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Sketch: The most hated man in Britain

Cartoon by Iain Green

Sketch: The most hated man in Britain

When is breaking the law acceptable? We know the UK Government is comfortable doing so in “a very specific and limited way”. 

It’s also happy to host cheese and wine parties while the whole country is in lockdown because, well, it was a work event. Just ignore the DJ in the basement and the suitcase of booze.

But where the government really draws the line, really will not tolerate lawbreaking, is, apparently, when other people do it.

And so, Grant Shapps took a stand. “Brazen, breathtaking, and showed incredible arrogance,” Shapps said – describing not his own boss, but a ferry boss. He simply had to go – again, not Boris Johnson, but Peter Hebblethwaite, the chief executive of P&O.

Holyrood’s Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee was very angry about the whole thing, too. They hauled Hebblethwaite in front of them to answer questions about why he chose to fire staff without consulting trade unions, therefore breaking employment law.

Hebblethwaite’s defence? His company had not done anything illegal when it broke the law. 
“You and the board are not stupid people,” Brian Whittle generously told the CEO. How, then, did he think he would get away with it?

“We are very clear we have not done anything illegal…” started Hebblethwaite.

Whittle intervened: “Yes, you have, you’ve already admitted you did something illegal: you broke employment law.”

That is not what he said, Hebblethwaite insisted. P&O failed to fulfil a legal requirement to consult with trade unions. “That is different from illegal,” he added.

“I think you’ll find that when you break the law, that is illegal,” replied Whittle, insightfully.
Hebblethwaite accepted the decision was “controversial” – that’s one way of putting it – but insisted it was “necessary” to save the firm. He was sorry about it, but also not that sorry at all.
“Are there any other laws that you would consider breaking?” Fiona Hyslop, deputy convener of the committee, asked.

It was a “unique situation”, insisted Hebblethwaite. 

Hyslop continued: “Do you have any remorse?” 

“I am very, very, personally and deeply sorry… However, I categorically believe that, had we not taken that very difficult decision, we would be talking about the irrecoverable loss of thousands of jobs,” he replied.

“Do you have any regret? Do you have any shame?” Hyslop pressed on.

“I don’t think I should feature in this,” said the man that was the focus of the committee. “I’m not really worried about me.” Well, of course he’s not. His job is safe.

Monica Lennon was not about to let him off the hook. This was, she said, “an extreme act of corporate terrorism”. 

Hebblethwaite was having none of that and denied that “anything inappropriate [had] happened”.

“Mr Hebblethwaite,” continued Lennon, with the aura of a schoolteacher about to give a pupil a real bollocking, “you’re leading the committee to believe that P&O Ferries is unique and special, and somehow above the law.

“It sounds like you have convinced yourself that you are a saviour, that you are saving workers rather than throwing them overboard. The truth is you are a failure of a chief executive and most likely right now, in a crowded field, the most hated man in Britain.

“Under your leadership, P&O Ferries has executed one of the most widely condemned decisions taken by a UK company, your ethics are lying at the bottom of the seabed. How do you sleep at night?”

The CEO seemed untroubled by being Britain’s most hated man. It was a “very difficult decision,” he said. 

Natalie Don was next: did he at least take a pay cut before sacking folk?

Hebblethwaite replied: “I was promoted into this job and given a pay that is consistent with the market and this particular job. I recognise that there are different levels of pay throughout an organisation but I can assure you we have reduced the cost of our senior management by as much or more than we have other parts of the business.”

That’s a ‘no’ then, said Don, flatly. Some seafarers earn just £5.50 an hour – would you be happy on £5.50 an hour, she asked.

And in a response echoed by the well-off everywhere, Hebblethwaite replied that work wasn’t all about money. “People love it,” he added. Well, people also love being able to afford housing and food and heating, but nae worries. 

Tory MSP Graham Simpson put his accountancy skills to good use next – he’s not an accountant, just has the air of one – by working out the ferry boss was on, approximately, £156 per hour. What will the sacked workers think of that, Simpson asked.

Well, the answer was quite simple really. Hebblethwaite had chosen a career path that had led him to being a CEO, he told the committee, not one that led him to earning £5.50 an hour.

Perhaps seafarers should have chosen the same path, then they’d be in a much better position – although I suppose then we’d have 800 more CEOs and no one to sail the ferries. Do CEOs float? Could they be used as small, inflatable vessels instead? 

Though, to be fair, paying the salaries of almost 800 floating CEOs is still probably a better deal than the Scottish Government got from Ferguson Marine.

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