P&O row: PM 'overstepped the mark' with claim operator broke the law

Boris Johnson ‘overstepped the mark’ with claim P&O Ferries broke the law over mass sacking of 800 crew: EU legislation means firm did NOT have to warn government about redundancies

  • Boris Johnson may have ‘overstepped the mark’ when he claimed that P&O Ferries broke UK labour laws 
  • The Prime Minister had threatened to criminally prosecute the disgraced operator 
  • Lawyers say that changes to law in 2018 mean that firms do not have to warn ministers of redundancies 
  • P&O’s millionaire boss Peter Hebblethwaite has insisted that the company did not break British laws 
  • He pointed out that ships are registered outside of the UK – in this case, Cyprus and the Bahamas

Boris Johnson may have ‘overstepped the mark’ when he claimed that P&O Ferries broke UK labour laws by sensationally firing 800 seamen without notice via a Zoom video call.

The Prime Minister had threatened to criminally prosecute the disgraced operator, telling MPs that the company could face fines ‘running into millions of pounds’ if found guilty. He also encouraged workers to start legal battles against the firm.

However, Government sources have started to distance themselves from the allegations made in the Commons, with one telling The Times newspaper that Mr Johnson had ‘overstepped the mark’.

Lawyers have pointed out that changes to EU law adopted by former Tory minister Chris Grayling in 2018 mean that the Secretary of State does not have to be notified of mass redundancies on ships registered overseas – but instead, officials in the locations where ships are flagged.

P&O’s millionaire boss Peter Hebblethwaite has insisted that the company did not break UK labour laws because the ships are registered outside of Britain – in this case, Cyprus and the Bahamas.

Writing to Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, he said that the very clear statutory obligation in the particular circumstances that applied was for each company to notify the competent authority of the state where the vessel is registered’.

Mr Kwarteng had threatened P&O Ferries with unlimited fines, warning Mr Hebblethwaite that ‘clear rules’ include ‘notifying in advance… the Secretary of State’.

But Kevin Barnett, head of employment at marine law specialists Lester Aldridge LLP, said that Mr Kwarteng is ‘incorrect’ on this point, telling Sky News: ‘The amendment states the notification must be made to the competent authority of the state where the ship is registered, instead of the Secretary of State.’

The Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 was amended by statutory instrument in February 2018.

The change signed off by Mr Grayling states: ‘[If] the employees concerned are members of the crew of a seagoing vessel which is registered at a port outside Great Britain… the employer shall give the notification required… to the competent authority of the state where the vessel is registered (instead of to the Secretary of State).’


Prime Minister Boris Johnson may have ‘overstepped the mark’ when he claimed that P&O Ferries broke UK labour laws. Right, P&O’s millionaire boss Peter Hebblethwaite

People take part in a demonstration against the dismissal of P&O workers organised by the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union at the P&O ferry terminal in Cairnryan, Dumfries and Galloway, March 23, 2022

People take part in a demonstration against the dismissal of P&O workers organised by the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union at the P&O ferry terminal in Cairnryan, Dumfries and Galloway, March 23, 2022

Revealed: Chris Grayling ‘cleared the way for P&O Ferries to sack 800 staff without needing to tell the Transport Secretary’ 

Former Tory minister Chris Grayling cleared the way for P&O Ferries to sack 800 staff last week without needing to tell the Transport Secretary, according to a leading maritime lawyer 

Former Tory minister Chris Grayling cleared the way for P&O Ferries to sack 800 staff last week without needing to tell the Transport Secretary, according to a leading maritime lawyer.

Kevin Barnett, head of employment at marine law specialists Lester Aldridge LLP, has claimed that laws to protect employees in Britain were amended by Mr Grayling in 2018 so that the Secretary of State does not have to be notified of mass redundancies on ships registered overseas.

It comes after P&O’s millionaire boss Peter Hebblethwaite wrote to the Government yesterday, insisting that the operator had not broken UK labour laws because the ships were registered outside of Britain – in this case, Cyprus and the Bahamas.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng had threatened P&O Ferries with unlimited fines, warning Mr Hebblethwaite that ‘clear rules’ include ‘notifying in advance… the Secretary of State’.

