P&O Ferries: questions raised over Grant Shapps’ meeting with DP World

The UK transport secretary, Grant Shapps, met the DP World boss Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem last November and told him that he was “aware of the issues at P&O Ferries” but recognised “you will need to make commercial decisions”, according to official minutes of the meeting.

The revelation raises further questions about whether Shapps could have acted to head off the mass sackings last week at the Dubai-owned ferry operator.

On Monday, Shapps told the Commons that “the first I heard about it was at 8.30 in the [Wednesday] evening, not through the memo, which I did not see, but instead through communication with my private office to indicate that P&O would be making redundancies the next day”.

Shapps said he expected P&O Ferries to consult on more redundancies rather than instigate mass sackings.

The Department for Transport minutes show Bin Sulayem welcomed Shapps to DP World’s pavilion at the Dubai Expo on 22 November. During the face-to-face encounter, the sultan warned Shapps: “In respect of our ferry business, there’s a new low-cost competitor from Irish Ferries. This poses challenges in respect of P&O’s operations. We kept ferries operating during the height of the pandemic to support movement of people and goods.”

Shapps thanked Bin Sulayem and told him: “I’m aware of the issues relating to P&O. I recognise you will need to make commercial decisions, but please do keep us informed.”

Bin Sulayem added: “As we recover we can reinvest in the UK. We make a significant amount of income from the passenger side of our business (even though it only makes up c.30% of total business), because the margins are so tight on the cargo side.”

Shapps replied: “I appreciate everything you’ve done to support P&O.”

The minutes were published after revelations at Thursday’s extraordinary joint hearings of the Commons transport and business select committees, where the P&O Ferries chief executive, Peter Hebblethwaite, admitted wilfully breaking employment law to summarily sack almost 800 crew without consultation. He told MPs that DP World had notified the government of planned changes to the business model.

The maritime minister, Robert Courts, speaking later in the hearing, said: “There was a discussion about challenges to the business but not any more than that.”

Responding to the published minutes, the shadow transport secretary, Louise Haigh, said: “Despite the clear warning signs, Grant Shapps didn’t appear to raise a single word of concern for the workforce when he had the chance. Throughout this scandal, every window of opportunity to save jobs had been missed and hundreds of British workers are paying the price.”

The mass sackings have been met with widespread outrage although not action from the government.

Earlier on Friday, Shapps called for Hebblethwaite to quit, saying: “I cannot believe that he can stay in that role having admitted to deliberately going out and using a loophole – well, break the law.

“They flagged their ships through Cyprus [which meant they] avoided having to tell anybody about this, or they felt they did. And even though they know they’ve broken the law, what they’ve done is to pay people off in such a way to try and buy their silence. It’s unacceptable.”

However, Labour said Shapps had the power to disqualify Hebblethwaite as a director rather than simply call on him to quit.

Haigh added: “The government have still done absolutely nothing to hold P&O Ferries to account.”

On Friday, Hebblethwaite emailed P&O Ferries staff attempting to clarify “issues” in his testimony to MPs. Although he had told the committees he would make the same business decision again, he told staff: “The first is that this type of dismissal could not happen again.”

He added: “The second point is that no criminal offence has been committed … There has been a failure to comply with the obligation to consult.”

A DfT spokesperson said: “DP World did not mention to the transport secretary any changes it would be making to P&O Ferries and there was no indication of the completely unacceptable changes it has subsequently made.”

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