Grant Shapps has written to the boss of the Insolvency Service arguing his “firm belief” that the chief executive of P&O Ferries is “unfit to lead a British company”.
The transport secretary appeared in the Commons to unveil a “package” of nine measures that he said would force P&O Ferries to “fundamentally rethink their decision” to fire 800 British crew without notice.
“I have made no secret of my view that P&O Ferries’ boss Peter Hebblethwaite should resign. He set out to break the law and boasted about it to this parliament,” Shapps said. “So I’ve written to the CEO of the Insolvency Service, conveying my firm belief that Peter Hebblethwaite is unfit to lead a British company. And I have asked them to consider his disqualification.”
Under the new plans, all ferry staff working in and out of British ports and when in UK waters, will earn the national minimum wage (NMW).
Shapps said that he had instructed ports to refuse entry to ferries not paying workers the NMW from today, “immediately replicating the effect the new laws will have when introduced in the coming weeks”.
He added: “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. 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.”
The Times understands that as ferry companies will only be required to pay the NMW while in UK territorial waters, it will only apply within 12 nautical miles of the shore.
Nick Humphreys, a maritime law expert at Penningtons Manches Cooper, said Shapps’s comments were “tough talk but flimsy in practice”. “
Once outside UK territorial waters, currently the NMW could not be applied because the primary legislation does not allow it,” he said.
Shapps said he was working with his counterparts in France, the Netherlands, Ireland and Denmark to “propose bilateral agreements which would ensure routes between the countries become ‘minimum wage corridors’, where nationals from either country must be paid an agreed minimum wage”.
Experts warned that even these plans could end up failing on longer routes as the “intermediate” part of the voyage would not be covered. On the 27-nautical mile Dover-Calais route, a very large chunk of the journey could be protected, if France agree.
Shapps also confirmed that the government would not be taking legal action against P&O, a week after the prime minister said they would “take action” under section 194 of the Trades Union and Labour Relations Act of 1992.
Boris Johnson warned that the company could face fines “running into millions of pounds” if found guilty of a breach, although it later emerged the law had been changed, restricting the government’s power.
Louise Haigh, the shadow transport secretary, said the steps announced by the government to “insist on the bare minimum cannot come a moment too soon”, adding that Labour welcomed the measures.
Asked by Haigh why the government was not taking legal action, Shapps responded: “The government is not in the position to take the court action — that’s for the unions and workers, and we understand the limitations of that and that’s why I’ve described some of the items here.”
A shipping source told media that ministers will “categorically and fundamentally” fail in their aim to force P&O Ferries into a U-turn. They said: “The company, as morally questionable, knew exactly what they were doing.”
P&O Ferries has said it welcomes the government’s move to introduce the minimum wage and says it has called for “a level playing field when it comes to pay and conditions on British ferry routes”.