The chief executive of P&O Ferries has been called to appear before MPs to explain why the company decided to sack its UK crews. Peter Hebblethwaite joined P&O in 2018 and took over as chief executive last year.
He has since overseen a strategy of aggressive cost-cutting, designed to return the business to profitability.
In 2020, P&O made 1,100 staff redundant. Last Thursday, 800 UK crew were fired. P&O is in the process of hiring cheaper freelance crews to replace them. The company described the move as a “last resort” to ensure the survival of the business, but members of the Transport and the Business select committees want the opportunity to scrutinise the decision further. Mr Hebblethwaite can expect a rough ride. P&O’s behaviour has generated widespread fury and MPs want to know what the government and the regulator, the Maritime Coastguard Agency, can do about it.
“We cannot wait. We have to ensure that P&O are held to account and also that this decision is reversed,” says Huw Merriman MP, chair of the Transport Select Committee. “The government has to fight fire with fire here. P&O has taken a aggressive decision, it’s questionable if it is lawful, it’s certainly questionable if it’s the right thing to do but they’ve done it regardless”.
Huw Merriman said it was questionable as to whether P&O's decision was lawful
As it stands, eight of P&O’s ships remain stuck in port. ITV News understands that the company has informed Port of Dover that it hopes to get one of its three ships there sailing “before Friday”.
The Dover-Calais service is P&O busiest by far- the original plan was to relaunch it today. It’s not clear if P&O is struggling to get the freelance crews it needs or if those crews need more training in order to pass the safety inspectors they must pass before going to sea.
This is a headache for P&O, which is losing £1 million every day its fleet sits at anchor, and for Port of Dover. For the moment. Europe’s busiest port has lost around a third of its capacity and freight traffic is building. The lorry queues on the A20 into Dover reached capacity today. Operation Brock was deployed on the M20 overnight and police began holding lorries back from 15:30 this afternoon. Congestion is building. Neither P&O Ferries nor its owner DP World - which has also been ordered to appear before MPs- will comment on any of the above.
But P&O has released more details about the compensation it is offering those it sacked. The company is spending £36.5 million laying its UK crew off in a settlement it describes as “the largest compensation package in the British Marine sector”. P&O says 575 of the 786 seafarers have entered into severance talks and that support is being given to help them find a new job at sea or onshore. The company says if it hadn’t fired its UK crew and hired freelance workers the company would have gone into administration. In a statement it said: “In making this hard choice, we have guaranteed the cure viability of P&O Ferries, avoided large scale and lengthy disruption, and secured Britain’s trading capacity”.