The UK transport secretary was ‘aware’ of problems at P&O Ferries by the time he met the head of DP World at Dubai Expo on 22 November last year.
Newly released minutes of the meeting between Grant Shapps and DP World boss Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem reveal that Shapps told Bin Sulayem: “I’m aware of the issues relating to P&O. I recognise you will need to make commercial decisions, but please do keep us informed.”
Shapps was responding to Bin Sulayem’s comment that there was “a new low-cost competitor from Irish Ferries. This
poses challenges in respect of P&O’s operations. We kept ferries operating during the height of the pandemic to support movement of people and goods”.
Bin Sulayem went on to say that “As we recover we can reinvest in the UK. We make a significant amount of income from the passenger side of our business – even though it only makes up 30% of total business – because the margins are so tight on the cargo side.”
The minutes were released by the Commons Transport Committee after the meeting was drawn to public attention by DP World chief executive Jesper Kristensen during the joint BEIS/Transport committed hearing on P&O Ferries’ decision to axe 800 jobs in the UK without warning last week.
On 21 March, Shapps told the Commons that he first learned about the redundancies at 8.30pm on Wednesday “through communication with my private office to indicate that P&O would be making redundancies the next day”. He said he had expected P&O Ferries to consult on more redundancies rather than instigate mass sackings.
DP World and P&O Ferries chief operating officer told MPs of the BEIS and transport committees that at the time of the 22 November meeting, there had been no plan to make the 800 redundancies. Maritime minister Robert Courts told yesterday’s hearing: “There was a discussion about challenges to the business but not any more than that.”
Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh responded to the release of the 22 November minutes by arguing that Shapps had failed to act since then. She said: “Despite the clear warning signs, Grant Shapps didn’t appear to raise a single word of concern for the workforce when he had the chance. Throughout this scandal, every window of opportunity to save jobs had been missed and hundreds of British workers are paying the price.”
Shapps earlier today (25 March) called for P&O Ferries chief operating officer Peter Hebblethwaite to resign from his post. “They flagged their ships through Cyprus [which meant they] avoided having to tell anybody about this, or they felt they did. And even though they know they’ve broken the law, what they’ve done is to pay people off in such a way to try and buy their silence. It’s unacceptable.”
Today, Hebblethwaite emailed P&O Ferries staff to clarify “issues” in his testimony to MPs. He claimed that “no criminal offence has been committed” but that “there has been a failure to comply with the obligation to consult”.
He also said that although he had told the parliamentary session he would make the same decision again in order to save the company in fact “this type of dismissal could not happen again”.
P&O Ferries has moved to a completely new business model where it uses agency crews on below UK minimum wage levels.
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “DP World did not mention to the transport secretary any changes it would be making to P&O Ferries and there was no indication of the completely unacceptable changes it has subsequently made.”