom of the crowd?”

I visited this week to get to the bottom of the mystery. Falmouth admittedly wasn’t looking its best on a grey February morning, but even in the winter drizzle I couldn’t see much to dampen the spirits. Rows of pretty, pastel-hued Victorian terraces tumbled down a steep hill towards The Moor, the town’s lively main square, which was lined with bustling cafés, restaurants, pubs and shops.

One shopkeeper, Julianne, laughed at the notion of Falmouth being considered in any way depressing. “Everybody’s talking about it, as you can imagine,” she said. “It’s ridiculous. I’ve only lived here five years, and compared to where I lived before it’s wonderful.”

Reviews on pointed to holiday crowds, second-home owners and the proliferation of Airbnbs, turning an authentic port into a “socially cleansed fishing theme park for DFLs [Down From Londons]”. I asked Julianne how these issues had affected the mood in the town.

“That is a problem, but it’s not depressing,” she replied. “Those of us who live here love it all the same, and if you’re visiting then presumably it’s because you also find the town attractive.”

Taking my leave, I turned onto the busy high street that wends its way along the waterfront. Here and there, narrow “opes” (alleyways) lead down to the quayside, from where you can look out at the broad expanse of Carrick Roads, the deep natural harbour where, centuries ago, ships used to gather before sailing for North America in convoy. It was down one of these where I met David and Pamela, who had travelled into town for the day from their home on the Lizard. They were incredulous at the poll’s results, although they did also raise concerns that Falmouth had entered a period of decline.

“It’s going downhill, that’s for certain,” they told me. “Walking down the high street, there are a lot of shops that are empty or look very run down, with their signs falling off. There are a lot of students here and they’ve had a very positive impact. But if you’re a student, you don’t have very much money to spend.”

Both were more sanguine about holidaymakers, who they felt contributed a lot to the town financially, although they did note that it was sad to look across at night-time and see so few lights.

As I continued down the main strip towards the Church of King Charles the Martyr (Falmouth has traditionally leant towards the Royalist cause), I couldn’t help but notice a number of boarded-up shop fronts. It hinted at troubled times for local traders, although by most measures the town’s commerce seemed exceptionally healthy. There were plenty of shoppers dipping in and out of doorways, with a pleasing mix of high street chains and independent retailers. There was a welcome lack of pound shops and pawnbrokers too.

Towards the edge of the main shopping area, beside the National Maritime Museum Cornwall, I stopped in at Pysk, a family-run fishmonger. From behind a counter lined with haddock, mackerel and squid, co-owner Giles admitted he had not heard about Falmouth’s new status, and was sceptical when I offered the theory that second homes were the root cause of the issue.

“It’s an odd result,” he said. “I can name half a dozen places close by that are far worse, with way more second homes too. St Mawes is dead in winter, but Falmouth is lively all year round thanks to the students.”

Since 2005, Falmouth has been home to the only independent university in Cornwall, and recent years have seen students become integral to the town’s social fabric. With an enrollment of around 6,500, they make up a sizable portion of the population, which across Falmouth and neighbouring Penryn sits at roughly 30,000. Some fear, however, that all those students, coupled with demand for second homes and holiday lets, is creating a housing crisis – with locals pushed to the fringes by rising property prices.

With lunchtime approaching, I wandered across to the south side of town where, overlooking the shoreline, elegant Edwardian hotels sit cheek by jowl with gleaming luxury apartment complexes.

Down on Gyllyngvase Beach, dogs raced up and down the shoreline as their owners paced along behind, huddling into their waterproofs. It was here that I encountered Chris, as he attempted to steer his small terrier away from a family of holidaymakers enjoying pasties. Asked why he thought Falmouth had received so many votes, he suggested wilful self-sabotage.

“I think it’s a ruse, and some on social media have decided to use this poll to intentionally damage Falmouth’s reputation and stop people moving here,” he said. 

“I’ve lived all around and can safely say that Falmouth is lush, but at the same time there are a lot of families who can’t afford to live here. It’s far worse in some of the villages outside town though. St Mawes, Flushing, Maenporth… they’ve all been gutted.”

I took the scenic route back towards the town centre, following the coast around Pendennis Point and skirting the castle built by Henry VIII to guard against marauding French privateers. I bumped into Tamara and her spaniel, Jake. The Falmouth native acknowledged that the town has its fair share of problems. Like David and Pamela, she observed that there had been a lack of economic growth in recent years, coupled with a decline in community cohesion.

