Chief Executive Peter Hebbelthwaite claimed the firm warned Transport Secretary Grant Shapps last year that P&O would be “needing to make changes to our business this year”
The boss of P&O has admitted the firm “chose” to break the law by failing to consult staff and unions before sacking 800 staff with a scripted Zoom call.
But speaking to a joint session of the Commons Transport and Business committees, Chief Executive Peter Hebblethwaite claimed the firm warned Transport Secretary Grant Shapps last year that P&O would be “needing to make changes to our business this year.”
The Department for Transport (DFT) said it was “categorically untrue” that Mr Shapps was warned about redundancies.
He claimed the sackings of 800 people were necessary or P&O would have been unable to continue operating – adding: “I would make the same decision again, I’m afraid.”
Mr Hebblethwaite, who earns more than £300,000 a year, also confirmed the average wage among ‘replacement’ employees on P&O vessels will be £5.50 an hour – well below the minimum wage.
For some staff the wage could be as low as £5.15.
He told the Committee of MPs the wage levels were “competitive”, and added: “Where we are required to pay national minimum wage, we will pay national minimum wage.”
Many seafaring crew don’t have to be paid the minimum wage because their vessels are flagged in other countries and operate in international waters.
“There’s absolutely no doubt we were required to consult with the unions,” Mr Hebblethwaite told MPs. “We chose not to do so.”
He said they made the decision not to consult unions because they believed “no union would accept” what they were proposing – and that to comply with the law and undergo the process would have been a “sham.”
Asked on whether he believes his actions have done more to end the business rather than save it, Mr Hebblethwaite told MPs: “I think we’ve got a tough job to do now to rebuild the business.
“But I think P&O with a future and P&O that is able to be competitive, pay its own bills, and offer the customer service that is required, has a much better chance.”
And he said that a meeting took place on November 22 at an expo in Dubai, where Transport Secretary Grant Shapps was told by senior executives of DP World, P&O’s parent company, that the firm needed to change its operating model.
But neither Mr Hebblethwaite nor Jesper Kristensen, Chief Operation Officer of DP World could say who had attended the meeting.
Mr Hebblethwaite said: “I wasn’t at the meeting, but I believe that on 22 November the Secretary of State for Transport was visiting Dubai and at an Expo he met with some of the DP World exec team.
“As part of a broader ranging discussion which included ongoing investment in the British economy, the subject of P&O Ferries was brought up and that we would be needing to make some changes to our business this year.
“Beyond that I can’t confirm, what I can say is that at that point in our planning, we hadn’t finalized our plans, so I doubt any conversation went further than that, but I don’t know.”
Mr Hebblethwaite said he could not provide a minute of the conversation.
Tory Transport minister Robert Courts, speaking to the same Committee, said: “My understanding from that meeting is there was a discussion about ‘challenges’ to the business but not any more than that.”
He said the meeting was minuted, and would supply the Committee with a copy of the record.
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “It is categorically untrue that he was informed of the restructure”.
DFT added it was less a formal meeting, more that they bumped into each other at Dubai Expo and had an off the record chat – and said the representative, Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem, only mentioned that P&O faced challenges from competitors.
The 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.”
Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary Louise Haigh said: “Grant Shapps has huge questions to answer.
“He was told in a meeting in Dubai of P&O’s plan to change their business model.
“That model meant brazenly breaking the law to sack loyal workers to pay destitution wages. He must come clean and publish the record of that conversation.”
Mr Hebblethwaite did not answer when asked by Labor MP Andy McDonald: “Could you sustain your lifestyle?” if he was paid the same as the new workers.
Mr McDonald went on: “No, you couldn’t, could you?
“Why do you expect people who’ve got such responsible jobs to be able to do that?
“How do you expect them to be able to feed their families and pay their bills?”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.