P&O Ferries' 'month from hell'

P&O Ferries' 'month from hell'

May 2, 2022

P&O Ferries’ month from hell: How scandal-hit operator lurched from one PR crisis to another after illegally sacking 800 seafarers and replacing them with cheap foreign labour who couldn’t work life-saving kit – before ‘trying to cut THEIR wages’

  • P&O Ferries has lurched from one PR crisis to another in the month since it illegally sacked 800 seafarers 
  • Operator fired hundreds of experienced staff without notice and replaced them with cheap foreign labour
  • Millionaire CEO Peter Hebblethwaite then told MPs that the layoffs had broken British labour laws
  • And several of the company’s vessels were impounded, sparking cross-Channel mayhem 
  • Politicians and unions alike have demanded retribution, even calling for criminal prosecutions 

What a difference a month can make.

Once an uncontroversial British cross-Channel ferry service, P&O Ferries appears to have dramatically fallen from grace in just several weeks.

And as its European Causeway vessel drifted out to sea for more than an hour last week, it appeared to be a fitting metaphor for the ferry operator’s current troubles: Adrift.

The P&O Ferries drama began with the mass layoff of hundreds of experienced seafarers and their replacement with untrained £5.50-an-hour agency workers on March 17. But it has seen mass protests by furious workers, weeks of gridlock on the roads to the Port of Dover, and unions and politicians of the Left and Right effectively hand-in-hand demanding retribution.

And for many, beleaguered CEO Peter Hebblethwaite became not just the lightning rod or symbol of the perceived injustice meted out, but its very embodiment.

At the most intense stage of the scandal, the millionaire told MPs while giving testimony at a committee session in the House of Commons that the company had broken the law by sacking the staff without consulting trade unions. His unwillingness to answer whether he could live on the £5.50 an hour he was paying the new workers was just too much for some MPs to stomach. 

So just how did P&O Ferries end up in this position of crisis?

P&O Ferry Spirit of Britain is moored in the Port of Dover, April 27, 2022

Peter Hebblethwaite, Chief Executive, P&O Ferries, answering questions in front of the Transport Committee and Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee in the House of Commmons, Thursday March 24, 2022 


For the 786 turning up to work on March 17, they could hardly have suspected that they would soon be without a job.

Indeed, just four months earlier, a company promo video proudly highlighted the benefits of working at P&O, declaring: ‘It’s not just a job, it’s a career… It’s family.’ 

But in an online Zoom call at 10.30am that Thursday morning, staff were stunned to discover they were all being made redundant with immediate effect.

A senior executive explained to staff that the company’s financial situation was less than ideal. P&O Ferries Holdings had lost nearly £39million in 2019 and in 2020, when Covid first broke out and prompted governments to impose unprecedented curbs, it lost nearly £86million.

That day, the company said that losses for 2021 had increased to an extraordinary £100million, and – though they losses were covered by its parent company DP World – they were ‘clearly not sustainable in the future’ and that nearly 800 seafarers would be put out of work.

They would be replaced by a ‘third party crew provider’, which turned out to be £5.50-an-hour foreign agency workers.

But in an online Zoom call at 10.30am that Thursday morning, staff were stunned to discover they were all being made redundant with immediate effect 

Staff were pictured on board P&O Ferries’ Pride of Canterbury, and seen at the moment they were informed they’d been sacked and told to reapply for jobs

P&O Ferries, which transports passengers and freight, is owned by Dubai-based logistics giant DP World

Former P&O staff members collect belongings at the Port of Dover as P&O Ferries suspended sailings and handed 800 seafarers immediate severance notices, Thursday, March 17, 2022 

Also announcing that sailings would be suspended ‘for the next few days’, the executive told staff: ‘As you may be aware the business has been struggling financially for the last few years and has lost around £100million each year for the last two years.

‘Whilst these losses have been covered by P&O Ferries’ parent company, DP World, it’s clearly not sustainable in the future. The business cannot continue to operate like this so it has had to consider a range of different options in order to drastically reduce costs.

‘These circumstances have resulted in a very difficult but necessary decision to restructure P&O Ferries’ workforce and operations in order to protect the future of the business. This was only taken after seriously considering all available options. The company has made the decision that its vessels going forward will be primarily crewed by a third party crew provider.

‘Therefore I’m sorry to inform you that this means your employment is terminated with immediate effect on the grounds of redundancy. Your final day of employment is today.’


Just hours after P&O Ferries announced the mass redundancies, hundreds of sacked staff held protests and refused to disembark ships at ports in Dover, Hull and Northern Ireland.

Dutchman Eugene Favier, the captain of The Pride of Hull, sealed himself and his 141-strong crew inside the huge vessel using maritime law, refusing to let anyone aboard.

Agency workers had already been waiting at docksides ready to board the ferries, but P&O Ferries was left red-faced after its existing employees refused to leave the docks over the firm’s decision.

To help force its staff to disembark, P&O Ferries allegedly ‘illegally’ hired 16 handcuff-trained officers from a private security firm, with the company telling them the job would last a week and be paid at £14.50 an hour.