“Some of my neighbours are second home owners, and they’re lovely and contribute a lot to the town when they’re here,” she said. “But there are whole streets that have been taken over by student housing or holiday lets. It’s inevitable that a lack of community will come from that lack of permanency.”

Like others, though, she laughed off the idea that anyone could seriously consider this part of Cornwall to be genuinely depressing. “It has an awful lot to offer really: good beaches, fantastic pubs, lots of really great places to eat and a really diverse mix of people.” 

She glanced up at the grey skies, before adding: “The weather could be better though.” 

Navalny’s body found bruised in Arctic morgue

The bruised body of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, has been found in a hospital morgue in the Arctic, two days after he died in a nearby prison.

A paramedic told Russian opposition media that there were bruises on Navalny’s head and chest when his body was brought into the Salekhard District Clinical Hospital.

“Such injuries, described by those that saw them, appear from seizures,” the unnamed paramedic told the exiled Novaya Gazeta newspaper.

“The person convulses, they try to restrain him, and bruises appear. They also said that he also had a bruise on his chest. That is, they still tried to resuscitate him, and he died, most likely, from cardiac arrest.”

Russian prison officials said that Navalny died on Friday after falling ill during a short walk at IK-3, a notoriously brutal prison in the Russian Arctic.

Navalny’s mother failed to find his body at the morgue in Salekhard on Saturday and his colleagues at the Anti-Corruption Foundation accused the Russian authorities of a cover-up.

Reporters said no autopsy had yet been performed. They also said that two unscheduled flights from Moscow had landed on Saturday at Salekhard, possibly with autopsy specialists.

“The first jet landed at about six in the evening. It was met by cars of the Investigative Committee. And the second one arrived an hour and a half later,” Novaya Gazeta quoted an unnamed source as saying.

Navalny was Vladimir Putin’s most serious opponent. Western leaders have accused the Kremlin of murdering him. He was facing three decades in prison on various charges and had been transferred to IK-3 shortly before Christmas.

David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, said on Sunday that Putin should face war crimes charges for the death of Navalny.

“I’d like to see Putin in front of that special tribunal, held to account for all of his crimes, not just in Ukraine, but as we are seeing just in the last 48 hours in Russia as well,” he told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg programme on Sunday.

The sudden death of Navalny shocked liberal-minded Russians and triggered rare protests in Russia where demonstrations against the Kremlin are banned.

OVD-Info, a Russian activist group that monitors the Russian police, said that 400 people had been detained across Russia, mainly for laying flowers for Navalny at memorials to Soviet repression.

Reports from across Russia said that the plain-clothes security services, often wearing surgical masks, were following people who had laid flowers. Different police forces appeared to respond differently, with some blocking access to memorial sites and others tearing them down.

These were the biggest nationwide protests in Russia against the authorities since September 2022, when Putin ordered a mobilisation to recruit soldiers for his war in Ukraine.

Analysts said that the timing of Navalny’s death is important for the Kremlin which wants to use a presidential election next month to showcase support for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine two years ago.

Ben Noble and Nikolai Petrov, both Fellows on the Russia Programme at Chatham House, said that the death of Navalny had undermined Russia’s beleaguered, fragmented and exiled opposition.

“There is no obvious figure to take up the role that Navalny crafted for himself, of Vladimir Putin’s main opponent. There will be no Navalny 2.0 in the short-term, at least,” they said.

Clergy warn of ‘doom spiral’ as church attendance drops off at record rate

Sunday church attendance is just 80 per cent of what it was in 2019, Telegraph analysis has revealed, despite the Church of England claiming that it has “bounced back” after the pandemic.‌

The figures reveal that church attendance has more than halved since 1987, prompting clergy to warn: “This is a doom spiral of the church’s own choosing.”

‌In 2023, The Telegraph published an investigation which revealed that parishes are closing at a record rate, prompting fears that the Church had been “dealt a death knell”.

‌The investigation found that almost 300 parishes have disappeared in the past five years alone – the fastest rate since records began in 1960. 

The figures came against the backdrop of claims that senior bishops and clergy were “putting a gun to people’s heads” to drive through controversial plans to cut costs, merge parishes and cut vicars. 

They also came amid declining congregation numbers, leaving many clergy afraid to speak out for fear of losing their jobs.

‌The Telegraph has analysed new data from the Church of England’s latest Statistics for Mission 2022 report, and has found that across the country, usual Sunday church attendance sits at 81 per cent of 2019 levels, meaning that 133,200 regular parishioners had not returned to the Church despite the end of Covid restrictions.

