I beg to move,
That this House condemns the decision of P&O Ferries to fire 800 staff without notice and demands their immediate reinstatement; notes that DP World, the owner of P&O Ferries, received millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money during the coronavirus pandemic; calls on the Government to suspend the contracts and licences of DP World and remove them from the Government’s Transport Advisory Group; and further calls on the Government to bring forward a Bill urgently to outlaw fire and rehire and strengthen workers’ rights.
I know the whole House agrees that the action taken by P&O Ferries was a national scandal: 800 British workers sacked with no notice. Today, we learnt that they have been replaced with people earning just £1.80 an hour. This was nothing short of a betrayal of the workers who protected this country’s supply chain during the pandemic. The personal cost to those workers has been profound—some of them have joined us in the Gallery today—and it is with those workers that we should begin.
On Friday, like many colleagues, I stood side-by-side with sacked crew in Dover. There, I spoke to a married couple who had both been employees of P&O Ferries for 14 years. They loved their jobs. They spoke movingly about how P&O felt like a family:
“It sounds clichéd,”
“but it really was - we lived together, ate together, worked in a small space together. It was our life and we gave it our all.”
The reward for that loyalty? A summary dismissal via a pre-recorded video. Years of dedication ended with them being marched off the ships they lived and worked on by private security guards. They have a four-year-old child that they no longer know how they will feed and clothe. They told me with tears in their eyes that they felt they had been treated like criminals.
This was not a grim Dickensian depiction belonging to another era; this was the United Kingdom in the 21st century. It is nothing short of a scandal that this Dubai-owned company, which received millions in taxpayers’ money during the pandemic, can tear up the rights of British workers, all while its profits soared by 52% last year. That cannot and must not stand. We cannot allow British workers and this country to be taken for a ride.
The truth, however, is that P&O Ferries and DP World did it precisely because they thought they could get away with it. They knew they could exploit the UK’s shamefully weak employment law. They knew the investments the Government have with them would be prized more highly than the livelihoods of 800 people. And they knew that when they did what they did, the Government would not stand in their way. The impotent response so far from Ministers shows that they were right to think that, because, I am afraid to say, when a loyal British workforce was threatened, Ministers completely failed to act.
We stand in solidarity with the sacked P&O workers, but if one company can divest itself of its responsibility to its entire workforce and get away with it, the worry is that this will be the first domino of many. That is why we should not just show our solidarity with the P&O workers but demand justice for them and get this dreadful decision overturned.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; that is exactly why the motion calls not only for the reinstatement of workers, but for Ministers to take action to outlaw this practice for good.
What is important is that we now know that the Government had the opportunity to stop this before it happened. They knew before the workers what P&O had planned. I can inform the House that I have come into possession of a memo that was circulated to the Transport Secretary, his private office and, we are told, 10 Downing Street. For the benefit of Members, I am happy to lodge it in the House of Commons Library.
This memo was no vague outline; it was the game plan of P&O. I can reveal to the House that it not only makes it clear that the Government were made aware that 800 seafarers were to be sacked, but explicitly endorses the thuggish fire and rehire tactics that P&O had clearly discussed with the Department ahead of Thursday. There is nothing in this memo at all that expresses any concern, any opposition or raises any alarm about the sacking of 800 loyal British workers. This is the clearest proof that the Government’s first instinct was to do absolutely nothing. There is no use Government Members wringing their hands now; it is here in black and white, and I will happily lodge it in the Library, Mr Speaker, for the benefit of Opposition Members when they are considering how to vote tonight.
We all stand behind the P&O workers, because it is them today and it will be other workers tomorrow if we do not act. When, for so long, the Tories have stood against regulation that protects workers’ rights, and when they have pushed against the door of fire and rehire and kept it open, they cannot come here wringing their hands and say, “This is a terrible thing.” They have created the environment that has allowed these unscrupulous employers to walk through that door and attack those workers in that way.