Emails sent to security guards drafted in beforehand showed bosses describing a ‘fairly high profile task’ to be dealt with over the course of a week in Dover. Those enlisted were told to bring ‘cuffs and utility belts’ but were informed they would ‘not need body armour for this task’.

The captain of the Pride of Hull, Eugene Favier, sealed himself and his crew inside the ferry

Security guards wearing ‘balaclavas and equipped with handcuffs’ are pictured boarding P&O Ferries European Causeway ferry at the port of Larne

Sacked P&O Ferries staff take part in a demonstration and block roads after taking part in an RMT demonstration outside Dover on Thursday, March 17, 2022

Lorries waiting to check in at the Port of Dover in Kent as P&O ferry services have suspended sailings ahead of a ‘major announcement’ but insisted it is ‘not going into liquidation’, Thursday March 17, 2022 

The crew of the Pride of Hull eventually left the ship after the standoff came to an end at around 6pm that day.

Dozens of employees gathered outside the union’s Dover office ahead of a protest where fired ferry workers, armed with banners and flags saying ‘Stop the P&O Ferries jobs carve up’, clashed with motorists after blocking a road close to the port of Dover.

A lorry driver trying to enter the port began shouting and beeping at those in the road, before being told ‘we’re not moving’.

One of the protesters, who had worked for the company for decades, later said: ‘I refuse to move from this road, all this service for nothing. The police will have to take me away.’ 

Former P&O staff and RMT members block the road leading to the Port of Dover as P&O Ferries suspended sailings and handed 800 seafarers immediate severance notices, Thursday, March 17, 2022 


In the immediate aftermath of the scandal, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps took aim at P&O Ferries in a scathing letter sent after the sudden sacking of 800 crew members while Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng slammed the firm for axing staff after taking ‘millions of pounds in furlough payments’.

Mr Shapps said the company had only let a ‘very small group’ of officials know about the decision the night before, meaning it was ‘far too late’ for the Government to intervene.

He said he had instructed the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) to carry out inspections of all P&O Ferries vessels before they return to sea to check the new crews the company has ‘rushed through’ are safe. 

Mr Kwarteng said the way staff were treated was ‘appalling’ and that P&O Ferries had ‘lost the trust of the public’ and given the business a ‘bad name’.

However, both letters were addressed to P&O Ferries chairman Robert Woods who, according to company records, resigned from the role on December 21. It is understood Mr Woods was still listed as chairman on the company website. Mr Shapps and Mr Kwarteng then wrote letters to the actual chairman, ITV News reported.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng leaving 10 Downing Street, Tuesday, March 15, 2022 

In the letter addressed to Mr Woods, and initially posted to Twitter, Mr Shapps said: ‘Following the Maritime Minister’s call with your company yesterday, I am writing to express my anger and disappointment about the action that P&O took yesterday to make 800 seafarers redundant without notice and without consultation.

‘The lack of engagement, of prior notice, or of any empathy whatsoever for your workers that P&O demonstrated yesterday was completely unacceptable.

‘Seafarers make a huge contribution to this country, and many have dedicated years of service to P&O, and I was frankly staggered yesterday at the way you dismissed them with zero respect.

‘While I accept this was a commercial decision for P&O to take, I was also deeply concerned at the way in which this decision was communicated to the Government.

‘Although I understand you told a very small group of officials the evening before the announcement, this was clearly far too late for the Government to engage in something you had obviously been planning for some time and were determined to force through.’


For the next week, the news was split between Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine and the furious denunciations of P&O Ferries’ illegal decision to lay off hundreds of workers without notice. 

Meanwhile, chaos erupted at UK ports with aid prevented from reaching Ukrainians and lorry drivers left waiting for hours.

Meanwhile… cheap foreign agency staff show up for work

Workers are seen onboard The Pride of Kent on March 18, 2022 

New P&O staff members during safety training at the Port of Dover in Kent, Monday March 21, 2022 

Poorly-paid agency workers were pictured being transported to P&O Ferries ships in Dover

As protests broke out in ports around the country, the cheap foreign agency staff replacing the fired seafarers arrived for work.

Around 20 members of the replacement crew who were drafted in following the sacking scandal were pictured being shown around a ship docked in Hull, where eyewitnesses said they were taught about pieces of equipment onboard. 

More than 200 miles away, the groups donned orange overalls and were escorted around by a skeleton crew of P&O Ferries staff aboard the Pride of Kent. 

The new workers had no contact with those stationed on shore and the gang plank gate remained locked. 

Workers from India, the Phillipines and war-hit Ukraine were pictured being taken to work

The moored ship used fishing boats to transport its new workforce – after sacking 800 staff

As well as running passenger services, the company is a major freight carrier on the crucial Dover to Calais route. This handles a third of the goods trade between Britain and the EU, including large amounts of perishable food.

A lorry driver trying to enter the port began shouting and beeping at those in the road, before being told ‘We’re not moving’. Another driver, Richard Gamby, said: ‘I understand what they’re doing but I want to get home – I’ve been up since four.’

