Transport Secretary Grant Shapps today declared it is ‘completely unsustainable’ that P&O Ferries chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite remains in his job after sacking 800 seafarers without notice.
Mr Shapps 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’ P&O agency staff paid £5.50-an-hour have been blamed for leaving one ship drifting in the Irish Sea as the underfire company restarted cross-Channel sailings under the cover of darkness last night and continued today.
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 yesterday.
Lowly-paid staff were said to have ‘gone on strike’ and left the ship adrift five miles off the coast of Northern Ireland for more than an hour on Tuesday 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 Tuesday’s 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.
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 Tuesday’s incident had been a temporary issue and the European Causeway had travelled to Larne ‘under its own propulsion’.
Today P&O Ferries has resumed cross-Channel sailings for the first time since it sacked nearly 800 seafarers last month. The vessel Spirit of Britain departed Dover for Calais shortly after 11pm on Tuesday carrying freight customers with passenger services expected to resume early next week.
Spirit of Britain arrives at the Port of Dover, in Kent, today as P&O Ferries resume Dover-Calais sailings for freight customers
Mr Shapps (pictured today) has said he believes Mr Hebblethwaite’s position as a chief executive ‘and indeed as a company director’ had become ‘untenable’
P&O Ferries operated European Highlander vessel in dock at the Port of Larne, Co Antrim, after it lost power off the Co Antrim coast
A route tracking map appeared to show it off course and bobbing around in the Irish Sea
The drama in the Irish Sea was yet another public relations disaster for the scandal-hit firm – just weeks after it sparked fury by firing 800 UK staff over zoom and replacing them with cheaper foreign crews.
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng announced earlier this month that the Insolvency Service had started ‘formal criminal and civil investigations’ into the company, which he said he would be ‘following closely’ along with Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.
The probe came after P&O Ferries admitted to breaking the law in the manner in which it terminated staff on March 17 to hire cheaper agency workers, a move that has caused a major backlash from politicians and workers – compounded this week by claims it wanted to cut the wages of its new workers even further.
The European Causeway had already been detained last month ‘based on concerns over its safety’ and to ‘prevent them going to sea’, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) said. The Pride of Kent was also detained in Dover on March 28 after it failed inspections to see if it was ‘safe to go to sea without passengers or cargo’.
Mr Procter said crew on board the European Causeway had claimed that engine parts were changed with the firm’s European Highlander ‘in order to pass its inspection’, the Telegraph reported.
A spokesperson for P&O Ferries said: ‘Following a temporary mechanical issue, the European Causeway is now continuing on its scheduled journey to the Port of Larne under its own propulsion, with local tugs on standby, where it will discharge its passengers and cargo as planned.
‘There are no reported injuries on board and all the relevant authorities have been informed. Once in dock a full independent investigation will be undertaken.’
The Marine Traffic website said the European Causeway’s automatic identification system status had been set to ‘not under command’.
This setting is reserved for use when a vessel is ‘unable to manoeuvre as required by these rules and is therefore unable to keep out of the way of another vessel’.
The company’s suspension of its Dover-Calais route has caused travel chaos on roads in Kent this month as other ferry companies have been placed under immense pressure to cope with the Easter demand.
Dealing a further blow to its reputation, it was claimed this week that 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.
A RNLI spokesperson said that three lifeboats had been sent to the scene on Tuesday.
The spokesperson said: ‘Three RNLI lifeboats were requested to launch this afternoon to assist a passenger ferry in difficulty one mile south east of The Maidens.
‘Larne RNLI’s all-weather lifeboat launched at 2.17pm while Red Bay’s RNLI’s all-weather lifeboat launched at 2.35pm followed by the inshore lifeboat at 3pm.
‘The ferry gained power again and was escorted back into the Port of Larne by all three lifeboats which were then stood down.’
A shipping expert said the good weather in the Irish Sea on Tuesday helped avert a potential disaster, while other experts said such breakdowns of large ships are extremely rare.
P&O said that the vessel had been affected by a ‘mechanical issue’.
