UK prime minister Boris Johnson said “it looks” as though P&O Ferries broke the law when it fired almost 800 staff without notice last week, and warned the company could face millions of pounds in fines.

Speaking at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, Johnson said his government “will not sit by” as he condemned the UK’s best-known ferry company’s “callous behaviour”.

“It looks to me as though the company concerned has broken the law and we will be taking action,” Johnson told MPs.

“If the company is found guilty then they face fines running into millions of pounds . . . We will take them to court,” he added.

He also encouraged sacked workers to take action themselves under the 1996 Employment Rights Act.

But the prime minister indicated he would not ban P&O’s Dubai-based owner DP World from investing in UK freeports because the government did not want to “pitchfork away” investment.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer criticised the response and said DP World “must be quaking in their boots”.

The sackings at P&O have sparked a furious backlash from politicians from all parties and trade unions. The staff were dismissed with no notice and unions were not consulted. Hundreds found out through pre-recorded video messages.

But questions over the legality of P&O’s actions have focused not on the broad question of whether it had the right to fire 800 staff, but rather on a technical point of whether it gave proper official warnings.

Johnson said it “looked like” P&O had committed an offence under section 194 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1992, which requires the secretary of state to be given 45 days notice over redundancies of 100 or more employees.

Officials cautioned that legal action was not imminent, but government legal experts were poring over the details of the potential case.

P&O’s chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite has said in a letter to ministers that the company did not need to formally notify the UK government in advance because its ships were registered abroad.

Employment lawyers have questioned whether ministers will be able to make a strong case against P&O.

Kevin Barnett, an employment lawyer at Lester Aldridge, said ministers changed the law in 2018 to allow employers to only notify authorities in the country a vessel is flagged in when they were making redundancies, rather than the UK government.

“The law is very clear on that . . . I have to question whether you could charge an offence under section 194,” he said.

Barnett said a question remained over whether authorities in the countries where the vessels were flagged were given enough notice.

Andrea London, at law firm Winckworth Sherwood, said: “P&O could argue that technically they haven’t breached UK laws in terms of liability for collective consultation, since there is no requirement to pre-notify the secretary of state of collective redundancies in respect of the crew of foreign registered ships, as with P&O’s ships which are registered in Bermuda and Cyprus.”

The issue was raised in parliament shortly after Hebblethwaite issued his first public apology over the matter.

“I want to say sorry to the people affected and their families for the impact it’s had on them . . . they’ve lost their jobs and there is anger and shock and I completely understand,” he said.

Hebblethwaite added that P&O had no choice but to fire the staff and “needed fundamental change to make us viable”.

“All other routes led to the closure of P&O Ferries. I wish there was another way and I’m sorry,” he said.

The company has set aside £36.5mn to cover payments to UK-based crew.

Hebblethwaite will face MPs on Thursday morning at a special joint sitting of the transport and business, energy and industrial strategy parliamentary committees.

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