P&O boss Peter Hebblethwaite labelled 'most hated man in Britain' by MSPs

29 March 2022, 13:19 | Updated: 29 March 2022, 14:17

P&O chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite
P&O chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite. Picture: Alamy

By Gina Davidson

The boss of P&O has been accused of an "extreme act of corporate terrorism" and declared "the most hated man in Britian" as he faced a grilling by MSPs in Holyrood.

Peter Hebblethwaite was quizzed by members of the Scottish Parliament's transport committee in the wake of the immediate sacking of 800 seafarers - including 39 who work on the Scotland to Northern Ireland route from Cairnryan to Larne.

But he refused to back down from the decision which broke UK employment law as he failed to consult with trade unions in advance of telling staff by zoom that they no longer had jobs.

While he reiterated his apology, he said any consultation with unions would have been a "sham" and that the decision to make hundreds redundant would save thousands of other jobs,

However furious MSPs were united in their condemnation of Mr Hebblethwaite repeatedly lambasting him for the company's decision.

Scottish Labour MSP, Monica Lennon, said: "We know that you fired 800 experienced workers with an average service of 20 years.

"You sent in security guards with balaclavas and handcuffs - it is an extreme act of corporate terrorism.

"In a crowded field you are probably the most hated man in Britain."

Ms Lennon went on to say that a Westminster committee deemed Mr Hebblethwaite not to be a "fit and proper person", before asking when he will resign.

"I want to be absolutely clear that there is a lot of press that is frankly inaccurate," Mr Hebblethwaite replied.

"We did employ a security firm of professionals to keep our ships safe, but much, much more importantly, our people safe at a very emotional time for them.

"The facts of the day (are) no balaclavas, none of those things that were reported on and there wasn't a single incident - not one - of anybody being hurt, of anything inappropriate happening."

He went on to say he had "no plans" to resign from his post.

P&O Ferries has made moves to "reduce the cost of our senior management by as much, or more, as we have other parts of the business," he added, with some of the high level managers taking as much as a 50% pay cut - though he had not received a pay cut.

He also said new agency staff who are not "officers" will work on P&O's vessels for an average of £5.50 per hour, which is in line with international standards, but stressed that seafaring was about more than money.

"I don't think that seafaring is all about money, I think people love it and that's one of the main reasons I regret so much the difficult decision we had to make," he said.

When asked by SNP MSP, Natalie Don, if he would work for the wages being paid to some staff, he said: "I chose a particular career and a particular way through that and it has led to me sitting here answering questions - totally appropriately positioned questions - about a very difficult decision that I have had to make.

"I didn't choose a path that led to me being a seafarer."

Tory MSP Brian Whittle said that Mr Hebbelthwaite must have expected the repercussions and asked if there was some other motive at play.

The P&O boss responsed by saying the company had done nothing "illegal" - to which Mr Whittle interjected saying he had already admitted breaking employment law.

Mr Hebblethwaite added: "We failed to consult and for that we are compensating people. That is different from illegal."

The chief executive was also quizzed by Tory MSP, Liam Kerr, who asked what would happen should employment tribunals mandate the reinstatement of the sacked staff.

"Our assessment was that we wouldn't get to that situation," he said.

"A forceful reinstatement of our previous model would have put us straight back into the position where this is a business that would close."

He added: "We did fail to consult and we're compensating people in full for that and we're doing everything we are required to do."

Drawing the meeting to a close, committee deputy convener, Fiona Hyslop, said: "In my 20-plus years as a member of the Scottish Parliament, I am not sure I have come across an issue with an employer that has united - unilaterally right across the chamber - such hostility.

"The people that we represent, our constituents, even those who are not in the south of Scotland, or in Cairnryan, are absolutely disgusted and dismayed that a company of your reputation and your shareholders' reputation has treated people with such disrespect and lack of dignity at work."

She added: "I now close the public part of the meeting, I wish everyone a restful Easter break, unfortunately, that will not be the case for the many P&O workers that have suffered at the hands of this chief executive."

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