23 FAILURES inspectors found on P&O ferry Spirit of Britain

Rescue boats unmaintained, fire safety errors and staff who didn’t know how to use life-saving equipment: 23 failures inspectors found on P&O Ferries Spirit of Britain as unions slam ‘lack of care and respect’

  • Maritime and Coastguard Agency inspectors found 23 failures on impounded P&O ferry Spirit of Britain
  • The 700ft cross-Channel vessel had been seized by UK authorities over safety issues on April 11
  • Cheap agency staff hired to replace the 800 sacked staff didn’t know how to use life-saving appliances
  • Rescue boats were not properly maintained and oil filtering equipment was not working, report found

Cheap foreign agency staff hired by disgraced operator P&O Ferries to replace the nearly 800 experienced seafarers it sensationally sacked six weeks ago didn’t know how to use life-saving appliances, a damning new report has found. 

A total of 23 failures ranging from fire rescue boats not being properly maintained and oil filtering equipment not working to fire safety systems and deficiencies with working conditions were found by Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) inspectors on Spirit of Britain, a 700ft cross-Channel vessel impounded by UK authorities earlier this month.

According to the Paris Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which is an alliance of 27 national maritime authorities including the UK, there was a ‘lack of familiarity’ with the ‘operation of life-saving appliances’, which could relate to equipment such as rescue boats, lifeboats, life-jackets or flares.

Thirty-one safety failures were also found by the MCA on another P&O Ferries vessel, European Causeway, resulting in it being detained on March 25. Analysis has revealed that was more than in any of the other 46,000 Port State Control inspections of ships within the Paris MOU in the past three years. 

Spirit of Britain was detained following the inspection on April 11, before being cleared to sail on April 22. The vessel was used by P&O Ferries to restart operations between Dover and Calais on Tuesday for the first time since the company sacked hundreds of staff and replaced them with £5.50-an-hour agency workers on March 17 to save money.

The firm has been mired in controversy since it fired nearly 800 experienced seafarers with no notice last month and replaced them with cheaper foreign agency workers.

Its beleaguered millionaire CEO Peter Hebblethwaite later admitted to a committee of MPs that the sackings broke the law.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch called the report ‘further evidence that P&O is a capitalist bandit sailing in our waters’, raging: ‘The lack of care and respect P&O clearly has for safety regulations – that are designed to save lives in the event of maritime emergencies – is on a par with their appalling treatment of the loyal 800-strong workforce who were sacked last month.

The Spirit of Britain arrives at the Port of Dover in Kent, as P&O Ferries resume Dover-Calais sailings for freight customers, April 27, 2022

A total of 23 failures on Spirit of Britain were found by MCA inspectors

Left, P&O Ferries’ beleaguered millionaire CEO Peter Hebblethwaite. Right, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps

‘There can be no doubt that the public and haulage firms should boycott P&O Ferries on safety, security and moral grounds until the Government steps in and takes over the running of this rogue maritime operator.’ 

European Causeway was cleared to sail on April 8, but was left adrift in the Irish Sea for more than an hour on Tuesday after it suffered a power failure, in yet another PR crisis for the company.

It 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 reportedly asked maritime unions for advice about terminating their contracts.

The MCA said European Causeway can sail again with a restriction on what generators it can use for electricity.

A total of eight P&O Ferries vessels will be probed by the agency following the mass sackings.

Pride of Kent remains under detention after failing an inspection, while Pride of Canterbury and Spirit of France are also out of action as they have not been fully examined. Pride of Hull, Norbay and European Highlander were all allowed to resume sailings.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told the Transport Select Committee on Wednesday that he ordered the MCA to scrutinise the ships ‘with a fine-tooth comb’.

A P&O Ferries spokesperson said: ‘The safety of our passengers and crew is our foremost priority and any suggestion that it is being compromised in any way is categorically false.

‘It is clear that the safety inspections of our vessels have reached an unprecedented level of rigour and we welcome this additional scrutiny to help us come back even better than before. We look forward to all of our ships welcoming tourist passengers and freight customers again as soon as all mandatory safety tests have been passed and we are satisfied the vessels are ready to re-enter service.

