At a joint hearing of the UK transport and business committees on March 24, evidence was given by legal experts, union bosses, the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), P&O Ferries and DP World.
The first question put to P&O Ferries CEO Peter Hebblethwaite set the tone for his grilling: "Mr. Hebblethwaite, when I was reading your biography, it seemed pretty light on your experience as a chief executive officer. are you in this mess because you don't know what you're doing? or are you just a shameless criminal?" asked Business Committee chair Darren Jones MP.
Hebblethwaite repeatedly stated that P&O Ferries had taken the difficult decision to fire 800 workers and move to a new business model as it saw no other way to keep the company viable.
Committee members focused on P&OFerries’ decision not to consult unions and staff ahead of the firings, and instead to try and offer enhanced compensation in lieu of abiding by its obligation to consult unions. Hebblethwaite openly admitted that P&O Ferries had taken the decision to break the law.
“I’m amazed that the P&O CEO came to Parliament today, confirmed he wilfully broke the law, decided to pay off the sacked workers but make them sign gagging clauses and that he would do it all again. He should be fined, struck off and prosecuted. Shameless,” Jones said on Twitter after the hearing. UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps also said Hebblethwaite should resign.
Jones called for immediate action to against DP World and P&O Ferries, and for regulatory reform to ensure that companies cannot get away with breaking the law as a cheaper alternative to abiding by it.
During the evidence given by Brian Johnson, Chief Executive, MCA, it was clear that the committee were not all well-versed in the overlapping jurisdictions involved in international shipping, nor the particular responsibilities of flag and port states.
Johnson explained the tight limitations of port state powers under Paris MoU, and that MCA does not have holistic powers to detain a fleet; any actions must be based on the outcome of vessel inspections.
After hearing the extent of the checks carried out during a port state control inspection of one of P&O’s vessels, Transport Committee chair, Huw Merriman, said: “I am quite concerned about the effectiveness of the safety regulator.”
Asked whether any companies in particular had assisted P&O Ferries in restaffing their vessels, Nautilus International General Secretary Mark Dickinson said that Columbia Shipmanagement and Clyde Marine had both been “central to enabling P&O Ferries to introduce the mass sacking of UK seafarers and the recruitment of their replacements.”
Columbia Shipmanagement maintained its position that it does not comment on contractual matters, a position it has held since the P&O Ferries sackings were made public.
A spokesperson for Clyde Marine Recruitment said: “We are disappointed that the RMT and Nautilus continue to single out our small company. We have spoken with them and explained the small numbers involved in this situation, many of whom were on before P&O sacked their workforce, and yet they continue to highlight us unfairly.
“We cannot condone the behaviour of P&O ferries and will continue to support seafarers looking for positions with our respective clients.”
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