‘Tory hating’ union members turned on Dover’s Conservative MP Natalie Elphicke when she came out to support them over P&O Ferries’ ‘jobs massacre’.

Mrs Elphicke even held a ‘save Britain’s ferries’ banner at the event with Labour’s hard-left former shadow chancellor John McDonnell and amid calls for the Dubai-owned business to hand back their £10million furlough cash, she said: ‘We supported them with furlough and they should be backing Britain and backing Dover’.

But when she began speaking on TV about the sackings being ‘devastating’ for the Kent town, union activists started screaming: ‘We hate Tories, we are the Tory haters’, ‘shame on you’, ‘you’re on their side’ and ‘you voted for fire and rehire’, forcing her to abandon her interview.

One protester confronted her saying: ‘Tory anti-union laws allow bosses to get away with this’. The Conservative MP replied: ‘Nonsense, it’s bad business behaviour’ before she walked off as others yelled in her face.

The picket then marched on the docks, where police are parked at the entrance to the freight terminal and three P&O ferries – Pride Of Canterbury, Pride of Kent and Spirit of Britain – all remain docked. There appeared to be agency staff already working on the ships with security guarding the gangplanks. There were also protests in Hull, attended by Ed Miliband, as well as in Liverpool and Belfast, where police guarded the ports as union members called for ministers to ‘sink P&O’ by nationalising it.

RMT organiser for Yorkshire and Lincolnshire Gaz Jackson said the crew were ‘absolutely devastated’ and described P&O Ferries’s actions as ‘unacceptable’ and ‘unforgivable’.

He told reporters at King George Dock in Hull: ‘I got a phone call at 8am saying something was going to happen at P&O Ferries, I got on board and spoke to the captain and we said we’ve got to lift the gangway until we’ve got an agreement.

‘At 11am ratings and officers were informed there was going to be a pre-recorded Zoom meeting. After that two to three-minute call all the crew were made redundant.’

Labour urged the Government to publish the legal advice it has received on whether P&O Ferries broke the law when it laid off staff.

In response, Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden voiced ‘revulsion’ at the firm’s ‘sharp practices’ saying it had displayed no ’empathy whatsoever’ towards workers.  He stressed that the Government is looking at whether the abrupt sackings were legal and reviewing contracts with the company.

In a round of broadcast interviews from Blackpool – where the Tories are holding their Spring conference – Mr Dowden said of P&O Ferries: ‘I think they should be in no doubt that the Government is considering very closely its relationship with them.’

He told Times Radio the Government was trying to establish whether the mass sacking was legal.

‘That is why the Transport Secretary (Grant Shapps) has asked the Insolvency Service to look at the notification requirements, for example, and see whether further action is appropriate,’ Mr Dowden said.

‘All of us feel, frankly, a revulsion at the kind of sharp practices from P&O.  There has been a complete lack of engagement, a lack of prior notice or indeed any empathy whatsoever for the workers.’ 

Mr Shapps urged Britons to ‘vote with their feet’ and avoid P&O Ferries. He told the House of Commons: ‘I expect many customers, passengers and freight will quite frankly wish to vote with their feet and where possible choose another operator’.

The minister was joined in his condemnation of the scandal-hit ferry operator by his opposite number, shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh, who said that the minister should ‘immediately begin criminal action’ against the firm.

Ms Haigh said that the firm felt it could act ‘with impunity when it comes to respecting our employment rights’.

Business Minister Paul Scully told the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme: ‘If they have flouted the notification law where they are supposed to tell the Secretary of State when they are going to make more than a hundred people redundant, then there are criminal sanctions involved in that, including an unlimited fine.

‘We have reserved the right to approach the prosecuting authorities should that be the right thing to do.’

Mr Scully said Mr Shapps was reviewing all Government contracts and dealings with the company and its owners, DP World, adding: ‘They need to realise that the relationship between the companies and the Government has changed as a result of their absolutely callous [conduct]’.

Local MP Natalie Elphicke clashes with protesters gathered in support of sacked P&O Ferry workers at Dover in Kent, March 18, 2022 

The sacked workers joined more than 150 people at a demonstration in the public car park on the King George Dock, March 18, 2022

Asked if that could include a £25million subsidy to DP World to help develop London Gateway as a freeport, he replied: ‘We will look into all of these things as part of this.’

Conservative peer Baroness Roz Altman added: ‘I think what P&O Ferries have done is absolutely disgraceful. 

‘I feel so sorry for those 800 seamen who were loyal to P&O who were sacked by video, escorted of their ships, no warning, and I think that the Government should think very carefully about forcing the employer to behave better, and if that means that they have to impose any kind of sanctions or warnings to them, I think that would be entirely appropriate.’

Northern Ireland’s Economy Minister Gordon Lyons described the sacking of the 800 P&O workers as ‘disgraceful’.

In a statement to the Assembly, Mr Lyons said: ‘At the outset let me be clear; neither I, as a constituency representative in East Antrim or as Minister of the Economy, nor my officials in the department, were afforded the courtesy of advanced notice of the P&O announcement. 

