The conduct of P&O Ferries in sacking almost 800 crew without notice is now being made the subject of criminal and civil investigations by the Insolvency Service.
At the request of the government the Insolvency Service said it had “initiated both formal criminal and civil investigations” into the redundancies.
Earlier in the week transport secretary Grant Shapps had told MPs that the government was not in a position to take legal action against P&O Ferries.
But now the Insolvency Service has written to the business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, who in response tweeted that he and Shapps, would “follow this matter closely as the investigations progress”.
The announcement comes after Shapps appeared to admit court action would not be taken by the government, backtracking on an earlier statement by the prime minister, Boris Johnson.
A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said on 1 April: “Today the Insolvency Service has confirmed it has commenced formal criminal and civil investigations into the circumstances surrounding the recent appalling behaviour of P&O Ferries, following the business secretary asking they undertake a thorough review.
P&O Ferries redundancies
They added they could not comment further while investigations were taking place.
At last week’s special BEIS/Transport committees hearing, business minister Paul Scully was asked by MPs why the government hadn’t issued an injunction to prevent P&O from making the redundancies given that chief operating officer Peter Hebblethwaite had conceded the company had broken the law.
Scully had insisted that the Insolvency Service was looking into the matter. The service launches an investigation when it considers it is in the public interest and there is sufficient good reason to do so.
DP World backing
Hebblethwaite admitted to MPs the company chose not to consult with the unions because they would never have accepted what it planned to do and that, given the same circumstances he would take the same action again. Jesper Kristensen, chief operating officer of P&O Ferries’ owner DP World gave his full support to Hebblethwaite’s course of action, although added that DP World had not directed the redundancies.
The Insolvency Service may also look into the disqualification of Hebblethwaite as a company director after his statements at the hearing last week.
On 17 March, P&O Ferries laid off 786 crew on British contracts issued out of Jersey, telling them that they were being replaced by agency workers with immediate effect, and imposing a deadline for them to accept a compensation pay-off while forfeiting the right to legal action. It is thought almost all of the employees had accepted the offer by yesterday’s 5pm deadline.
The replacement crews would be paid between £5.15 and £6 an hour, far less than the national minimum wage. However, given the specific nature of seafarers’ regulations it is not clear that this is unlawful. Additionally, the fact that P&O Ferries did not notify the transport secretary 45 days in advance of the redundancies was not unlawful because of the government’s acceptance of a change in the regulations in 2018 which meant only the authorities where the ships were registered (Cyprus, Bermuda and the Bahamas) had to be notified. It is thought, however, that these countries’ authorities were not told in time either.
Unions have welcomed news of the investigation. Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, said the probe “must get to the bottom of what happened – and not shy away from serious sanctions and big financial penalties.
“In the meantime, ministers must immediately suspend all contracts with P&O and its owner DP World until crew have been reinstated.
“And regardless of the outcome of this investigation, the government needs to bring forward its long-overdue employment bill. The P&O scandal has shown beyond doubt that UK employment law, and workers’ rights, urgently need bringing into the 21st century.”
However, O’Grady, later responding to reports that the government may exclude the employment bill from the Queen’s Speech on 10 May, added: “Boris Johnson looks to have broken his word yet again by failing to deliver the employment bill. Make no mistake – this would be a betrayal of working people.
“What happened at P&O should have marked a turning point for workers’ rights. But by abandoning the employment bill, the government is sending a message that it is happy for rogue employers to treat staff like dirt.
“Tinkering around the edges with feeble statutory codes won’t have bad bosses quaking in their boots.”
Last night, Nautilus and other international seafarers’ unions last night projected video images of the saga on to the white cliffs of Dover, including P&O Ferries’ recorded message telling crew they were sacked, and Hebblethwaite’s admission of lawbreaking at the hearings.
Meanwhile, P&O Ferries has accused the Maritime and Coastguard Agency of acting with “unprecedented levels of rigour” after it detained two of the company’s ferries. Inspectors were not satisfied when it came to the replacement crew’s readiness to sail the ship.
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