‌The Telegraph’s previous reporting on the fall in regular parishioners in 2021 had been described as “misleading” by the Church, as some Covid restrictions were still in place at the time the 2021 report was compiled.

‌However, the latest figures suggest that this is not the case.‌

Furthermore, the data show that a further 28 parishes were closed or merged in the past year, which has been controversial among churchgoers.

‌This, however, is below the record-breaking rate of reductions seen in the preceding five years when an average of 56 parishes ceased a year.

‌Across the country, 41 churches were closed, meaning 641 churches have been closed since 2000 or 4 per cent.

‌Responding to the analysis, Rev Marcus Walker, the chairman of the Save the Parish campaign group, said: “As sure as night follows day if you close parishes and reduce clergy, the number of people who are able to turn up to church will fall.”

‌The Rev, who is also Rector at St Bartholomew the Great in the City of London, who is also a member of the General Synod, the Church of England’s legislative body, added: “This is a doom spiral of the church’s own choosing. It has the money to turn this around, the question is: does it have the will?”

‌While The Telegraph’s latest analysis does suggest some minor post-Covid rebounds in church attendance, as, year on year, average attendance has increased by seven per cent.

‌This means that since 1987, usual Sunday church attendance has more than halved (-52.8 per cent), declining from 1.2 million to 556,800.‌

In Durham, just three-quarters (73 per cent) of usual congregants have returned, whilst in St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, it is 89 per cent, the highest in the country.‌

According to the Church of England’s most recent data, contained in its Statistics for Mission, it claimed that nearly a million people were regular worshippers in 2023 as the Church “continued its post-pandemic bounce back”.

‌Furthermore, over the past six years, usual Sunday church attendees have declined at a record rate with an average 32,616 fewer attendees per year.‌

In publishing its annual Statistics for Mission 2022, the Church of England said the number of regular worshippers across the whole week, not just Sundays, grew by nearly 20,000 people to 984,000 in 2022 compared to 966,000 in 2021; however, this figure is still down from 200,000 in 2019.

‌Dr Ken Eames, author of the Statistics for Mission 2022 report, from the Church of England’s Data Services team, said: “Churches did everything they could to return to normal life in 2022 following the huge disruption of 2020 and 2021 caused by the pandemic.

‌“But 2022 was not free of its impact, indeed official figures suggest that Covid rates were higher in October 2022 than in 2021.

‌“Although for many people things were getting back to normal, churches were still experiencing Covid-related disruption.”

‌Responding to The Telegraph’s latest analysis, a Church spokesman said: “The Church of England’s 2022 Statistics for Mission – the latest available – showed a welcome rise in attendance for the second year in a row with nearly a million regular worshippers in Church of England churches.

‌“Our parishes did everything they could to return to normal life in that year following the huge disruption of 2020 and 2021 caused by the pandemic.

‌“However, we know that 2022 was not free of the impact of Covid, indeed official figures suggest that Covid rates were higher in October 2022 than in 2021.

‌“There is unprecedented investment in mission and ministry taking place in the Church of England of £3.6 billion up to 2031.”

Trans-women’s milk as good as breast milk, says NHS trust

An NHS trust has said that breast milk produced by trans women who were assigned male at birth is as good for babies as that produced by a mother who has given birth.

In a letter to campaigners, the University of Sussex Hospitals NHS Trust (USHT), said that the milk produced by trans women after taking a combination of drugs is “comparable to that produced following the birth of a baby”.

The hospital trust, which runs Royal Sussex County Hospital, Worthing Hospital and Royal Alexandra Children’s Hospital among others, was also the first in Britain to use the term “chestfeeding” in place of breastfeeding because it is considered by some to be more inclusive.

The trust created what it called Britain’s “first clinical and language guidelines supporting trans and non-binary birthing people” in 2021.

Within its guidance were assertions about the ability of trans women to produce milk for a baby.

Drug to develop milk-producing glands

These were the subject of a complaint last year by the Children of Transitioners. The organisation was founded by a woman whose father transitioned, in an effort to provide advice for children in a similar situation.

In an August 2023 response, the hospital defended its claims, referring to five scientific papers dating back to 1977 and pointing to World Health Organisation (WHO) guidance and “overwhelming evidence” that “human milk” is better for a baby than formula milk.

It also references a 2022 study that found “milk testosterone concentrations” were under 1 per cent with “no observable side effects” in the babies. The study lasted for five months and no long-term data was obtained.

For a person born male to breastfeed, they must develop milk-producing glands by taking the hormone progestin.

A drug is required to lactate, such as domperidone, which is often prescribed to women struggling to breastfeed, and helps to stimulate the production of prolactin – a separate hormone that tells the body to produce milk.