But Mr Barnett says that Mr Kwarteng is ‘incorrect’ on this point, telling Sky News: ‘The amendment states the notification must be made to the competent authority of the state where the ship is registered, instead of the Secretary of State.’

The Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 was amended by statutory instrument in February 2018.

The change signed off by Mr Grayling states: ‘[If] the employees concerned are members of the crew of a seagoing vessel which is registered at a port outside Great Britain… the employer shall give the notification required… to the competent authority of the state where the vessel is registered (instead of to the Secretary of State).’  

The Department for Transport (DfT) said in an explanatory note that the amendment was supposed to improve seafarers’ employment rights.

The department claimed the amendment had been supported by the unions who have led protests against P&O’s actions. It added that no formal consultation was carried out before the change was made, and no impact assessment was carried out.

A memo leaked to the Sunday Times suggested that officials at DfT had been notified of P&O Ferries’ intent to sack hundreds of its staff without notice.

The memo, believed to have been written by a senior official, claimed that if the company did not sack the 800 workers then ‘an estimated 2,200 staff would likely lose their jobs’ in future.

It also allegedly shows that the Department for Transport did nothing to oppose or question the company’s decision, even though it may have been against the law, according to the Sunday Times.

The memo states: ‘We understand that P&O Ferries have an intention to try and re-employ many staff on new terms and conditions or use agency staff to restart routes; they estimate disruption to services lasting 10 days.

‘Without these decisions an estimated 2,200 staff would likely lose their jobs. These changes will align them with other companies in the market who have undertaken a large reduction in staff.’

The DfT told the Sunday Times: ‘This was an internal government memo which, as standard practice, outlined what officials had been told by P&O Ferries shortly before their announcement was made.

‘This was sent before ministers were advised of the full details and as soon as they were informed, they made clear their outrage at the way in which P&O staff had been dismissed.

‘It is clear from the memo that our immediate priority was to work with unions to ensure workers’ rights continue to be protected and the Transport Secretary has urged the company to sit down with workers and reconsider this action.’

The Department for Transport (DfT) said in an explanatory note that the amendment was supposed to improve seafarers’ employment rights.

The department claimed the amendment had been supported by the unions who have led protests against P&O’s actions. It added that no formal consultation was carried out before the change was made, and no impact assessment was carried out.

It comes after a memo leaked to the Sunday Times suggested that officials at DfT had been notified of P&O Ferries’ intent to sack hundreds of its staff without notice.

Mr Hebblethwaite yesterday publicly apologised for the impact of the mass layoff, but insisted that it was ‘the only way to save the business’.

P&O Ferries also announced that it would pay more than £36million in compensation to sacked staff, with 40 employees in line for payments of more than £100,000. It said payouts would be linked to the period of service, and in some cases exceed £170,000.

The total value of the settlement is £36,541,648, with no worker set to receive less than £15,000, the company added.

But the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has said that P&O’s claims that it had not broken any laws do not mean that the ferry firm will not face legal action.

Its general secretary Frances O’Grady told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘We don’t believe their legal advice is right and in the past, in fact, P&O has followed consultation rules, so either their very expensive legal advice has changed or their morals have just fallen through the floor.’

In a statement, Mr Hebblethwaite said: ‘I want to say sorry to the people affected and their families for the impact it’s had on them, and also to the 2,200 people who still work for P&O and will have been asked a lot of difficult questions about this.

‘Over the last week, I’ve been speaking face-to-face to seafarers and their partners. They’ve lost their jobs and there is anger and shock, and I completely understand.

‘We needed fundamental change to make us viable. This was an incredibly difficult decision that we wrestled with but once we knew it was the only way to save the business, we had to act.

‘All other routes led to the closure of P&O Ferries. I wish there was another way and I’m sorry.’

Former workers have reacted with fury to the announcement, with one telling The Times newspaper: ‘This is a total betrayal. It is clear, just as they were due to respond to the Government, that they want everyone to think they have done the right thing. I don’t want a payoff, I want the job I loved and gave me a life’.

The Nautilus union said P&O Ferries’ ‘shameless actions now extend to trying to buy its way out of a legal predicament exposed by the unions, obligation to report to the secretary of state and to consult with the recognised trades unions’.

