P&O must be stripped of licence to operate and its boss struck off, senior MPs tell Grant Shapps

Pressure on transport secretary to get tougher with rogue firm after questions raised over his ‘block’ on redundancies

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Monday 28 March 2022 17:24 BST
Grant Shapps vows to introduce new law to 'undo' P&O sackings

P&O Ferries must be stripped of its licence to operate in the UK and its boss struck off as a company director after its wilful sacking of 800 staff, senior MPs are demanding.

Two committee chairs who have investigated the scandal are telling the government it must get tougher with the rogue ferry firm – amid fears its response so far will fall short.

The call came as the transport secretary gave P&O “one further opportunity” to reverse the sackings, before changing the law to stop it undercutting the minimum wage as it recruits new staff.

However, although Grant Shapps said he intended to “block” the redundancies, he appeared to be only applying political pressure on the operator to rethink.

A “package of measures” later this week will, he said, stop firms flouting rules meant to require prior consultation with workers – as P&O did – but is unlikely to apply retrospectively.

Such an outcome will leave Boris Johnson exposed after he promised MPs that the firm will be prosecuted and vowed the firm would not “get away with it”.

Now the Conservative Huw Merriman, chair of the Transport Committee, and Labour’s Darren Jones, the Business Committee chair, have demanded harsher action to:

  • Prosecute P&O Ferries and “remove its licence to operate in the UK”.
  • Give ministers the power to take out an injunction against any firm copying P&O and refusing to consult staff on redundancies.
  • Remove chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite – who admitted the firm deliberately broke the law – as a director because he is “not a fit and proper person to run a company that operates critical national infrastructure”.

The committee chairs set Mr Shapps and business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng a deadline of next Monday to act on the firm’s “appalling” behaviour.

In the Commons, the transport minister Robert Courts declined to reveal the specific crackdown planned, refusing to say whether it would see Mr Hebblethwaite removed.

He also dodged a call to stop parent company DP World receiving tens of millions of pounds as a freeport operator, or remove it from a government trade advisory body.

In his letter to P&O, Mr Shapps vowed his measures would “ensure that seafarers are protected in the way that parliament and this government already intended”.

“I intend to block the outcome that P&O Ferries has pursued, including paying workers less than the minimum wage.

“You have one further opportunity to reverse this decision by immediately offering all 800 workers their jobs back on their previous terms, conditions and wages – should they indeed want them back at this stage.”

Mr Shapps added: “Given that we intend to ensure such outcomes are prevented by laws – which we will ensure that you cannot simply choose to ignore – I believe you will be left with little choice but to reverse your decision in any case.”

However, the Department for Transport privately acknowledged the action could not be applied retrospectively.

And chancellor Rishi Sunak said it would not be possible to remove DP World as operator of freeport sites.

“We are, across government, reviewing the relationship with DP World and all the various contracts that we have,” Mr Sunak told the Commons Treasury Committee. “But there is no contractual route to change the terms of the various things in the freeports programme.

“I can’t stop a company that owns a site from owning the site.”

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