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PM backs calls for ‘brazen’ boss of P&O Ferries to quit

Peter Hebblethwaite admitted there was ‘no doubt’ his firm should have consulted unions before sacking 800 staff, but it did not.

25 March 2022

Boris Johnson has backed calls for the boss of P&O Ferries to quit as the Government pledged to change the law to stop other firms who may try to “knowingly breaking the law”.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps called for chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite to resign on Friday after his “brazen” comments to MPs where he admitted breaking employment law over the sacking of 800 workers without notice.

Speaking on Good Morning Britain, Mr Shapps promised to “make sure the laws are changed to stop them using loopholes like flagging their ships in Cyprus to avoid and evade British law and not give notice of what they were doing, and not talk to the workers and the unions”.

The Transport Secretary told Sky News: “I thought what the boss of P&O said yesterday about knowingly breaking the law was brazen and breathtaking, and showed incredible arrogance.

“I cannot believe that he can stay in that role having admitted to deliberately go out and use a loophole – well, break the law, but also use a loophole.”

Pressed on whether that means he is calling for Mr Hebblethwaite to resign “right now”, he said: “Yes.”

Asked later if the Prime Minister supports the call for Mr Hebblethwaite to quit, a No 10 spokesman said: “Yes.”

On Thursday, Mr Hebblethwaite was urged by MPs to quit after acknowledging there is “absolutely no doubt” the ferry operator was required to consult with trade unions.

The company replaced its crews with cheaper agency workers last week.

The chief executive admitted the new crews are being paid below the UK’s minimum wage apart from on domestic routes, but insisted this is allowed under international maritime rules.

Mr Hebblethwaite, whose basic annual salary is £325,000, revealed the average hourly pay of the new crew is only £5.50.

The minimum wage in the UK for people aged 23 and above is £8.91 per hour.

Mr Shapps said the Government is planning to change the law to ensure companies working from British ports pay people the minimum wage, as he condemned P&O for “evilly exploit(ing)” loopholes.

He said the move from the Government would force a “U-turn on what’s happened at P&O”.

P&O Ferries
Peter Hebblethwaite, P&O Ferries chief executive, answers questions in front of MPs (House of Commons/PA)

“What I’m going to do… is come to Parliament this coming week with a package of measures which will both close every possible loophole that exists and force them to U-turn on this,” he said.

“We are not having people working from British ports… plying regular routes between here and France or here and Holland, or (anywhere) else, and failing to pay the minimum wage. It’s simply unacceptable and we will force that to change.”

The minister told BBC Breakfast that maritime law is “very, very complex” but he is preparing a package of “about eight” measures to bring to Parliament, where he believes there is “very, very broad parliamentary agreement” that new legislation is needed.

“P&O will need to re-employ people on the proper salaries,” he said, confirming this would mean national minimum wage.

Mr Shapps said the Government “can’t directly” revoke P&O’s licence, when asked why the company is still operating after breaking the law.

He said he had instead asked the Maritime Coastguard Agency to carry out “very detailed inspections”.

The minister said if new crews are being paid under national minimum wage and found to be unfamiliar with equipment, the ships will be deemed unsafe to sail.

P&O Ferries
A P&O ferry moored at the Port of Dover in Kent (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Mr Shapps also said P&O Ferries had “attempted to pay off their staff with higher redundancy payments… and therefore buy their silence”.

Asked how Government plans to change the law will help sacked seafarers, the Transport Secretary said: “I actually happen to know because I’ve been speaking with some of them that some of them have already taken up a job, so they may not get those particular ones back.

“I suspect they’ll get some of them back, although I imagine they’ll have a slightly rather jaded view of their employer as P&O”.

Mr Hebblethwaite on Thursday told a joint session of the Commons’ transport and business select committees that Mr Shapps knew about the intention to cut jobs in November last year, although that was strongly denied by the Department for Transport.

Asked about the claim, Mr Shapps said it was a way to “distract attention” from P&O’s failure to provide notice of job cuts.

The Transport Secretary also said he “didn’t see” an email sent round Whitehall about P&O’s plans the night before the mass sackings and was told “at the despatch box”.

The Rail, Maritime and Transport union said it will be meeting with P&O Ferries on Friday to demand the reinstatement of the sacked seafarers.

The union is also organising a protest next week outside the Glasgow offices of Clyde Marine Recruitment, claiming the company has been taking on workers to replace some of the seafarers sacked by the ferry giant.

The Nautilus union has also criticised the firm.

A spokesperson for Clyde Marine Recruitment told the PA news agency: “We are disappointed that the RMT and Nautilus continue to single out our small company.

“We have spoken with them and explained the limited numbers involved in this situation, many of whom were on before P&O sacked their workforce, and yet they continue to highlight us unfairly.”

However, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said it was a “watershed moment” for the UK shipping industry and workers’ rights.

“(P&O’s) owner must be given pariah status and lose all its Government shipping and freeport contracts with immediate effect until workers are reinstated.”

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