They added: ‘P&O Ferries are claiming to be offering the “largest compensation package in the British marine sector” – a company in such desperate financial circumstances that it is prepared to spend £36.6million on a fake redundancy.

‘Let’s be clear, this statement is confirmation that P&O Ferries believes that with enough money it has no need to follow the laws of this country or be hindered by ethical business standards despite the glitzy commitments of its parent company in Dubai.

‘Instead, it intends to bully our maritime professionals into signing settlement agreements to buy their silence.’

Miss O’Grady said it was the case that one of their ferries was registered in Cyprus and another in the Bahamas, adding: ‘These are all about tax arrangements, but it’s the workers’ contracts that we’re looking closely at’.

She told the Today programme this morning: ‘We believe that P&O has acted unlawfully. It’s now clear that they deliberately flouted UK law in failing to consult with workers and their unions and sacking those 800 loyal and skilled seafarers.

‘We also now know, of course, that ministers knew that the sackings were imminent, and they knew before the workers knew, and they failed to inform unions too, so now the ball is in the Government’s court to make sure that P&O either reinstates those workers or they pay a very high price.’

She also insisted ministers ‘must come down on P&O like a ton of bricks’, adding: ‘If P&O is allowed to get away with a slap on the wrist, it will be a green light for employers up and down the land to treat staff like disposable labour.’

A spokesman for P&O Ferries said: ‘This has been an incredibly tough decision for the business: to make this choice or face taking the company into administration. This would have meant the loss of 3,000 jobs and the end of P&O Ferries.

‘In making this hard choice, we have guaranteed the future viability of P&O Ferries, avoided large-scale and lengthy disruption, and secured Britain’s trading capacity.’

The company said that, subject to the settlement agreement, it would pay 2.5 weeks uncapped salary for each year employed, rather than the statutory one or 1.5 weeks. It is also offering 13 weeks salary in lieu of notice, and 13 weeks salary on top of this in absence of consultation.

But Mick Lynch, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT), said that ‘the pay in lieu of notice is not compensation’.

‘It is just a payment staff are contractually entitled to as there was no notice given,’ he said.

‘The way that the package has been structured is pure blackmail and threats – that if staff do not sign up and give away their jobs and their legal right to take the company to an employment tribunal, they will receive a fraction of the amount put to them.

‘The actions of P&O demonstrate the weakness of employment law and protections in the UK. P&O have flagrantly breached the law and abandoned any standards of workplace decency.

New P&O staff members during safety training at the Port of Dover in Kent after the ferry giant handed 800 seafarers immediate severance notices last week and services remain suspended, March 21, 2022

A P&O ferry remains moored at the Port of Dover in Kent after the ferry giant handed 800 seafarers immediate severance notices last week and services remain suspended, March 22, 2022

A P&O ferry called Pride of Canterbury at the port in Dover, Britain, March 18, 2022

P&O Ferries crisis: The lowdown

What’s going on?

P&O Ferries has made 800 workers redundant and replaced them with cheaper agency staff.

Can it do that?

Unions have threatened legal action and lawyers suggested workers could bring unfair dismissal claims. Tom Long, partner at law firm Shakespeare Martineau, said the move ‘appears to contravene the requirements needed for a normal mass redundancy’.

Booked a ferry?

P&O Ferries was updating guidance over Twitter every half an hour yesterday. On some routes, including Dover to Calais, it advised customers to show up as usual and make their way to check-in booths run by ferry company DFDS. On others, such as between Larne and Cairnryan, the firm suggested customers only travel if essential.

Other options?

If you are travelling in the near future you can book on an alternative carrier. DFDS and Irish Ferries offer routes between Dover and Calais. There are no direct alternatives for the other routes but Stena Line offers services to Ireland and Holland.

Refunds?

The firm has not commented but its terms and conditions say it will refund the ‘total fare’ of a crossing if ‘we cannot ship you at all with us or arrange a suitable alternative ferry crossing, or if you do not wish to take any alternative journey offered by us’.

And P&O Cruises? 

P&O Cruises is owned by a different company and is not affected by the disruption.