If there is documentation available showing that the Government had prior knowledge of this, it is important that we all have sight of it. What is the date on the document and how long before the event did the Government actually know about it?
The text of the memo will be placed in the House of Commons Library. It is reported that this was received on Wednesday night and the memo was sent overnight into Thursday morning.
The Secretary of State needs to answer these questions: when exactly did he see this crucial memo and what was his response? Did anyone in No. 10 acknowledge it? Did they advise on any alternative course of action? Did he or his Ministers seek immediate advice from either the Solicitor General or the Attorney General as to the legality of P&O’s action? Why did he make contact with the boss of P&O only hours after the plan was publicly announced, despite the advance notice that he was given? Given that DP World has been publicly voicing concerns about the sustainability of P&O ferries for at least a year, will he publish all correspondence with it over that period? At what point did he or his Ministers first become aware that this may be a course of action that P&O was willing to take?
Either the Government were bewilderingly incompetent or they were complicit. Either way, there was a window of opportunity to protect the livelihoods of 800 British workers from an illegal act by a rogue employer, and the Government did nothing. For all the outrage that has since flowed from Ministers, the proof is before our eyes. What have Cabinet Ministers actually managed to do? They have written a strongly worded letter to the wrong person and have signposted workers to the jobcentre. The central calculation by DP World that this Government would not lift a finger to stop it has so far been proven right.
It is not only about the appalling way in which workers are being treated now, but about the future of the whole industry. There were 18 apprentices—the only apprentices being trained on British ratings—sacked among the 800 workers. That decision will have an impact not only today, but for the future of our maritime industry: if it is allowed to stand, we will not have people trained for future generations.
I thank my hon. Friend; I know that her colleagues in Hull who are in the Chamber today have campaigned long and hard for the maritime industry in this country. She is absolutely right that this is an assault not just on those workers, but on the entire industry in this country.
The maritime industry, which exists in Liverpool as well as Hull, is precious and we have to fight for its future. The company paid out £270 million in dividends before taking this action. Does my hon. Friend think that the Government must now do all they can to end any association with the freeports and other contracts that P&O has, until it puts this monstrous injustice right?
The hon. Lady is being very generous with her time and is making a compelling case. The Secretary of State for Transport suggested that the review of contracts by the Government would include DP World as well as P&O Ferries, but yesterday the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy appeared to roll back from that. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is critical that DP World be held to account as much as P&O Ferries? It has to be part of that review.
I am sorry, Mr Speaker; I had anticipated that my hon. Friend was going to finish her point. She is making an excellent speech. Does she share my concern that when 800 British workers have been sacked in this savage way, there are 10 Members present on the Conservative Back Benches? What would make Conservative Members angry and make them turn up to support British business and British people?
As my hon. Friend points out, it is a shame that for all the anger and the outrage expressed over the past few days, so few Conservative Members have turned up to participate in today’s debate. But it is not too late: even at this late hour, the Government must hold P&O to account and stand up for the workforce being undermined by overseas billionaires. If an exploitative employer can escape without any consequences for this egregious action, that will give the green light to bad bosses around the world who think they can do the same. As one worker said to me on Friday: “If it can happen to us highly skilled workers in a unionised industry, it can happen to literally anyone.”
The Government must start by immediately commencing criminal action against P&O Ferries for its flagrant breach of employment law. That should mean unlimited fines not only for the company, but for the directors and managers of any that were complicit. It is in the gift of the Business Secretary, under the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, to begin that action. He must do it now, and if he will not, he must explain to the public why he will not act to protect British workers.
My great-grandfather and my grandfather served in the British Merchant Navy and were never treated in the appalling and disrespectful way in which this company has treated these people. This is not about where people come from or where they work in the industry. All people who work in the industry should be given trade union rights, should be able to work properly and should be treated as human beings.
Absolutely—and the sad fact is that these people had a collective bargaining agreement and recognition of their union, but DP World chose to trample over that in full violation of our domestic law.
