Last week in Parliament I attended the P&O Select Committee hearing. The Chief Executive of P&O Ferries and a representative from their owner DP World were called to Parliament to answer for the mass sackings of P&O staff without notice or consultation.
The hearing started with legal experts setting out the position on maritime and employment law. This is complicated, but the first legal expert, an eminent QC, got straight to the heart of it. He was in no doubt that it seemed to him that the law had been broken. He said he thought the whole political discussion about so-called ‘fire and rehire’ was, in his words, ‘irrelevant’. How correct he was. For later in the evidence session was Peter Hebblethwaite, the Chief Executive of P&O. With breath-taking arrogance, he confirmed that P&O knew full that well the law applied to them, he knowingly and intentionally broke the law and he would do so again.
It is unsurprising that the condemnation of Mr Hebblethwaite has been swift and comprehensive from all political sides, as well as from many in the business world. The Chair of the Transport Select Committee, the Transport Secretary and the Prime Minister all called on him to go straight away, as have I. It is my own view that he should not be a company director given his cavalier disregard of the law and of the workforce.
Since the announcement last week, there have been three key actions that I have been pursuing. First, doing everything I can to put pressure on DP World and P&O Ferries to change their minds and reinstate the workforce. Secondly, to ensure support is provided to the workforce affected. There is a specialist employment rapid response team that has been brought in to help, working alongside Dover District Council. Thirdly, I have been supporting ministers’ work to change the law, including imposing the minimum wage on the Dover-Calais route. A package of measures is expected to be brought to Parliament this week by the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps. Those changes are intended to reverse the race to the bottom on pay on the Cross-Channel route and provide support for those ferry operators who are doing the right thing.
P&O Ferries have also behaved badly in relation to the settlement offers they have made and they have put workers in a difficult place – effectively get extra money now and sign away your rights or challenge the decision and maybe get less later on. I know some P&O workers feel they have little option but to accept, while some have gone to new jobs already, which is understandable.
I am clear that DP World and P&O ferries must be held to account for their appalling behaviour. The P&O mass sackings have been a body blow to our community. I will continue to do all I can to ensure workers and workers’ families are supported as well as to support the new measures that Government will be taking to Parliament this week.