Protesters left the RMT Union HQ and headed for the port, March 18, 2022

‘I regard their actions as disgraceful. P&O has literally ripped up the employment rule book, and, in the process, simply discarded 800 of their loyal and most diligent workforce. Even now, I can scarcely believe how callously they behaved.

‘I understand that there could be up to 50 staff from Northern Ireland directly impacted by this announcement. Many of us in East Antrim know some of the workforce.

‘The stories I heard of staff being escorted off ships, by men in balaclavas, carrying handcuffs, was as sinister as it was outrageous.

‘Deploying such a tactic here, in Northern Ireland, to an unsuspecting workforce is so ill-judged and shocking, our condemnation alone is simply not enough.’


In a letter to Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng dated March 22, P&O Ferries’ millionaire boss Peter Hebblethwaite denied breaking British labour laws because the ships are registered outside of the UK – in this case, Cyprus and the Bahamas. 

He said that the ‘very clear statutory obligation in the particular circumstances that applied was for each company to notify the competent authority of the state where the vessel is registered’.

The chief executive wrote that notification had been made to the relevant authorities on March 17, and that no offence had been committed regarding notifying the Secretary of State. Mr Kwarteng had threatened P&O Ferries with unlimited fines, warning Mr Hebblethwaite that ‘clear rules’ include ‘notifying in advance… the Secretary of State’.


However, maritime lawyers argued that former Tory minister Chris Grayling had cleared the way for P&O Ferries to sack staff without needing to tell the Transport Secretary.

Kevin Barnett, head of employment at marine law specialists Lester Aldridge LLP, claimed that laws to protect employees in Britain were amended by Mr Grayling in 2018 so that the Secretary of State does not have to be notified of mass redundancies on ships registered overseas.

Mr Hebblethwaite added that the firm was ‘painfully aware’ of the ‘distress’ caused to workers and their families on being sacked without warning or consultation, but added that this course of action was taken as a ‘last resort’.

P&O Ferries also announced that it would pay more than £36million in compensation to sacked staff, with 40 employees in line for payments of more than £100,000. It said payouts would be linked to the period of service, and in some cases exceed £170,000.

The total value of the settlement is £36,541,648, with no worker set to receive less than £15,000, the company added. 

In a statement, Mr Hebblethwaite issued a public apology for the sackings, but insisted that it was ‘the only way to save the business’.

He repeated this at a dramatic joint evidence session to MPs on March 24 – before admitting that he broke the law by laying off 800 staff without notice, and insisted he would ‘do it again’. 

Matters were only made worse when the millionaire, who is paid £325,000 to run P&O Ferries and lives in a plush Cotswold farmhouse worth more than £1.5million, refused to say if he could live on the new workers’ £5.50 hourly wage.

Chris Grayling ‘cleared the way for P&O Ferries to sack 800 staff without needing to tell the Transport Secretary’ 

Chris Grayling MP, then Secretary of State for Transport, in December 2018

Former Tory minister Chris Grayling cleared the way for P&O Ferries to sack 800 staff without needing to tell the Transport Secretary, according to a leading maritime lawyer.

Kevin Barnett, head of employment at marine law specialists Lester Aldridge LLP, has claimed that laws to protect employees in Britain were amended by Mr Grayling in 2018 so that the Secretary of State does not have to be notified of mass redundancies on ships registered overseas.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng had threatened P&O Ferries with unlimited fines, warning Mr Hebblethwaite that ‘clear rules’ include ‘notifying in advance… the Secretary of State’.

But Mr Barnett says that Mr Kwarteng is ‘incorrect’ on this point, telling Sky News: ‘The amendment states the notification must be made to the competent authority of the state where the ship is registered, instead of the Secretary of State.’

The Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 was amended by statutory instrument in February 2018.

The change signed off by Mr Grayling states: ‘[If] the employees concerned are members of the crew of a seagoing vessel which is registered at a port outside Great Britain… the employer shall give the notification required… to the competent authority of the state where the vessel is registered (instead of to the Secretary of State).’  

The Department for Transport (DfT) said in an explanatory note that the amendment was supposed to improve seafarers’ employment rights.

The department claimed the amendment had been supported by the unions who have led protests against P&O’s actions. It added that no formal consultation was carried out before the change was made, and no impact assessment was carried out.

Darren Jones, the Labour chair of the business committee, kicked off the hearing by asking Mr Hebblethwaite: ‘Are you in this mess because you don’t know what you’re doing, or are you just a shameless criminal?’.

Mr Hebblethwaite subsequently issued a public apology to the hundreds of staff, and their families, dropped in the lurch after giving them no notice of their redundancy via Zoom.

He was then accused of unlawfully implementing redundancies without consulting the trade union beforehand, after telling the group of astonished MPs: ‘There is absolutely no doubt that we were required to consult with the unions. We chose not to do that.’

Andy McDonald, the former shadow transport secretary, asked: ‘You chose to break the law?’. Mr Hebblethwaite replied: ‘We chose not to consult, and we will compensate everybody in full for that.’

