During this pandemic, the Port of Dover has played a key role making sure our nation gets the supplies of food and medicines we need. Yet like the rest of the economy, trade has been badly hit during the lockdown. Things have been very tough for the Port and the ferry companies.
P&O has been particularly hard hit. The company has announced plans to make hundreds of redundancies. I have been working with all sides to try to save as many jobs as possible. My first priority is the workers and their families who are affected by what has been happening.
In recent weeks, I have pressed the Government to provide support for the ferry industry. Some £35 million was recently announced to support the ferry industry, on top of millions of pounds already provided through the furlough scheme. The Government has been clear that the furlough scheme extension is there to save jobs while businesses weather the immediate storm. Businesses like P&O should be making full use of it, rather than taking decisions on workforce reductions at this time. After all, if there is a strong recovery in trade and passengers once the pandemic ends, they would struggle to be able to provide the necessary capacity.
Some have called on our Government to bail P&O out. In my book, any financial support must come with assurances over British jobs and fair pay and conditions.
Moreover, P&O’s owners are not short of money. They are the backed by the sovereign state of Dubai. I have called on the Dubai Government to stump up and make the investment that is needed. It is important to note that other the ferry provider DFDS is not having to take such profound measures – the Dubai Government should reflect on that as well as make the necessary commitment to P&O.
I hope that P&O’s owners will be persuaded to change course. In case they can’t be persuaded, I have started discussions on a jobs task force and action plan for our community. Yet I remain ambitious for our local ferry industry. I want to see the expansion of the ferry industry at Dover beyond freight. Leaving the EU provides a massive opportunity to restore the benefits of duty free travel. I recently raised this directly with the Chancellor and will continue to do so.
It also provides an opportunity to restore the fun of the ferries we used to have. The Dance to France was iconic. And there is extra opportunity, with social distancing possible on a ferry in a way it is not on an aircraft. We have an immediate opportunity to make ferries fun and popular again – and we should seize it.
Let’s also think about the wider hospitality industry too. Real progress has been made in our area in recent years. We now need to do even more. That means making better use of our public spaces, and improving our seafronts, historic and natural attractions, and the links between them.
But importantly it also means supporting local businesses and our community to make more money from these attractions. It’s no good for us if people drive down the motorway and don’t spend their money. We want more money attracted into Dover from the ferry industry, as well as more for local businesses from the millions of visitors to the Castle or the White Cliffs or the seaside.
There may be difficult times ahead. But ours is a resilient community. We have been through tough times before and come through. I know that in our White Cliffs country, we will always find a way to emerge even stronger.