The Lib Dem leader said he was sorry for failing to ‘see through the lies’ fed to him by the Post Office when he was a senior business minister in the coalition government more than a decade ago.
Sir Ed has kept a very low profile while the furore over the treatment of hundreds of sub-postmasters has dominated politics over the past month.
He has only spoken on a handful of occasions in the Commons since it returned from its Christmas break, skipping Prime Ministers Questions for three weeks in a row before appearing yesterday.
In a car-crash interview three weeks ago he refused to apologise, saying civil servants and Post Office management lied to him when he was in office between 2010 and 2012.
But in an article in the Guardian today he finally apologised, writing: ‘The Horizon Post Office scandal is the greatest miscarriage of justice of our time, and I am deeply sorry for the families who have had their lives ruined by it.
‘As one of the ministers over the 20 years of this scandal, including my time as minister responsible for postal affairs, I’m sorry I did not see through the Post Office’s lies – and that it took me five months to meet Alan Bates, the man who has done so much to uncover it.’
Sir Ed faced questions over his role in the scandal, having been postal affairs minister, after the Sunday Times published a cache of correspondence between Mr Bates, a former sub-postmaster, and ex-ministers from the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition government – including Sir Ed.
In May 2010 he refused to meet postmaster Mr Bates about ‘flaws of the Horizon system’ arguing it would not ‘serve any purpose’.
He eventually agreed to a meeting in the October of that year, with allies arguing he was the first minister to do so. Sir Ed insists he received categorical assurances that there were no problems with the systems.
The Lib Dems have dismissed suggestions that Sir Ed should follow in the footsteps of former Post Office chief Paula Vennells – who has handed back her CBE – by returning his knighthood.
Last month he squirmed pathetically in an ITV interview as he refused 10 times to apologise when challenged to ‘draw a line’ under days of ducking and diving.
Mr Bates has revealed he will reject a ‘cruel’ and ‘derisory’ compensation offer from the Government following years of alleged mistreatment at the hands of his former workplace.
The former sub-postmaster, whose struggle to exonerate his and others’ named following a mass of wrongful convictions inspired the ITV drama Mr Bates vs. The Post Office, said he would be turning down the government’s offer, which was just one-sixth what he had asked for.
After receiving the offer today, he told the Telegraph: ”Full and fair’ might be His Majesty’s Government’s interpretation, but in reality the offer is derisory, offensive and after all this time, yes, cruel.’
Bates, who for the last two decades has fought his wrongful conviction brought about by the faulty Horizon software created by Fujitsu, is one of around 4,000 people told they will be eligible for compensation.
Hundreds of Post Office branch managers who were wrongly convicted in the Horizon IT scandal could have their names cleared by the end of the year.