Mr McDonald asked: ‘Do you get in your car and drive down the motorway and see the 70mph sign and say, ‘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 it isn’t,’ Mr Hebblethwaite replied.

The millionaire boss admitted that he would ‘do it again’, telling MPs: ‘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. We weren’t viable before, and I know that if we hadn’t made radical changes the business would have closed’.

He also refused to answer if he could survive on £5.50 per hour, the rate he is paying cheap foreign workers. The minimum wage in the UK for people aged 23 and above is £8.91 per hour. By comparison, the sacked crew earned an average of £36,000 per year.

Mr McDonald asked Mr Hebblethwaite: ‘That’s below the national minimum wage of this country. How do you reconcile that?’.

Mr Hebblethwaite insisted that the wage was ‘competitive’, adding: ‘Where we are governed by national minimum wage, we will absolutely pay national minimum wage. This is an international seafaring model that is consistent with models throughout the globe and our competitors.’

The ferry company boss offered no answer when Mr McDonald asked ‘could you sustain your lifestyle?’, if he was paid the same as the new workers. The Labour MP added: ‘How do you expect them to be able to feed their families and pay their bills?’.

Mr Hebblethwaite also told MPs that Transport Secretary Shapps was informed on November 22 last year by P&O Ferries’ owner DP World that the company would be changing its business model.

It is understood that Mr Shapps did talk to DP World chief executive Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem on that date, but the DfT insisted the Cabinet minister was only told the ferry operator faced challenges from competitors.

Following the hearing, Mr Jones said that he was ‘amazed’ by Mr Hebblethwaite’s evidence, adding that the chief executive ‘should be fined, struck off and prosecuted’.

His counterpart on the transport committee, Tory MP Huw Merriman, added that Mr Hebblethwaite should ‘consider his position’, telling the BBC’s World At One Programme: ‘It is untenable to come to Parliament to say you have decided to break the law, you have no regrets.’

Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed that P&O Ferries did break British labour laws and warned the disgraced operator that it would be criminally prosecuted.


The European Causeway was impounded on March 25 in Larne, Northern Ireland by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) after suspected crew training failures.

In a statement the agency said the vessel would remain under detention ‘until all these issues have been resolved’ by P&O Ferries. 

The MCA said: ‘We can confirm that the European Causeway has been detained in Larne. The vessel will remain under detention until all these issues are resolved by P&O Ferries. Only then will it be reinspected.

‘Detention of ships is based on concerns over their safety and to prevent them going to sea.’ 

Following the news, Mr Shapps took to Twitter and said P&O would ‘not be able to rush inexperienced crew through training’.

He wrote: ‘Following my instruction to inspect all P&O vessels prior to entering back into service, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency has detained a ship 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.’ 

Pictured: P&O’s European Causeway ferry


In a letter to Mr Hebblethwaite on March 28, Mr Shapps warned P&O Ferries that its reputation is ‘in tatters’ as he ordered it to make a U-turn over its ‘sweatshop pay’ policy.

The Transport Secretary vowed new laws to close a ‘loophole’ in national minimum wage rules exploited by the firm – a move that would ban maritime firms from British ports unless they pay crew at least the UK minimum wage.

Mr Shapps said he believed Mr Hebblethwaite’s position as a chief executive ‘and indeed as a company director’ had become ‘untenable’. And he said he was giving the company ‘one further opportunity’ to offer ‘all 800 workers their jobs back on their previous terms, conditions and wages’. 

Mr Shapps wrote: ‘The past week has left the reputation of P&O Ferries and, I’m afraid, you personally in tatters.

In a letter to the firm’s boss, Peter Hebblethwaite, the Transport Secretary vowed new laws to close a ‘loophole’ in national minimum wage rules exploited by the firm

‘Not only were your letters of 22 March to the Business Secretary and myself wholly unsatisfactory, your appearance at the Transport Select Committee, during which you brazenly admitted to breaking employment law, demonstrated beyond doubt your contempt for workers who have given years of service to your company.

‘There is no excuse for this behaviour, and as I said publicly on Friday, I believe your position as chief executive, and indeed as a company director, has become untenable.’ 

Mr Shapps added: ‘I will be bringing a comprehensive package of measures to Parliament to ensure that seafarers are protected against these types of actions in the way that Parliament and this Government already intended. Through that package, I intend to block the outcome that P&O Ferries has pursued, including paying workers less than the minimum wage.’ 

The MCA also announced that it was inspecting P&O Ferries’ ship Pride of Kent at the Port of Dover, to ensure the ship is safe to go to sea without passengers or cargo. 


In a statement to the Commons on March 30, Mr Shapps vowed a new law to ban P&O Ferries from British ports if crew are not paid minimum wage.

The Transport Secretary told MPs he wanted to impose the tough rules ‘as quickly as possible’ amid the bitter row over the firm’s mass sackings. But Mr Shapps conceded that the measure cannot be brought in immediately, saying he was urging ports to act before it is formally on the statute books.

He also said the UK is looking at doing deals with other countries to guarantee enforcement of minimum wages across jurisdictions. These include plans to create ‘minimum wage corridors’ on ferry routes between the UK and other countries.

