The opening question from the committee chair set the tone.
“Are you in this mess because you don’t know what you’re doing or are you just a shameless criminal?”
It barely improved from there for P&O Ferries CEO, Peter Hebblethwaite.
As committee evidence goes – it could hardly have been more blockbuster.
An utter mauling by MPs, a remarkable watch with some remarkable admissions.
The key and most headline-grabbing statement was a clear acknowledgement that he knew P&O was breaking the law by not consulting with unions ahead of firing nearly 800 seafaring workers last week.
MPs looked visibly shocked when they pressed him to confirm that he “wilfully broke the law”.
“We did not believe that there was any other way to do this,” he said.
P&O’s hope, it seems, is that it would be able to defend itself from consequent legal action using its severance agreements and pay-outs. It was raised in the hearing that the exit contracts include clauses that would withdraw the right of former employees to take future legal action.
P&O has been transparent about the amounts involved in these payouts – more than £36bn – with individuals offered significantly above statutory redundancy.
But MPs were incredulous – this, they said, amounts to “buying your way out of UK law”.
The mauling continued, forced largely on the way these employees have been treated.
Confidentiality, or gagging clauses in the agreements that would prevent people from talking to the media were described as “thuggery”, some simply laughed in his face when Hebblethwaite said security teams in balaclavas were employed to keep employees “safe”.
There was also outrage over the conditions under which the new workers will be employed.
The average wage of these new seafarers will be £5.50 an hour, with the lowest paid on just £5.15 an hour – well below UK National Minimum Wage. Experts explained that while UK minimum wage should apply when ships are in British ports, it doesn’t once a ship is in international waters, a complex legal set up that may need some ironing out.
And there could well be other legal wrangling to come, not least over whether the law was broken with regards to who was notified and when.
It’s now clear that P&O was not obliged to notify the UK Secretary of State that it was making this large number of redundancies. Changes in legislation meant it only had to notify authorities in the countries where the ships are registered (Cyprus, the Bahamas and Bermuda).
However, legal experts said it would be a breach of UK law if those notifications weren’t made in accordance with local laws (45 days before the redundancies in Cyprus, 30 days in Bahamas and Bermuda).
And we know they weren’t – in Hebblethwaite’s letter to the government on Monday he states they were altered on March 17th, the day of the sackings.
While Hebblethwaite himself didn’t seem to agree this was another legal breach, after what happened this morning it’s inconceivable he’s not worried. Legal experts emphasised there could be a host of other cases ex-employees could bring, from discrimination to unfair dismissal.
But he’ll be worried too about whether the brand can recover, whether passengers will vote with their feet.
He accepted in the hearing that the brand has “taken a hit”, but that feels like an understatement. A similar case involving such sudden levels of brutal, and now admittedly, illegal conduct can hardly be recalled.
Hebblethwaite repeated numerous times that without these moves the company would have failed. But the cost of how it was handled is mounting in financial, legal and reputational terms.