P&O Ferries is the subject of a criminal investigation into the sacking of 800 seafarers

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The crisis engulfing P&O Ferries deepened on Friday after British authorities launched a criminal investigation into the sacking of nearly 800 UK-based seafarers without notice last month.

UK Insolvency Service mentioned he had “opened formal criminal and civil investigations” into the dismissals, which turned into a reputational disaster for P&O following heavy criticism from unions and politicians.

Dean Beale, chief executive of the Insolvency Service, wrote to Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng confirming the decision following “an urgent and thorough investigation into the circumstances surrounding the dismissals”.

The business secretary called the Insolvency Service two weeks ago in response to the dismissals, which he said “appear not to have followed” the proper process to notify both the government and the unions.

Failure to notify authorities is a criminal offense and could result in an unlimited fine for the company or its directors, Kwarteng warned.

But lawyers said it was unclear whether these sanctions applied to the maritime sector, where the employer’s obligation is to inform the authorities of the countries where its ships are registered. P&O ships are registered outside the UK.

Shapps wrote separately to the Insolvency Service, asking the body to consider the disqualification of P&O Ferries chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite, who he says is “unfit to run a UK business”.

Hebblethwaite has previously admitted the company broke the law by failing to properly consult unions, a civil law matter, and paid staff enhanced severance pay to compensate.

Most director disqualifications relate to cases where a company has already become insolvent, but the Insolvency Service has the power to take civil and criminal action against people who have acted improperly during the life of a company. a business or during insolvency proceedings.

The service said that in the event of wrongdoing, it has the power to ask the courts to wind up the company or take action to disqualify the directors.

The threat of criminal prosecution is putting further pressure on P&O just when the government seemed to run out of options to force the company to back down.

Alan Bogg, a professor of labor law at the University of Bristol, said the Insolvency Service’s intervention was “quite a startling announcement” which keeps the legal pressure on P&O “alive”.

“If it appears that P&O has failed to provide the required notice to the Secretary of State, not only could the company be subject to an unlimited fine, but its directors could also,” said David Fendt, senior partner of the insolvency team at law. Russell-Cooke firm.

The company has pushed back against a government call to re-employ the laid-off workers, which it said would “deliberately cause the company to collapse” and put 2,200 more jobs at risk.

The ferry company has argued it has no choice but to completely overhaul its crew structure and replace its former staff with cheaper agency staff who will be paid an average of £5.50 Of time. It’s well below the UK’s national minimum wage, but it’s legal as the crew work overseas.

Shapps this week unveiled plans to force ferry companies to pay minimum wage by giving ports the power to refuse entry to ships. But the port industry immediately criticized the idea, saying it should not be expected to “control” labor law.

P&O has indicated it is prepared to pay minimum wage if rivals have to do so as well.

In a statement on Friday, Shapps said: “I have called on the chief executive of P&O to resign after he shamelessly told parliament he had knowingly broken the law, and it is right that the company be held accountable for his actions.”

Kwarteng said he would “follow this matter closely as investigations progress.”

P&O declined to comment.

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