The company tweeted: ‘Due to a mechanical issue with the Causeway in the Irish Sea, tugs from Larne and Belfast were deployed to guide it back to port.
‘Once the ship is back in Port a full inspection will take place.’
The Spirit of Britain departs from the Port of Dover, in Kent, last night – the first cross-channel service since March 17
Freight queueing at The Port of Dover the 11pm P&O ferry from the Port of Dover to Calais last night
One passenger told UTV: ‘The engine just collapsed. Stopped working. They managed to get it working again and we were sailing for another 10 minutes. Then it stopped and completely blacked out. All the electrics. Everything was down.’
The Rail, Maritime and Transport workers’ Union (RMT) said the reports were ‘deeply concerning, not least for the agency crew and passengers on board’.
The European Causeway had been detained at Larne after an initial inspection by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) on March 25 uncovered 31 safety failings.
This was due to safety concerns after the company sacked nearly 800 seafarers and replaced them with cheaper agency workers.
The ship was cleared to resume serving the Larne-Cairnryan route a fortnight later following another examination.
The ferry company drew national outage last month when it illegally fired nearly 800 staff members without notice over Zoom and replaced them all immediately with cheaper foreign workers.
The agency workers who were hired to replace 786 staff say they were asked to sign new contracts on even lower pay.
The firm has not carried out a cross-Channel crossing since its mass sacking last month.
This has caused a lack of capacity on the crucial Dover-Calais route, contributing to large queues of lorries on coastbound roads in Kent.
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. Another ship on the Dover-to-Calais route, the Pride Of Kent, remains in detention.
Yesterday, 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 the European Causeway, which went adrift today, listed an inability to deploy lifeboats or life rafts as one of 31 failures that had been identified. The ferry normally operates between Cairnryan, Scotland, and Larne, Northern Ireland.
P&O Ferries restarted sailings for freight customers by Wednesday, but does not anticipate carrying tourists until early next week
P&O Ferries expects to restart sailings for freight customers between Dover and Calais by Wednesday but does not anticipate carrying tourists until early next week, it is understood.
On Monday morning the firm’s website began selling passenger tickets for cross-Channel sailings on its ship Spirit Of Britain from Wednesday.
The website later said there were ‘no sailings available for your selected dates’.
Spirit Of Britain was detained by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) on April 12 after safety issues were found, but was cleared to sail on Friday.
Meanwhile, 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.
It came after 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.’
The company’s chief executive, Peter Hebblethwaite, told MPs last month that the average pay of the agency crew is £5.50 per hour.
That is below the UK’s minimum wage but Mr Hebblethwaite said it is permitted under international maritime laws.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps wants to create ‘minimum wage corridors’ on ferry routes between the UK and other countries.
In a letter to the Mr Hebblethwaite in March in the wake of the scandal, Mr Shapps wrote: ‘The past week has left the reputation of P&O Ferries and, I’m afraid, you personally in tatters.
‘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.’
MailOnline contacted P&O Ferries for comment about the allegation some of its crew did not know where life rafts were kept. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency declined to comment.
It is claimed that if they refused to agree they faced being out of work and one agency worker emailed the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) , declaring: ‘We are desperate.’
P&O’s boss Peter Hebblethwaite, who earns £345,000 a year, admitted firing the workers over Zoom without notice was illegal in testimony to MPs
P&O Ferries reportedly offered some of the agency workers, who replaced the near 800 staff fired last month, new contracts with even lower wages
Some crew earn just £748 a month for a 40-hour week – barely £4.50 an hour.
In one example reported by The Mirror, workers say chefs paid £2,336 a month on temporary contracts were asked to sign new deals giving them £195 a month less.
Although it is not known who faced a cut in wages, or if staff on seven other ferries were targeted too.
Mr Procter, national secretary of the RMT says some of the new workers were brought in on just a month’s contract, and when those contracts expired the staff were offered ‘inferior terms’.
The RMT are campaigning for dismissed P&O staff to be reinstated, but ‘irrespective of nationality’ are concerned for the new staff members, Mr Procter added: ‘they are just as much victims as our members.’