‘They have ripped away the jobs, careers and pensions of our members and thrown them on the dole with the threat that if they do not sign up and give away their rights they will lose many thousands of pounds in payments.’

Last week, Mr Kwarteng wrote to Mr Hebblethwaite to say P&O Ferries had ‘lost the trust of the public’ and ‘given business a bad name’.

A BEIS spokesman said on Tuesday: ‘We have received a response to the Business Secretary’s letter to P&O and are reviewing their explanations.

‘We will continue to work at speed with the Insolvency Service to consider if legal action is required and will provide an update as soon as possible.

‘Given recent reports of staff being paid below the national minimum wage, the Business Secretary has also asked the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate to investigate the terms of agency workers’ contracts.’

It has also emerged that Mr Hebblethwaite lives in a plush Cotswold farmhouse worth more than £1.5million. Land Registry records show he and his wife Honor, an interior designer, paid £1.575million for their farmhouse in 2019.

A sales brochure for the Victorian property describes it as ‘an imposing detached family house offering extensive accommodation, including a heated swimming pool and stables set in approximately six acres’.

The property, close to Cirencester, Gloucestershire, boasts five double bedrooms, a double-aspect study and mature gardens and grounds.

Mr Hebblethwaite’s salary is not known but it is believed to be six figures. He took over as chief executive on an interim basis last year.

It comes as the Government threatened to criminally prosecute and impose unlimited fines on P&O Ferries if the disgraced operator is found to have broken labour laws.

Business Minister Paul Scully told the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme: ‘If they have flouted the notification law where they are supposed to tell the Secretary of State when they are going to make more than a hundred people redundant, then there are criminal sanctions involved in that, including an unlimited fine.

‘We have reserved the right to approach the prosecuting authorities should that be the right thing to do.’

Mr Scully said Transport Secretary Grant Shapps was reviewing all Government contracts and dealings with the company and its owners, DP World, adding: ‘They need to realise that the relationship between the companies and the Government has changed as a result of their absolutely callous [conduct]’.

Asked if that could include a £25million subsidy to DP World to help develop London Gateway as a freeport, he replied: ‘We will look into all of these things as part of this.’

Tory politicians are demanding that the Government consider scrapping its relationship with DP World, with Conservative peer Baroness Roz Altman telling the Today programme: ‘I think what P&O Ferries have done is absolutely disgraceful.

‘I feel so sorry for those 800 seamen who were loyal to P&O who were sacked by video, escorted of their ships, no warning, and I think that the Government should think very carefully about forcing the employer to behave better, and if that means that they have to impose any kind of sanctions or warnings to them, I think that would be entirely appropriate.’

P&O Ferries has replaced the 800 sacked staff with £1.82-an-hour foreign agency workers from India, the Phillipines and war-hit Ukraine.

Plush & Opulent: Boss of P&O Ferries who sacked 800 staff at once owns sprawling £1.5million farmhouse 

The millionaire boss of P&O Ferries lives in a plush Cotswold farmhouse worth more than £1.5million, the Daily Mail can today reveal.

Peter Hebblethwaite, chief executive at the ferry company which on Thursday fired 800 crew on the spot to replace them with cheaper agency workers, defended an earlier round of sackings by declaring ‘only the fittest survive’.

Land Registry records show Mr Hebblethwaite, 51, and his wife Honor, an interior designer, paid £1.575million for their farmhouse in 2019.

P&O CEO Peter Hebblethwaite, who sacked 800 workers in one go, is the owner of a large farmhouse worth £1.5million

Mr Hebblewaite lives in the expensive mansion in Gloucestershire with his interior designer wife Honor

People have held protests outside the P&O offices (pictured),after hundreds of people were let go from their jobs with immediate effect

A sales brochure for the Victorian property describes it as ‘an imposing detached family house offering extensive accommodation, including a heated swimming pool and stables set in approximately six acres’.

The property, close to Cirencester, Gloucestershire, boasts five double bedrooms, a double-aspect study and mature gardens and grounds.

Mr Hebblethwaite’s salary is not known but it is believed to be six figures. He took over as chief executive on an interim basis last year.

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