The boss of P&O Ferries has insisted no criminal offence was committed when his firm sacked 800 workers without notice, after claims from the government that the law was "knowingly" broken.
CEO Peter Hebblethwaite sent an email, obtained by ITV News, to all remaining employees following his appearance at the Commons transport committee, telling them he's "incredibly sorry for any anxiety that I’ve caused you or your family in the last week".
"This was never my intention and I am painfully aware it feels deeply uncomfortable," he said as Boris Johnson said the P&O boss should resign.
Mr Hebblethwaite admitted to the committee that P&O broke employment law by firing hundreds of employees with no warning but in an email to employees he insisted "no criminal offence has been committed".
"Neither me, P&O Ferries or our Shareholder, DP World would allow it," he added, as he appeared to explain how employment law had been broken by saying "there has been a failure to comply with the obligation to consult".
He said the mass sacking was "an incredibly difficult decision" but one that was "necessary and pivotal for our business".
On Thursday, Mr Hebblethwaite acknowledged to MPs there is “absolutely no doubt” the ferry operator was required to consult with trade unions before replacing its crews with cheaper agency staff.
Transport Secretary Shapps said the CEO should resign after his “brazen” and “breathtaking” comments about “knowingly breaking the law”.
Asked if the prime minister supported a call by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps for Mr Hebblethwaite to quit, a No 10 spokesman said: "Yes."
Mr Shapps told Sky News on Friday: “I thought what the boss of P&O said yesterday about knowingly breaking the law was brazen and breathtaking, and showed incredible arrogance. “I cannot believe that he can stay in that role having admitted to deliberately go out and use a loophole – well, break the law, but also use a loophole.” Pressed on whether that meant he was calling for Mr Hebblethwaite to resign “right now”, he said: “Yes.”
Mr Shapps also said the government is planning to change the law to ensure companies working from British ports pay people the minimum wage.
Mr Hebblethwaite, whose basic annual salary is £325,000, revealed that the average hourly pay of the new crew is only £5.50. The minimum wage in the UK for people aged 23 and above is £8.91 per hour.
The chief executive admitted that the new crews are being paid below the UK’s minimum wage apart from on domestic routes, but insisted this is allowed under international maritime rules.
He outlined in his email to staff that no one sacked would receive a severance package of less than £15,000.
But his comment that he's "deeply grateful" to staff for their "strength, loyalty and commitment" is unlikely to soften the blow of being left unemployed.
P&O boss Peter Hebblethwaite was grilled on whether he could live on £5.50 an hour
Mr Shapps said the upcoming change in law would force a “U-turn on what’s happened at P&O”. “We are not having people working from British ports… plying regular routes between here and France or here and Holland, or (anywhere) else, and failing to pay the minimum wage. It’s simply unacceptable and we will force that to change,” he said. Asked if the government will change the law to enforce this, he said: “That’s exactly the plan.” Mr Hebblethwaite also told a joint session of the Commons’ transport and business select committees on Thursday that Mr Shapps knew about the intention to cut jobs in November last year.
The Department for Transport strongly denied this claim, with Mr Shapps saying it was P&O's way to “distract attention” from its failure to provide notice of job cuts. The Rail, Maritime and Transport union said it will be meeting with P&O on Friday to demand the reinstatement of the sacked seafarers.