Cabinet ministers send scathing letters over P&O Ferries sackings to former chair

Grant Shapps and Kwasi Kwarteng are said to have written to the ferry operator's CEO. Credit: PA

Two Cabinet ministers have mistakenly sent strongly worded letters to the former chair of P&O ferries who left his role last year, as they criticised the company's sudden sacking of 800 crew members.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng sent separate letters addressed to P&O Ferries chair Robert Woods, demanding answers over the company's conduct.

But Mr Woods is no longer chair of the firm, having left last December.

However, it is believed Mr Woods was still listed as the firm's chair on P&O Ferries' website.Seemingly realising the mistake, Mr Kwarteng, who is also the energy secretary, subsequently posted online a new edition of the letter addressed to "Peter Hebblethwaite, CEO of P&O Ferries".

In the letter, which channeled the government's anger at the situation, the minister said the company had “lost the trust of the public and has given business a bad name".

"It is particularly depressing that this should happen given the millions of pounds of British taxpayer support P&O companies received from the furlough scheme," the letter, which was also signed by Business Minister Paul Scully, read.

“It cannot be right that the company feels tied closely enough to the UK to receive significant amounts of taxpayer money but does not appear willing to abide by the rules that we have put in place to protect British workers."

In a separate letter, Mr Shapps said that all government contracts with P&O Ferries and its owner DP World would be reviewed, as he called for the announced redundancies to be paused.

What do the letters reveal about the level of anger the government feels over the company's behaviour? ITV News Business Editor Joel Hills reports live from Dover

“The lack of engagement, of prior notice, or of any empathy whatsoever for your workers that P&O demonstrated yesterday was completely unacceptable," he wrote. “Seafarers make a huge contribution to this country, and many have dedicated years of service to P&O, and I was frankly staggered yesterday at the way you dismissed them with zero respect."

He added that all the company's vessels would be subject to inspection by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency before they resumed sailing.

P&O ferry the Pride of Kent as it remains moored at the Port of Dover in Kent. Credit: PA

Downing Street said the government is looking to see if P&O has broken any rules.

“We are looking very closely at the actions that this company has taken to see whether they acted within the rules,” the prime minister’s official spokesperson said on Friday. “Once we have concluded that, we will decide what the ramifications are. “Obviously there are a lot of valid questions in relation to existing contracts.”

The comments came after a string of protests were held across the country against the decision to sack 800 seafarers, which P&O Ferries said it was forced to make after losing £100 million year on year.

Staff will be replaced by agency workers, with ferry sailings being suspended "for the next few days" while the transition takes place.

On Thursday, many affected crew learnt via a Teams address that they were to lose their jobs that day.

Demonstrations have been held at ports in Dover, Liverpool, Hull and Larne in Northern Ireland and outside the London head office of owners DP World amid a growing tide of public anger.

Three sacked P&O crew members protest at Larne Port in Northern Ireland. Credit: PA

Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh, who joined a rally in Dover, described P&O’s actions as “nothing short of a national scandal”. “This is a disgraceful way for a Dubai-based conglomerate to treat British workers in this country,” she said.

The company - which operates major routes from the UK to the continent - acknowledged that the sackings “came without warning or prior consultation, and we fully understand that this has caused distress for them and their families”.

In a fresh statement issued on Friday, P&O Ferries said: "We took this difficult decision as a last resort and only after full consideration of all other options but, ultimately, we concluded that the business wouldn’t survive without fundamentally changed crewing arrangements, which in turn would inevitably result in redundancies. “We also took the view, in good faith, that reaching agreement on the way forward would be impossible and against this background, that the process itself would be highly disruptive, not just for the business but for UK trade and tourism.”