The chief executive of P&O Ferries was under growing pressure on Friday after a ship was detained “for being unfit to sail” and Downing Street backed a call by the transport secretary for him to quit following his admission that the company broke the law to sack hundreds of crew.
The Maritime and Coastguard Agency said late on Friday that the European Causeway ferry had been detained in Larne, Northern Ireland, “due to failures on crew familiarisation, vessel documentation and crew training”.
“The vessel will remain under detention until all these issues are resolved by P&O Ferries. Only then will it be reinspected.”
Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, has said that all P&O ferries must be inspected before they return to service following the sacking of nearly 800 crew.
Shapps said the European Causeway was detained “for being unfit to sail”.
“I will not compromise the safety of these vessels and P&O will not be able to rush inexperienced crew through training,” he added.
Shapps had earlier said that under-fire chief Peter Hebblethwaite “should go” after he told a committee of MPs on Thursday that P&O chose to pay off staff rather than launch a consultation with unions before it fired the crew last week.
Downing Street agreed that Hebblethwaite should quit, a Number 10 spokesperson said.
Shapps told BBC Radio 4 on Friday that “anybody who heard his testimony to parliament yesterday will have been amazed, gobsmacked. It was brazen, it was breathtaking, it was arrogant”.
“He talked about how they deliberately and knowingly broke the law, and in my view he really cannot continue to lead a company that has deliberately gone out of its way to use, and to create, a loophole in order to sack their staff summarily in order to employ people below the minimum wage. He should go.”
P&O has replaced all its UK-based seafarers with agency crew who will be paid an average of £5.50 an hour, well below the UK minimum wage, but not illegal because its ships operate in international waters.
Hebblethwaite wrote to P&O staff on Friday, and said the company had not committed a criminal offence but had “fail[ed] to comply with the obligation to consult”.
“This type of dismissal could not and would not happen again. This was a unique situation,” he added. Hebblethwaite told MPs on Thursday he would repeat his actions if he had his time again.
Shapps said the government would bring a package of eight measures to parliament next week in response to P&O’s actions that would “force them to U-turn”.
He also said the government would legislate to force ferry companies to pay the minimum wage when regularly sailing into UK ports.
“There’s no reason why, onshore, you should pay the minimum wage and as soon as you’re in the water . . . you shouldn’t. That’s wrong. We will seek to change the law, both by primary and by secondary legislation,” he told LBC Radio.
Ministers would also write to ports to say they should bring in “conditions of use”, and push for international agreements on pay on ferry routes.
The House of Commons transport select committee on Friday published minutes of a meeting held in November between Shapps and bosses from P&O parent company DP World.
They reveal that Shapps was warned that low-cost competition from Irish Ferries “poses challenges” to P&O.
Shapps replied: “I recognise you will need to make commercial decisions but please do keep us informed.”
Department for Transport officials have said they did not have warning of the decision to sack hundreds of crew, nor the manner of the dismissals.
P&O’s new crewing structure will save the company 50 per cent on its crewing costs, which Hebblethwaite said was the only way to “save the company”.
But his testimony heaped pressure on P&O and DP World, while its cross-channel ferries remain in port as the new crews are trained more than a week after the disruption began.
Ministers have indicated that they have limited means of pursuing P&O through the courts over the sackings, and that there is uncertainty over whether some penalties apply to the maritime sector.
“I am afraid that Hebblethwaite is simply the symptom. The cause is the underlying legal model,” said Alan Bogg, professor of labour law at Bristol university.
“There has been longstanding public recognition of enforcement weaknesses in the UK, and a longstanding unwillingness to address them,” he said.
P&O declined to comment.