Grant Shapps told about 'challenges' to P&O Ferries but not staff lay-offs in meeting

25 March 2022, 20:43

Grant Shapps told about 'challenges' of P&O ferries but not potential lay offs to staff. Picture: Alamy

By Liam Gould

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps was warned about a "new low-cost competitor" which would present "challenges" to P&O Ferries, in a meeting with the boss of the firm's parent company last year.

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Minutes of a meeting between Mr Shapps and the chief executive of DP World, Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem, last year showed Mr Shapps was told Irish Ferries would pose "challenges in respect of P&O’s operations".

The Department for Transport said that Mr Shapps was not told about any potential plans to sack workers and the comments made by Mr Sulayem were considered open-ended.

In the minutes from a meeting during a visit to the United Arab Emirates in November last year, Mr Shapps told the CEO: "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."

Mr Shapps insists he wasn't aware of P&O's decision to lay off their staff via video call until he was at the dispatch box in the House of Commons.

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He said the company was trying to "distract attention" by claiming he knew of the plans in a meeting last year.

In response to a question asking whether the P&O boss was lying about Mr Shapps knowing, the Transport Secretary told Sky News: "I think we can all see that what they’re trying to do is distract attention.

"The fact of the matter is that they needed to give 45 days’ notice to ministers, in fact to the secretary of state for business, if you’re making these kind of redundancies. They did not do that, they did not provide the notice."

Mr Shapps added he was unaware of the extent of P&O's actions until he was stood in the House of Commons. He said: "I was actually stood at the despatch box on Thursday when news started to come out about it.

"For completeness, I should say that the night before I was informed by my office that there’d be another round of redundancies at P&O.

"But P&O have made redundancies in the normal way in the past, including particularly during coronavirus, and so that in itself, whilst obviously really unfortunate – if they’d gone through the normal consultation process, worked with the workers, worked with the unions, we wouldn’t be sitting here where we are today."

It comes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson supported the Transport Secretary's calls for P&O ferries Chief Executive Peter Hebblethwaite to step-down.

Mr Shapps said: "I thought what the boss of P&O said yesterday about knowingly breaking the law was brazen and breathtaking, and showed incredible arrogance.

"I cannot believe that he can stay in that role having admitted to deliberately go out and use a loophole – well, break the law, but also use a loophole.”

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When asked if the Prime Minister supports the Transport Secretary in calls for Mr Hebblethwaite to resign, a Downing Street spokesperson said: "Yes."

Mr Hebblethwaite oversaw the sacking of over 800 members of staff without notice, and admitted to breaking employment law in front of a hearing of MPs on Thursday.

P&O Ferries later announced it was offering more than £36 million in compensation to sacked staff, with 40 employees in line for payments of more than £100,000. The company said payouts would be linked to the period of service, and in some cases exceed £170,000.

The new staff working on the ferries are confirmed by Mr Hebblethwaite to be on below the UK minimum wage under international maritime rules.

Mr Hebblethwaite - who takes in £325,000 a year - said the average hourly pay of the new crew is £5.50.

Mr Shapps said he will "close every possible loophole" to ensure staff won't be paid below minimum wage. He said: "What I’m going to do… is come to Parliament this coming week with a package of measures which will both close every possible loophole that exists and force them to U-turn on this."

"P&O will need to re-employ people on the proper salaries."