Criminal and civil investigations have been launched into the conduct of P&O Ferries after the operator summarily sacked nearly 800 crew members without notice or consultation.
The Insolvency Service said it had “launched formal criminal and civil investigations” into the circumstances of the layoffs, after conducting inquiries at the government’s request.
The move was confirmed in a letter to Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, who tweeted that he and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps would “continue to follow this matter closely as investigations progress”.
The announcement comes after Shapps appeared to admit no legal action would be taken by the government, reversing an earlier statement by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The move will be welcomed by MPs on all sides who had urged the government not to let P&O go unpunished for choosing to break the law.
P&O Ferries chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite admitted last week at an extraordinary hearing in the House of Commons that there was “absolutely no doubt that we were required to consult the unions… We have chose not to.”
The company laid off 786 crew on UK contracts issued from Jersey, telling them they were being replaced by cheap agency workers with immediate effect, and giving them a deadline to accept compensation while waiving the right to legal action. All but one of the dismissed crew members had accepted before yesterday’s deadline.
A spokesperson for the Business Department said on Friday: “Today the Insolvency Service confirmed that it has opened formal criminal and civil investigations into the circumstances surrounding the recent appalling behavior of P&O Ferries, after the Business Secretary asked them to undertake a thorough review.
“We will not provide further comment while investigations are ongoing.”
The Insolvency Service decides to open an investigation when it believes there is sufficient reason to do so and it is in the public interest. Pressure on the service to move quickly came shortly after hearings by the House Business and Transport Committee, after it initially pledged to make a decision by April 7.
P&O Ferries declined to comment.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said the inquiry should not “shy away from serious penalties and heavy financial penalties”.
She added: ‘P&O must not be allowed to get away with its outrageous and unlawful treatment of staff. Companies that behave like corporate gangsters deserve more than a slap on the wrist.
Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT union, said: “This is long overdue, but now gives clear grounds to detain P&O vessels while criminal and civil investigations are completed and justice is served for our members in the face of to this corporate hostility.”
Investigations could potentially lead to Hebblethwaite’s disqualification as manager. The chief executive has so far resisted calls from Shapps and others to resign over what the Transport Secretary called his “brazen and mind-blowing” testimony and actions.
Last night Nautilus and the International Seafarers Unions projected video footage of the saga onto the White Cliffs of Dover, including the company’s recorded message telling the crew they had been sacked and the confession of Hebblethwaite during the hearings.
Most P&O Ferries crossings have yet to resume. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency has held two of its ferries, the Pride of Kent, which sails between Dover and Calais, and the European Causeway, held at Larne, which normally runs from Northern Ireland to Scotland. Inspectors were concerned about the readiness of the replacement crew to navigate the vessel. P&O accused the agency of acting with “unprecedented levels of rigor”.