Peter Hebblethwaite told MPs on Thursday there was “absolutely no doubt” the company was required to consult with unions before taking action.
“We chose not to do that because we believe -” he said before being interrupted during the parliamentary committee session. “So you chose to break the law?” Andy McDonald, a former transport secretary, interjected.
Mr Hebblethwaite continued: “We chose not to consult and we are - and will - compensate everybody in full for that.”
Labour’s Mr Donald said: “When you get in your car and drive on the motorway [and] see the 70mph sign, do you decide that’s not going to apply to me? I’m going to do 90 because I think it’s important that I do that? Is that how you go about your life?”
“No,” the P&O Ferries chief executive replied.
Mr Hebblethwaite was questioned by the transport select committee and the business select committee on Thursday - a week after officers and crew were made redundant with immediate effect.
The move has sparked outrage across the political spectrum, as well as protests across the UK.
Labour MP Darren Jones kicked off the session by asking: “Are you in this mess because you don’t know what you’re doing, or are you just a shameless criminal?”
Mr Hebblethwaite replied by saying he wanted to start with an apology before answering the question. “An apology to the seafarers who were affected on Thursday last week, an apology to their families, and an apology to the 2,200 of our employees who have had to face very difficult questions,” he said.
During the course of the session, the chief executive was asked whether he was concerned that he was in breach of his legal obligations as a company director. He replied: “So as I say, I completely throw our hands up, my hands up, that we did choose not to consult. We did not believe there was any other way to do this to compensate people in full.’’
He also admitted most seafarers replacing the 800 sacked workers were being paid below the UK’s national minimum wage with an average hourly pay of £5.50 per hour.
“Where we are governed by national minimum wage, we will absolutely pay national minimum wage,” Mr Hebblethwaite said when challenged. “This is an international seafaring model that is consistent with models throughout the globe and our competitors.”
Mick Lynch from the Rail, Maritime and Transport union told MPs that P&O Ferries “made flagrant breaches of the law” in its mass sacking of hundreds of staff.
“They’ve done it deliberately and they’ve factored in what they’re going to have to pay for it,” he said.
Asked if he would make the same decision again with the benefit of hindsight, P&O Ferries chief executive told MPs: “We weren’t viable before, and I know that if we hadn’t made radical changes the business would have closed, and I apologise for that.
“But genuinely, that would not have been 800 redundancies with substantial severance packages, that would have been 3,000 people losing their jobs.”
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