And he repeated his call for Mr Hebblethwaite to quit, revealing he has written to the Insolvency Service complaining he is ‘unfit to lead a British company’.

Making a statement to angry MPs, Mr Shapps said he was moving ‘as quickly as possible’ to change the law.

‘Where new laws are needed, we will create them. Where legal loopholes are cynically exploited, we will close them. And where employment rights are too weak, we will strengthen them,’ he said.

Mr Shapps said the Government will ‘give British courts new statutory powers to refuse access to regular ferry services, which do not pay their crew the national minimum wage’.

He went on: ‘We will achieve this through primary legislation to amend the Harbours Act 1964. And it means that if companies like P&O Ferries want to dock in ports, such as Dover and Hull and Liverpool, they will have no choice but to comply with this legislation.

‘Crucially, it means that P&O Ferries can derive no benefit from the action that they have disgracefully taken.’


On April 1, criminal and civil investigations were launched into the decision by P&O Ferries to sack nearly 800 workers.

Mr Kwarteng said that the Insolvency Service has started ‘formal criminal and civil investigations’ and that he will be ‘follow this matter closely’ along with Mr Shapps.

The Insolvency Service said: ‘Following its inquiries, the Insolvency Service has commenced formal criminal and civil investigations into the circumstances surrounding the recent redundancies made by P&O Ferries.’ 

The Inspector General of the Insolvency Service confirmed the investigations in a letter to the Business Secretary

The Inspector General of the Insolvency Service confirmed the investigations in a letter to the Business Secretary. 

In the letter, dated April 1 and posted on Twitter by Mr Kwarteng, Dean Beale wrote: ‘As you know, on 17 March 2022, a total of 786 employees were dismissed across three companies under the P&O Ferries banner. 

‘In your letter you asked the Insolvency Service to undertake an urgent and thorough enquiry into the circumstances surrounding the redundancies made by P&O Ferries, to determine whether the law has been complied with and consider prompt and appropriate action where it has not.

‘Following its enquiries, I can confirm that the Insolvency Service has initiated both formal criminal and civil investigations into the circumstances surrounding the recent redundancies made by P&O Ferries.

‘We will publish a short statement today confirming the above position and as you will appreciate, whilst these investigations are being progressed. It would not be appropriate for me to make further comment at this time. I will provide a further update in due course.’

Mr Kwarteng tweeted: ‘Following my letter to the Insolvency Service last week, formal criminal and civil investigations into P&O Ferries have now commenced. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and I will continue to follow this matter closely as the investigations progress.’

And Mr Shapps tweeted: ‘The Insolvency Service has reviewed P&O Ferries’ actions and placed it under criminal investigation for its actions. Peter Hebblethwaite stood before MPs and admitted to breaking the law, and his actions must now be scrutinised.’


Meanwhile, traffic on major routes in Kent was almost endlessly being brought to a standstill due to delays in Channel crossings.

On April 7, a 23-mile coastbound stretch of the M20 was closed from junction eight for Maidstone to junction 11 for Westenhanger to store thousands of lorries heading for the Port of Dover or Eurotunnel as part of Operation Brock.

Disruption worsened over that weekend and continuing into that week – and the Highways England operation means freight lorries must hold on the M20 until sailings become available.

The closure again caused chaos on nearby local roads amid gridlock for Dover residents. The A20 Roundhill Tunnel was shut under the Dover Traffic Assessment Project (TAP) scheme to prevent HGVs jumping the queue.

Aerial photographs showed huge lines of trucks on the motorway – with one driver claiming to Kent Live that he was stuck in traffic jams for more than 30 hours.

A view of lorries queued in Operation Brock on the M20 near Ashford in Kent as freight delays continue at the Port of Dover, where P&O ferry services remain suspended, Thursday, April 7, 2022 


On April 11, a second P&O ferry that sails between the English town of Dover and the French city of Calais – Spirit of Britain – was detained by British officials due to a ‘number of deficiencies’.

The MCA said in a statement: ‘The Spirit of Britain has been detained due to surveyors identifying a number of deficiencies which were grounds for detention.’

At the time, Dover, the main route for road freight to mainland Europe and popular with holidaymakers going to France, was hit by truck queues of more than 20 miles, prompting some food producers to warn of the impact on exports.

Airlines and airports had also struggled to process a rebound in customers, leading to lengthy queues, after many workers left the industry during the pandemic, and existing staff suffered from high levels of Covid.


The chaos went from bad to worse after P&O Ferries suspended all passenger services across the Channel for Easter.

The company confirmed in a tweet that it was cancelling all Channel crossings over the Easter weekend, and said it would offer alternative routes or refunds to affected travellers

Announcing the cancelling of Dover-Calais services, a spokesperson for P&O Ferries said: ‘We apologise unreservedly to all customers whose scheduled journeys with us between Dover and Calais have been cancelled whilst we are unable to sail. 

‘It is only fair and right that we make alternative arrangements for those customers, which include transferring them onto our Hull-Europoort service to Rotterdam, or booking them onto services with Brittany Ferries between Portsmouth and Caen.