The Government must take a serious look at their very long-standing relationship with DP World. This is a company that has contracts with the British Government worth billions of pounds, but is apparently confident that it can act with impunity when it comes to respecting our employment rights. The Government must suspend all the licences and contracts that they hold with DP World to maximise pressure and force it to reverse course. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government are reviewing all their contracts with both P&O Ferries and DP World? Yesterday, when questioned by the BBC, the Chancellor conspicuously chose to distinguish between those companies and portray them as two different entities. Ministers have spent the last few days condemning P&O’s actions; today they have a chance to prove that they mean it.
As has been said, however, this must be set within a context. That any business feels that it can get away with this behaviour in Britain today is a scandal. It is a damning indictment of weak employment laws and the broken promises to protect workers’ rights.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, and has rightly drawn attention to the Government’s failure to act consistently. We have, of course, already had a debate on fire and rehire on the Floor of the House, on the occasion when my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) presented a Bill to ban the practice. Not only did the Government object; they opposed the closure motion that would have allowed the Bill to progress to Report. Conservative Members shake their heads, but they have done nothing about this. Moreover, last Friday, when I supported my hon. Friend when his Bill was read out in the Chamber, they objected again. The Government are all talk and no action, and that is the real problem.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. At every available opportunity, Conservative Members have voted against potential legislation to outlaw fire and rehire.
People throughout the country will be asking how it is possible that workers can be bussed in to instantly replace those in secure jobs. Is it not the case that P&O has exploited the immigration loopholes in exactly the same way as it has exploited loopholes in the minimum wage legislation for years, while the Government have sat back and allowed it to happen? This is the exact opposite of the promises made to the British people to safeguard their living standards, employment prospects and job security. In what world is this “taking back control”?
For far too long, Ministers have sat on their hands and chosen to side with bad bosses by failing to strengthen workers’ rights. This must be a line in the sand. If Ministers mean what they say, they will bring forward an emergency employment Bill tomorrow. They will outlaw fire and rehire without delay and strengthen workers’ employment rights, and they will demand that these loyal P&O workers be reinstated. Let there be no more excuses. Tonight, the Conservatives must back Labour’s motion, and send the clear message that no workforce can ever again be attacked in this way.
We are an island nation. British seafaring has been and is the envy of the world, and a sense of fair play and decency runs deep in this country: it is part of who we are. The action on Thursday was a straightforward assault on that tradition and on our values, so deeply entwined with our identity and synonymous with our global reputation. Britain deserves better. Tonight, Tory Members have the chance to join Labour and vote to stand up for British workers. They have the chance to stand up for that tradition, and stand up for the people of this country. They have the chance to ensure that this can never happen again. Tonight, they must decide which side they are on—the side of loyal workers in Britain, or that of the billionaires who are riding roughshod over our rights. I commend our motion to the House.
I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) for bringing this debate forward. It is important that this should be fully discussed, although we have already had an urgent statement on the subject. The way in which those 800 loyal and experienced workers were treated by P&O Ferries last week was shameful and utterly unacceptable, after two years during which maritime staff faced significant demands and worked tirelessly to keep the country open and supplied us with vital goods, without which this country would not have been able to function. In my view—I am sure it is the view of the whole House—this is about having respect for employees, about employers having the common decency to engage with their workforce, particularly when times are tough, and about having standards that we would expect every single company in this country and every single employer to uphold.
Of course we understand the financial pressures that many businesses are facing right now. Regrettably, redundancies are sometimes inescapable, but there is no excuse for what we saw last Thursday. There was no consultation with the workforce and no consultation with the unions. To answer the hon. Lady’s question, the first I heard about it was at 8.30 in the evening, not through the memo, which I did not see, but instead through communication with my private office to indicate that P&O would be making redundancies the next day. The House may or may not be aware that, in 2020 during coronavirus and again in 2021, redundancies took place at P&O. In 2020, the numbers were larger than those we saw last Thursday. However, the company consulted properly about those redundancies, and they were made voluntary. So it was on that understanding that I had a conversation with the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) the next morning, in which he provided some on-the-ground information. Then, as colleagues will recall, I was standing at this Dispatch Box when I was passed a note about redundancies taking place. It was with considerable concern that I saw that the company was deploying those redundancies via a pre-recorded Zoom call, as the hon. Lady has said.
