P&O chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite has denied the company broke criminal law when sacking 800 workers, and told remaining staff they should not fear the same fate as their former colleagues.
Almost 800 seafarers were sacked without notice last week in a move that outraged workers, unions, politicians and customers of the 150 year-old shipping brand.
On Thursday Mr Hebblethwaite admitted P&O broke employment law by failing to consult with unions and staff during evidence to a Parliamentary select committee.
In his message to staff, delivered hours after Transport Secretary Grant Shapps called on the chief executive to resign, the chief executive insisted it was a “unique” situation and no criminal law was breached.
In his message, headed “From Peter – an update on this week”, Mr Hebblethwaite wrote:
“I just want to reassure you on a few points, particularly following my appearance at yesterday’s Select Committee with MPs and the media coverage this week.
“Most importantly I am incredibly sorry for any anxiety that I’ve caused you or your family in the last week – this was never my intention and I am painfully aware it feels deeply uncomfortable.
“There are a couple of issues I also want to make sure you’re very clear on. The first is this type of dismissal could not and would not happen again. This was a unique situation.
“The second point is no criminal offence has been committed – neither me, P&O Ferries or our Shareholder, DP World would allow it.”
Mr Hebblethwaite appears to be referring to the requirement under the Trades Union Act 1992 to inform minsters and the Insolvency Agency of an intention to bring large-scale redundancies.
Under the act, failure to do so is a criminal offence that carries a penalty of unlimited fines. An amendment passed in 2018 however states that the authorities in the “flag state” – the country where the ship is registered.
P&O claim that as their ferry fleet is flagged overseas, in Cyprus, the Bahamas and Bermuda, they had no obligation to inform the UK authorities.
Legal experts consulted by MPs disagree however. Professor Alan Bogg of Bristol University, who gave evidence to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Thursday, told Sky News:
“The 2018 amendment was badly done, but I don’t think for a moment there was any intention to remove or limit the scope of the criminal offence of failing to inform the Secretary of State.
“The amendment came from an EU directive intended to improve the conditions of seafarers so it would have been perverse in the extreme to reduce their protection. In my view amendment is still subject to the offence of failing to notify, and it doesn’t mean P&O should be treated as if they are off the hook.”
Mr Hebblethwaite did admit to breaking employment law and the requirement to consult with staff and unions, but told remaining employees those affected had been given compensation.
“There has been a failure to comply with the obligation to consult,” he writes. “We have compensated all Jersey contracted seafarers for the lack of advance notice with enhanced severance packages which are believed to be the largest total compensation package in the British Marine sector – a total settlement of £36,541,648. Critically, no employee will receive less than £15,000 irrespective of their length of service.”
Professor Bogg said it was unlikely that P&O’s position on consultation would be tested in employment tribunals as sacked workers are likely to receive more in compensation than they would be granted by employment tribunals.
Mr Hebblethwaites comments come after Mr Shapps called on him to resign, and vowed to change the law to force P&O into a U-turn and ensure shipping companies operating in UK territorial waters pay the minimum wage.
P&O are seeking to replace the sacked employees with agency staff earning an average of £5.15 an hour, a rate almost half the minimum wage. They are able to pay this they say because their ships operate in international waters and are registered overseas, in Cyprus, Bermuda and the Bahamas.
Mr Shapps said he would bring legislation before Parliament next week to close these “loopholes”, including amending the National Minimum Wage Act to cover seafarers routinely operating in UK territorial waters.
“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.”
“My message to P&O is simple, their wheeze is not going to work.
“We are going to legally require them to go back on it they might as well start on that now.
“If they haven’t got the right leadership to do it at the moment, and I think we saw through that brazen, breathtaking arrogance that they don’t, then they will probably need to think about sorting that out first.”