Domperidone, also known by the brand name Motilum, was not intended for this, but is prescribed off-label by doctors, despite the manufacturer, Janssen, itself recommending against it because of possible side effects to a baby’s heart.

The patient leaflet for Motilium says: “Small amounts have been detected in breastmilk. Motilium may cause unwanted side effects affecting the heart in a breastfed baby. [It] should be used during breastfeeding only if your physician considers this clearly necessary.”

USHT believes the practice is safe, adding that hospital staff “advise any parent who is taking medication (for whatever reason) to seek advice on the possibility of that medication being transferred to the baby through breastfeeding and also the health implications for the baby”.

Trust ‘unbalanced and naive’

Lottie Moore, of the Policy Exchange, which uncovered the letter, said the trust “is unbalanced and naïve in its assertion that the secretions produced by a male on hormones can nourish an infant in the way a mother’s breast milk can”.

USHT has removed the webpage where the guidance was published, but now links to an external website, La Leche League, which states it “supports everyone who wants to breastfeed or chestfeed in reaching their goals”.

Maya Forstater, the director of campaign group Sex Matters, said: “For a chief executive and medical director of an NHS trust to prioritise trans identities over what is best for mothers and their babies is deeply disturbing.”

Milli Hill, a campaigner for women’s rights in childbirth, said: “Male people, however they identify or describe themselves, cannot breastfeed.”

University Hospitals Sussex NHS Foundation Trust said: “We stand by the facts of the letter and the cited evidence supporting them.”

‘No way back’ for Prince Harry as working royal as palace stands firm

There is no way back for the Duke of Sussex to take a temporary working role in the Royal family while his father is ill, The Telegraph understands, after reports he is willing to step in.

The terms of the Sandringham summit, as agreed between the Duke and his late grandmother, father and brother, still stand, and rule out a “half in, half out” approach to monarchy.

On Saturday, it was reported that the Duke had expressed willingness to help the Royal family while his father is taking a break from public engagements as he receives treatment for cancer.

A newspaper claimed the Duke had told friends he would step back into a royal role, and quoted an insider saying it made “perfect sense” on a practical level.

A source close to the Sussexes on Saturday said they believed the Duke would return to help his family if asked.

The Duke and his father recently spent around 30 minutes together at Clarence House, after he flew back to Britain having learned of the King’s cancer diagnosis.

It is understood that the matter was not discussed in that meeting, at which the Queen was present, with no formal conversations taking place about the Duke’s return.

Palace sources have emphasised that the King’s illness will not change the terms of the Sandringham summit agreement, in which the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s exit from the working Royal family was negotiated in detail.

One source said: “Those terms were quite clear, and the King’s illness hasn’t altered that.”

Another confirmed that the express views of the late Queen, the King and the Prince of Wales, that a hybrid model of working royalty was not appropriate, “remains the case”.

In an interview with Good Morning America this week, the Duke said his own family was now based in California but added: “I’ve got other trips planned that would take me through or back to the UK so I’ll stop and see my family as much as I can.”

He also agreed with an interviewer that the King’s illness could help unify his family.

One source said they had a “hard time believing he [the Duke] wouldn’t want to try” to help his father, should he be asked.

The report in The Times caused disquiet on both sides of the Atlantic, with questions over the timing and wisdom of friends exposing the Duke to criticism of using his father’s illness to push a narrative of “reconciliation” with his family.

Ingrid Seward, royal commentator and author of My Mother and I, suggested anyone attempting to engineer the Duke’s return to public life in support of his father would be wasting their time.

She said: “Harry is out. There’s no going back to a public role. What would he do? He has got no patronages to exercise as a public figure and for him to come back would just be a parade for Harry. It would not be a serious, proper role like the working royals have.”

One insider said it also appeared at odds with the recent approach of “least said soonest mended” about the Royal family’s interpersonal relationships. Even the Duke’s critics had noted a lack of immediate briefing about his meeting with his father, and “fairly moderate” words in his GMA interview.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have now finished their three-day trip to Vancouver to promote the Invictus Games.

Members of the Royal family are expected to be back in action on Sunday, with the King and Queen likely to go to church at Sandringham and the Prince of Wales confirmed as attending the Baftas in his role as president of the academy.

The palace has always made it clear that no “stepping in” to fill the King’s engagements is yet necessary from any members of the family, with the Queen continuing with her programme and the Prince of Wales returning to work once his wife is on the mend from abdominal surgery.

The King intends to undertake all state business throughout his treatment, with some modifications to make sure his health is protected throughout.