‘Both of these options are at no extra cost to customers – if anyone chooses either of these alternatives we will reimburse them for any additional mileage expenses incurred and as well as all meals onboard our overnight crossing. Customers will also receive a 25 per cent discount on their original fare.

‘We also recognise that these options will not be suitable for everyone, therefore any customer who booked directly with P&O Ferries will be able to claim a full refund and a free trip for future travel.’

The chaos went from bad to worse after P&O Ferries suspended all passenger services across the Channel for Easter

In a round of morning interviews, Mr Shapps warned Britons that roads, ports and airports were likely to be ‘extremely busy this weekend’.

He also took aim at transport chiefs, saying he was ‘concerned’ that ports and airports had not managed to get ‘up to strength’ since the lifting of Covid measures. 

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: ‘I think certainly this weekend will be extremely busy on our roads, potentially at our ports, and of course, particularly at Dover, where P&O disgracefully sacked all of their staff and then attempted to run ships that wouldn’t have been safe with replacements below minimum wage.

‘We know none of their ships are running at the moment. So I do expect there to be disruption, with no thanks to P&O there.

‘It is also the case for the very first time that Brits are able to travel much more freely that other nations because we don’t have Covid restrictions now that other places have to travel.

‘People want to travel. I’m very concerned the operators, the airlines, the airports, the ports, do ensure that they get back to strength and quickly.’

The European Highlander sits in port in Cairnryan, Dumfries and Galloway, March 23, 2022


On April 19, reports emerge that several P&O Ferries agency staff were fired after testing positive for alcohol when they turned up for work.

Seven of the new workers, who were employed to replace permanent staff dismissed by the firm last month, were relieved of their duties after breaching guidelines on alcohol consumption.

P&O boss ‘should be jailed’ over sackings: Union chief 

Pat Rafferty, Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) president

Pat Rafferty, Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) president, said the chief executive of P&O Ferries should be ‘behind bars’ after sacking the seafarers via Zoom.

Speaking at the annual conference in Aberdeen, Mr Rafferty said: ‘There is something seriously wrong with our society when a company CEO like P&O can swan into a Westminster parliamentary committee and openly state that he broke the law – and worse still, he’d do it again.

‘What that clearly demonstrates is how useless the law is. There is no deterrent to companies like P&O who are getting away with destroying people’s lives.’

The agency staff returned to work on board a ferry over the limit, after leaving the ship for shore leave. They were dismissed with immediate effect by P&O, which says it has a zero-tolerance policy on alcohol.

A spokesperson for P&O Ferries said: ‘We can confirm that seven agency-employed seafarers who returned from shore were found to be in breach of our strict guidelines on alcohol consumption and have been dismissed with immediate effect.

‘The safety of our passengers and crew is our foremost priority and we continue to operate a zero tolerance policy towards drinking whilst on duty.’


On April 24, Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union general secretary Mick Lynch claimed P&O Ferries has been ‘prevented from further cutting the pay of vulnerable agency crew’ by ‘pressure from RMT seafarers’.

The firm, owned by Dubai-based logistics giant DP World, insisted no agency workers were asked to take a pay cut.

The RMT received reports of agency workers at Dover being asked to sign new contracts with reduced payments, according to the BBC.

Mr Lynch said: ‘There are no depths to which P&O and their Dubai owners at DP World will not sink to extract the maximum profit from ferry crews operating our vital maritime supply chains.

‘This is underlined by the fact that, despite this U-turn, P&O are still only paying barely half of the UK minimum wage of £9.50 per hour.

‘Ultimately, staffing ships with super-exploited agency staff is not just morally wrong, it undercuts those remaining ferry operators who do abide by union rates of pay and conditions, and undermines passenger safety.

‘The only way out of this latest crisis at the ferry operator is for the Government to take over the running of P&O vessels and reinstate directly employed staff on union rates of pay.’

A spokesman for P&O Ferries said: ‘No agency seafarers were asked to accept reduced wages.’

He went on: ‘There was an administrative misunderstanding around the contract presented to one individual who appears to have been unaware of an appendix which made clear that he would be entitled to an additional £195 a month, meaning that there was no change in his overall pay.

‘There are no plans to change or reduce the wages of any of our agency seafarers and we have made clear that we will continue to comply fully with any national minimum wage obligations introduced by the UK Government.’

An official inspection of one P&O ship, European Causeway, listed an inability to deploy lifeboats or life rafts as one of 31 failures that had been identified. The boat normally operates between Cairnryan, Scotland, and Larne, Northern Ireland


On April 25, claims are made that P&O Ferries’ ships were prevented from sailing because their new poorly paid foreign crews had been trained so badly some did not even know where the liferafts were kept.

One of its ships, the Spirit of Britain, was impounded by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency on April 12 over a string of safety issues, but has now been cleared for sailing. 

Travel expert Paul Charles said it was his understanding the ships had been impounded not due to actual physical deficiencies but because the new crews had not been trained well enough, with ‘some not even knowing where the liferafts were’.