‘Safety remains paramount in our new crewing management model, which is used by many of our competitors and has been proven to be a successful model in this industry.’

The MCA has said its inspectors work ‘in exactly the same robust way’ for every ship.

Meanwhile, there has been fury from unions after ITV News saw contracts, known as Seafarer’s Employment Agreements, showing agency workers on one of the company’s Dover ferries being paid a basic wage of $860 (£683) a month for a 40 hour working week – an hourly rate of pay of £3.94.

The contract sets out additional rates for overtime, leave and a subsistence allowance, which P&O insists rises the rate of pay to £5.10 an hour, based on an 84-hour working week.

Chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite – who is paid some £325,000 a year – told MPs the lowest hourly rate agency crews would earn would be £5.15, when he appeared before a joint select committee hearing last month.

Frances O’Grady of the Trades Union Congress told ITV: ‘Make no mistake – these are sweatshop conditions. P&O has deliberately sacked experienced, unionised staff so that it can replace them with agency workers on poverty pay.

‘These ‘union-busting’ tactics should worry all of us. If companies are allowed to get away with acting like corporate gangsters no worker is safe.’

A P&O spokesman said: ‘It is misleading to assert that any agency seafarer is paid £3.94 an hour.  Everyone working on the ship is contractually entitled to receive a basic salary plus guaranteed overtime, a leave allowance, a subsistence allowance and a bonus. 

‘Taken together, the minimum rate of hourly pay is the equivalent of £5.58 an hour and nobody working on board our ships is paid less.

P&O Ferry The Spirit of Britain departing from the Port of Dover, April 27, 2022

Shapps: Position of millionaire P&O Ferries boss is ‘completely unsustainable’ and he HAS to go

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps 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.

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 Mr Grant Shapps.

‘It is important to note that the rates paid to our agency seafarers are above the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) minimum standards. We fully welcome the Government’s commitment to increasing the minimum wage for all seafarers working in British waters and have called for a level playing field when it comes to pay and conditions on British ferry routes.’

The Rail, Maritime and Transport union attributed the European Causeway crisis to the vessel having ‘inexperienced crew’, as seafarers ‘familiar with the ship would have been able to keep it under power’. 

RMT boss Darren 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.

It 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.

It comes as Mr Shapps repeated his calls for P&O Ferries’ Mr Hebblethwaite to resign. The Transport Secretary said Mr Hebblethwaite’s position was ‘completely unsustainable’, adding: ‘He will have to go.’ 

He also called on P&O Ferries to pay back the £11million it took in taxpayer-funded furlough money.

Appearing before the Commons transport committee on Wednesday, Mr Shapps said: ‘There are three things that P&O will need to do to get out of this mess and I call upon them today publicly to get on and do it.

‘First of all, it’s completely unsustainable to have the head of P&O, the boss Peter Hebblethwaite, who came to a committee room like this and openly and deliberately explained how he sought to break the law, he actually said that was his intention and that he would do it again… He will have to go.

‘Secondly, in my view, though it’s a matter for P&O themselves, I think that they need to repay furlough money as well.

‘It’s around £11million. I don’t think it’s right that having claimed that money they then sacked the workers in such a premeditated way, which they themselves admitted broke the law.

‘Thirdly, they will have to pay the minimum wage [under new laws being introduced in May].’ Mr Shapps said that he was working with opposite numbers in Paris and Dublin to establish ‘corridors’ that do not allow ferry crew to be paid less than the national minimum wage.

The new laws he is introducing will only require the UK minimum wage to be paid in British waters.

P&O Ferries pays its new crew an average of £5.50 per hour, which it has insisted is in line with international maritime laws.

Mr Shapps announced yesterday that legislation forcing ferry operators using UK ports to pay seafarers at least the national minimum wage of £9.50 per hour will be included in the Queen’s Speech on May 10.

P&O Ferries said it would ‘fully welcome’ measures to increase pay for all seafarers in British waters as it wants ‘a level playing field’.

Irish Ferries, which also uses a low-cost labour model, began competing with the firm on the Dover to Calais route in June 2021.

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