Post Office ex-chairman told to ‘slow payments’ to help Tories limp into election

The former chairman of the Post Office has claimed he was instructed by a senior government official to slow down compensation payments for sub-postmasters to allow the Tories to “limp into” the next election.

‌Henry Staunton, who was removed from his role by Kemi Badenoch, the Business Secretary, just weeks after the outcry over ITV drama into the Horizon scandal, said the request from a civil servant came soon after he took up the role in December 2022.

‌He also alleged that Nick Read, the chief executive of the Post Office, had written to the Government in an attempt to dissuade them from arranging blanket exonerations of the sub-postmasters. 

The Government strongly denied the claims, published in the Sunday Times.‌

Mr Staunton, a former chairman of WH Smith, told the paper that the order to stall payments seemed to be an attempt by the Government to reduce its financial liability before the country went to the polls.‌

He added that the demand ‌came from a senior civil servant in the Department for Business and International Trade, which oversees the Post Office.‌

He said: “Early on, I was told by a fairly senior person to stall on spend on compensation and on the replacement of Horizon, and to limp, in quotation marks – I did a file note on it – limp into the election.‌

“It was not an anti-postmaster thing, it was just straight financials. I didn’t ask, because I said ‘I’m having no part of it – I’m not here to limp into the election, it’s not the right thing to do by postmasters.’ The word ‘limp’ gives you a snapshot of where they were.”

Michael Tomlinson, the immigration minister, denied Mr Staunton’s claims.

Asked if it was accurate that Mr Staunton was told to stall the payouts, he told Times Radio: “No, that’s not right. That’s not something that I accept or recognise.

‌“It’s right to say the whole government has been encouraging sub-postmasters to come forward to claim the compensation that they deserve, after what was the biggest travesty of justice that we’ve seen.

‌“And we’re encouraging postmasters to come forward and claim the compensation that they deserve.”

‌He added: “We have brought legislation through the House of Commons which will enable those payments to be made, and that is something that we are encouraging rather than anything.”

‌More than 4,000 people have been told they will be eligible for compensation as a result of the Post Office Horizon scandal.

Errors in Fujitsu’s Horizon software caused shortfalls to be recorded which did not exist.

Overall, more than 900 sub-postmasters were prosecuted after they were blamed for the shortfalls and some served time in prison as a result.

The Government has been repeatedly criticised for its treatment of sub-postmasters caught up in the scandal – some of whom have never received any compensation despite their lives being ruined.

‌Alan Bates, whose campaign to secure justice for the sub-postmasters was portrayed in the ITV drama series “Mr Bates versus The Post Office”, said: “It has long been evident that the Government, despite all its fine words, is doing everything possible to slow or stall payments in the [group litigation order] scheme, because in reality that is what is happening.

‌“These schemes need taking out of the Government’s hands and I am sure there are numerous commercial organisations that could deliver fair and swift financial redress to the victims in no time at all.”

Mr Staunton said Mr Read had written to Alex Chalk, the Justice Secretary, when the Government was discussing plans to push through emergency legislation to overturn the convictions.‌

He said Mr Read’s letter came with a legal opinion from the Post Office’s solicitors at Peters & Peters, which suggested the organisation was confident many convictions could be defended on appeal.‌

Mr Staunton said: “Basically it was trying to undermine the exoneration argument. 

“It was, ‘Most people haven’t come forward because they are guilty as charged’ – ie, think very carefully about exoneration.”

‌He claimed he told Mr Read the opinions in the letter were not endorsed by him or “at least half of the Post Office’s board members, and that ‘If this got out, we’d be crucified, and rightly so”.

‌A source close to the Post Office told it that the letter was not seeking to influence the Government’s plans for mass exoneration. The Government is going ahead with the emergency legislation.

Change in leadership

‌A government spokesman said: “The Government has sped up compensation to victims, and consistently encouraged postmasters to come forward with their claims. 

“To suggest any actions or conversations happened to the contrary is incorrect. In fact, upon appointment, Mr Staunton was set concrete objectives, in writing, to focus on reaching settlements with claimants – clear evidence of the Government’s intent.

‌“The secretary of state asked Henry Staunton to step down as chairman of the Post Office because a change in leadership was needed.”

The Post Office told The Sunday Times: “Post Office is very aware of the terrible impact from this appalling scandal and miscarriage of justice. We refute both the assertions put to us and the words and phrases allegedly used, and are focused on supporting the Government’s plans for faster justice and redress for victims. No one within the Post Office is out of reach of the inquiry.”