IN AN extraordinary admission yesterday P&O Ferries chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite admitted the firm knowingly broke the law, choosing not to consult with the unions over the mass sacking of 800 workers and if given the opportunity he would do the same again.
Hebblethwaite was appearing before a joint hearing of the transport and business committees yesterday morning.
Labour MP Darren Jones opened the CEO’s questions by asking: ‘Are you in this mess because you don’t know what you’re doing, or just a shameless criminal?’
Hebblethwaite attempted to defend the company’s actions, saying: ‘We thought long and hard about the routes to this.’
He said: ‘Ultimately, this new model, it is a fundamentally different operating model and no union could accept our proposal.’
It was put to him by Jones: ‘Did you ask the trade unions?’ – ‘No’ said Hebblethwaite. He then confirmed his basic salary of £325,000 and said he had access to two performance related bonuses.
Andy McDonald, the former shadow transport secretary, said: ‘Did P&O have a duty to consult the unions in good time over the redundancies, as in section 188 of the Trade Union act 1992?’
Hebblethwaite replied: ‘There was absolutely no doubt that we were required to consult with the unions. We chose not to do that.
McDonald interjected: ‘You chose to break the law?’
Hebblethwaite continued: ‘Because we chose not to consult and we will compensate everybody in full for that.’
McDonald continued: ‘You had collective agreements with RMT and Nautilus unions. With regards to such matters of redundancies, you have done it before. Why didn’t you do it? What was the moral justification for you not doing that?’
Hebblethwaite answered: ‘We have moved from one operating law to another.’
McDonald continued: ‘You haven’t escaped the law of this country, you still have to do it within the legal framework, you can’t just decide that you are going to absent yourself from the legal system in the United Kingdom.’
Hebblethwaite then said: ‘It was our assessment that the change was of such a magnitude that no union could possibly accept our proposal.’
Hebblethwaite then said that on the routes that are under international waters the new crew would be paid an average of £5.50 an hour, ‘on our domestic route, the Larne Cairnryan ferry route, where we are governed by National Minimum Wage of course we are paying National Minimum Wage.’
To receive compensation the 8,000 sacked seafarers will have to sign a ‘gagging order’ stopping them from taking any legal action in the future against P&O.
On the the issuing of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) (gagging orders) McDonald said: ‘The members of this committee think this is absolute thuggery and criminality.
‘You’re behaving like gangsters to blackmail people into this situation.’
‘Will you withdraw those NDAs and let people have the freedoms that we all enjoy?’
Hebblethwaite replied: ‘It’s a standard confidentiality clause, and actually it’s there to protect both sides.’ McDonald sighed and said: ‘Oh God.’
McDonald asked: ‘Why did you employ private security guards to remove seafarers from your vessel?’
Hebblethwaite said: ‘The security team were there to keep the ship and most importantly the people safe at a time which was genuinely a stressful time for them.
‘There is no doubt that when people hear that they are losing their job it is extremely stressful and we wanted to keep the ships and most importantly our people safe.’
When asked by the Conservative MP Nusrat Ghani if he would ‘change anything, knowing what you know now’.
Hebblethwaite said: ‘This is the only way to save this business and we have moved to a model that is internationally recognised across the globe and widely used by our competitors. I would make this decision again, I’m afraid.’
He was asked about how much his company has saved by employing agency staff.
Hebblethwaite replied: ‘This entirely different model is about half the price of the previous model.’