P&O Ferries boss admits breaking UK law when sacking crew but says there was 'no other way to do it'

ITV News Economics Editor Joel Hills outlines the reaction as the P&O boss faced MPs

That was an extraordinary session.

It began with one of the chairs, the MP Darren Jones, asking P&O’s chief executive if he was a criminal or incompetent? The tone and pace barely let up.

Peter Hebblethwaite came armed with an apology, he was barely given time by MPs to make it - such is the level of outage at P&O’s behaviour.

Hebblethwaite admitted that P&O Ferries chose to ignore UK law when it sacked its 800 crew a week ago without warning but explained there was “no other way to do it”.

  • "Are you in this mess because you don't know what you're doing or because you're a shameless criminal?", MP Darren Jones asks Peter Hebblethwaite

He said P&O would have gone bust had the company not cut costs by immediately halving its wage bill.

Hebblethwaite revealed that the average seafarer who was dismissed earned £36,000 a year and will receive £46,500 in compensation.

He told MPs that P&O was recruiting agency workers to crew its eight ferries on an average hourly rate of £5.50

He denied that anyone on P&O vessels was earning £1.80 an hour - an allegation made earlier in the week by the RMT union.

The minimum wage in the UK rises to £9.50 an hour next month but Hebblethwaite said that UK employment law does not apply to most of the routes P&O runs.

P&O points out that its crew were employed by firms in Jersey, on contracts issued in Jersey and worked on ships registered in Cyprus, Bermuda and the Bahamas.

Earlier, Alan Burns QC agrees told MPs that the application of UK law at sea can be a “grey area” and that differences of opinion are often only resolved in court.

Could and should the government have done more to stop this happening?

Under UK law, P&O had an obligation to consult the staff it dismissed and to notify the government that it intended to make more than 100 redundancies. The company doesn’t appear to have done either of these things.

Darren Jones MP accused Peter Hebblethwaite of “willfully” breaking the law.

“I completely hold my hands up, we chose not to consult,” Hebblethwaite replied.

“That’s quite amazing, you are saying you will willfully broke the law,” Jones added.

“There was no other way to do this and we are compensating people in full,” Hebblethwaite said.

  • P&O boss Peter Hebblethwaite was grilled on whether he could live on £5.50 an hour

P&O plans to get its ferries back into service as soon as possible.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), the regulator, confirmed that The Pride of Hull was given permission to sail against yesterday, although only 10 of the 110 crew on board were agency staff.

P&O’s remaining seven ships are stuck at port. The MCA says the new crews will have to pass rigorous safety inspections before the vessels can go back into service. Those inspections will take at least two days and that none are currently scheduled.

P&O told Port of Dover it hopes to get one of its ships moving by Friday. That wont be happening.

Hebblethwaite told MPs he is paid a basic salary of £325,000 a year and, in addition, qualifies for two bonus schemes.

P&O workers protest at their dismissal at the P&O ferry terminal in Cairnryan, Dumfries and Galloway.

He was asked if he would accept a bonus for his performance this year.

“I don’t know the answer to that question,” he replied.

Hebblethwaite said he knew that the decision to fire 800 crews was “difficult and controversial” but that P&O now had a “modern and competitive workforce” and a fighting chance of survival.

He said he was “very sorry” for the anguish the sacking had caused but he did not regret the decision and would take it again.