Grant Shapps’ call for a reversal on sackings denied by P&O Ferries

LONDON (Parliament Politics Magazine) – P&O Ferries has refused the government’s appeal to postpone the deadline for the 800 workers who were fired to accept the offers of redundancy until next week, claiming that the majority of them had already signed contracts and that ministers were ignorant of the factual and fundamental realities of the situation.

Peter Hebblethwaite, the CEO of the ferry operator said, bullishly responding to transport secretary Grant Shapps, that the demand was legally untenable and that the company would close down.

Complying with his request would purposely cause the company to collapse,  which would result in the irretrievable loss of  2,200 jobs, additionally. He couldn’t imagine that Mr Shapps would wish to push an employer to bring its downfall, affecting not hundreds but thousands of families, he wrote to Mr Shapps.

Over 765 of the 786 crew members who were summarily fired on March 17 had made efforts to accept the settlement offer, according to Hebblethwaite, and over 500 had signed legally binding agreements. Among them were 67 officers who planned to continue working on P&O’s ships with the new agency crew.

Shapps had written to P&O Ferries on Monday, offering the company one last chance to reverse its exceptional and illegal dismissal of UK-based crew members working on Jersey contracts before bringing in a planned set of legal steps to force the company’s hand.

On Wednesday, the transport secretary is set to present parliament with an eight-point plan that includes strengthening employment laws for ship owners in UK waters and addressing minimum wage.

From the start, P&O Ferries has asked for a level playing field regarding salaries on British ferry routes, Hebblethwaite wrote, adding that the company supported proposals to raise the minimum wage for all seafarers in UK waters.

The government’s refusal to intervene when Irish Ferries began running the Dover-Calais crossing in summer 2021, employing a similar model of low-paid agency personnel, encouraged a “race to the bottom” among operators, according to unions.

Union demands for action were met with a personal warning from P&O Ferries’ Dubai-based owner, DP World chief executive Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, to Shapps in November last year, that Irish Ferries’ low-cost crewing strategy presented problems to its operations.

He had endeavoured to disclose the facts in this letter and before the select committees with maximum candour and transparency, the chief executive stated, after shocking MPs at a Commons hearing last week by confessing his firm knowingly breached the law by sacking staff without consultation.

This difficult decision was made knowing that it would be immensely controversial and difficult to reconcile for some,” he continued. He was  completely aware of the cost to the P&O Ferries brand and to himself personally in terms of reputation.

On passenger routes, sailings are currently halted. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency held a second P&O ferry, the Pride of Kent, on Monday night after it failed a safety assessment.