A criminal investigation has been launched into P&O Ferries’ decision to sack 786 of its staff last month, according to Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng.
Earlier this week, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps appeared to rule out a criminal prosecution but a letter from the Insolvency Service confirms the department is looking into the dismissal.
In a letter addressed to Mr Kwarteng, which he shared on Twitter, the department's Chief executive Dean Beal said: “You asked the Insolvency Service to undertake an urgent and thorough enquiry into the circumstances surrounding the redundancies made by P&O Ferries, to determine whether the law has been complied with and consider prompt and appropriate action where it has not.
“Following its enquiries, I can confirm that the Insolvency Service has initiated both formal criminal and civil investigations into the circumstances surrounding the recent redundancies made by P&O Ferries.”
He added that a short statement will be published on Friday – but said it would not be appropriate to add any further comment at this time.
Professor of labour law, Alan Bogg, said this announcement appears to imply that a “prosecution is now under active consideration as a possible course of action".
What did P&O Ferries do?
DP World-owned P&O Ferries sacked its crews and replaced them with agency workers on March 17.
The minimum wage in the UK for people aged 23 and over is £8.91 per hour.
P&O boss Peter Hebblethwaite, whose basic annual salary is £325,000, told MPs on March 24 that the average pay of the agency crew is £5.50 per hour, but insisted this was permitted under international maritime laws.
He also admitted that his company broke the law by not consulting with trade unions before sacking workers.
P&O'S 'failure to see reason'
On Wednesday, Mr Shapps said P&O Ferries will be forced to “fundamentally rethink their decision” to sack nearly 800 workers.
He made the claim as he set out a series of measures in response to the redundancies.
These include plans to create “minimum wage corridors” on ferry routes between the UK and other countries.
He will also urge ports to refuse access to boats carrying seafarers paid below the minimum wage, and ask the Insolvency Service to consider disqualifying P&O Ferries chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite from acting as a company director.
Speaking in the House of Commons, Mr Shapps said: “P&O Ferries’ failure to see reason, to recognise the public anger, and to do the right thing by their staff has left the government with no choice.
“I am today announcing a package of nine measures that will force them to fundamentally rethink their decision.
“This will send a clear message to the maritime industry: we will not allow this to happen again.
“Where new laws are needed, we will create them. Where legal loopholes are cynically exploited, we will close them. And where employment rights are too weak, we will strengthen them.”