An official inspection of another ship, European Causeway, listed an inability to deploy lifeboats or life rafts as one of 31 failures that had been identified. The boat normally operates between Cairnryan, Scotland, and Larne, Northern Ireland.


On April 26, the European Causeway, which can carry 410 passengers, lost power and drifted in the Irish Sea for two hours before lifeboats and a tug were sent to rescue it.

Lowly-paid staff were said to have ‘gone on strike’ and left the ship adrift five miles off the coast of Northern Ireland that afternoon, according to tracking website Marine Traffic, before being escorted to its planned destination at Port of Larne. 

Darren Procter, of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, said the incident was down to ‘inexperienced crew’ as seafarers ‘familiar with the ship would have been able to keep it under power’. He also claimed P&O Ferries was holding staff to the end of their contracts and refusing to pay their travel expenses if they leave early. 

A route tracking map appeared to show the European Causeway off course and bobbing around in the Irish Sea

The European Causeway was rescued by three lifeboats and a tugboat before it regained power shortly before 2.15pm, much to the relief of passengers on board who had endured blackouts.

After the ship got back to the port, a number of the new crew members asked maritime unions for advice about terminating their contracts, the Times reported. 

A spokesperson for P&O Ferries said the incident had been a temporary issue and the European Causeway had travelled to Larne ‘under its own propulsion’.


The under-fire company restarted cross-Channel sailings under the cover of darkness overnight on April 26.

The European Causeway had been detained at Larne after an initial inspection by the MCA on March 25 uncovered 31 safety failings. But along with Spirit of Britain and Pride of Hull it was later cleared to sail.

Spirit of Britain began Dover-Calais sailings that night, but only for freight. Passenger services were not expected to resume until the following.

Five further P&O Ferries ships were yet to pass MCA inspections.

The Spirit of Britain departs from the Port of Dover, in Kent, April 26, 2022 – the first cross-channel service since March 17


On April 27, Mr Shapps repeated his longstanding demand that Mr Hebblethwaite resign from his post as P&O Ferries’ chief executive.

The Transport Secretary told the Commons’ Transport Select Committee ‘he will have to go’ and also urged the Dubai-owned company Hebblethwaite works for to repay £11 million of furlough money.

The Tory minister also insisted ‘they will have to pay the minimum wage’ to crews as ‘inexperienced’ agency staff were blamed for leaving one ship drifting in the Irish Sea, and he urged P&O Ferries to repay the £11million it took in taxpayer-funded furlough money.

Mr Shapps said: ‘There are three things that P&O will need to do to get out of this mess and I call upon them today publicly to get on and do it.

‘First of all, it’s completely unsustainable to have the head of P&O, the boss Peter Hebblethwaite, who came to a committee room like this and openly and deliberately explained how he sought to break the law, he actually said that was his intention and that he would do it again… He will have to go.

‘Secondly, in my view, though it’s a matter for P&O themselves, I think that they need to repay furlough money as well.

‘It’s around £11million. I don’t think it’s right that having claimed that money they then sacked the workers in such a premeditated way, which they themselves admitted broke the law. Thirdly, they will have to pay the minimum wage [under new laws being introduced in May].’ 

In response to Mr Shapps’ demands, a spokesman for P&O Ferries said: ‘The actions our company took on March 17, whilst unpopular, saved 2,200 jobs and a British company.

‘P&O Ferries is now a modern, dynamic, competitive and viable business which can meet customer needs flexibly in a way that has not been possible in the past.

‘We call on Government to have a constructive dialogue with P&O Ferries about the future and how we get this country moving in a positive direction after two very difficult years for business. Calls for our CEO to go need to stop.

‘Despite the attempts from some parties to undermine our business by creating false rumours and uninformed commentary, our morale is high and our spirit as a company is strong.

‘P&O Ferries is welcoming passengers and freight customers on board its services and we will be back to full service shortly. We will also return to commercial viability soon, which is vital for our future as a business, and also for the sake of the thousands of people we employ.’


A report published on April 28 found that cheaper agency workers hired to replace sacked seafarers did not know how to use life-saving appliances.

A total of 23 failures on Spirit of Britain were found by MCA inspectors. Fast rescue boats were not properly maintained and oil filtering equipment was not working. There were also five deficiencies with working conditions, and five relating to fire safety systems.

The 23 safety failures were listed without further details by the Paris Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which is an alliance of 27 national maritime authorities including the UK.

It stated there was a ‘lack of familiarity’ with the ‘operation of life-saving appliances’, which could relate to equipment such as rescue boats, lifeboats, life-jackets or flares.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch described the report as ‘further evidence that P&O is a capitalist bandit sailing in our waters’.

He said: ‘The lack of care and respect P&O clearly has for safety regulations – that are designed to save lives in the event of maritime emergencies – is on a par with their appalling treatment of the loyal 800-strong workforce who were sacked last month.

‘There can be no doubt that the public and haulage firms should boycott P&O Ferries on safety, security and moral grounds until the Government steps in and takes over the running of this rogue maritime operator.’

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