The Secretary of State said that he did not know of P&O’s plans until 8.30 in the evening, but the shadow Secretary of State has indicated that the Government were aware of P&O’s plans before their public announcement. Can he confirm that that is the case, when that was, who had access to that information and what action they took on it?
My understanding is that a very small number of officials were contacted by P&O management during the late afternoon. They then wrote up a read-out of that, which is, I think, the note that has been widely circulated. As I have mentioned, my concern was not really sparked until I was at the Dispatch Box, when I started to hear about the way that it was being carried out, because in 2020 and 2021 voluntary redundancies had taken place in the way that we would expect. It was deeply concerning to see the footage of staff being forcibly removed from ferries, underlining the cynical approach and confrontational nature of the operation, which was not at all what we had seen in those previous two rounds. It is astounding that a company with a long and proud maritime past, whose vessels bear names such as the Pride of Kent and the Spirit of Britain, will in future have almost no British crew on board, but it is no more astounding than the manner in which the crew were left marooned last week.
Am I correct in understanding that the Secretary of State was made aware of the P&O workers being sacked and made the assumption that it would be done in the correct manner, without checking whether it would be done in accordance with trade union and employment legislation? We have heard the famous saying that if we assume something, it tends to make an “ass” out of “u” and “me”. It seems that in this case we have made an ass out of all those P&O workers who are now stuck without their jobs because the Secretary of State assumed that everything would be fine without doing his job and checking it.
I really want to avoid the temptation to try to turn this into a political knockabout—[Interruption.] It is not. It is about 800 people’s jobs. When the previous two rounds of redundancy took place—I think I am right in saying that neither the hon. Lady nor any other Member of this House, perhaps bar one, approached me about them—the company quite properly consulted the workers and the unions and carried them out in a voluntary fashion. The expectation, therefore, was, quite properly, that that was what would happen again on this occasion. We are also talking about a commercially sensitive decision, which limits what a Minister can immediately say and do. But there is no excuse—and this is the point—for the way in which it was carried out. For some employees, for a four-decade seafaring career to be brought to an abrupt video end is just plain insulting.
Since the news emerged, I have spoken to one of the sacked employees, who has given years of service to P&O. He told me about the chaotic way in which the situation unfurled for him on Thursday morning. He said that after a decade of service, workers were brutally informed via a pre-recorded Zoom message, and that, despite the fact that some staff have now been offered redundancy packages, nothing can change the way in which these workers were let down. They found out, as the rest of the world was finding out, via a Zoom message, which was linked to some of those individuals’ homes.
I am very pleased that my right hon. Friend has had the opportunity to speak to some of the employees. Has he managed to glean the level of the financial compensation for redundancy? Will the package be the standard minimum or will it be different?
My understanding—again, the House will have a strong view on this—is that they are being offered two and a half weeks’ pay, rather than one week’s pay for every year’s service, as well as three months’ redundancy pay and then another three months’ redundancy pay for the fact that it is happening very early. In other words, it is six months’ redundancy pay and two and a half weeks’ pay. However—and this is the catch—it is on the condition that they sign a non-disclosure agreement. Again, this goes to the heart of the problem, which is the company working in a way that tries to keep employees quiet and then pay them off in return.
You have been on your feet for eight minutes. Tell us what you are doing.
The Secretary of State seems to be saying that it is absolutely unacceptable—indeed, outrageous—that the Spirit of Britain will be staffed by a non-British workforce because employees have not been sacked in an appropriate manner, but that, were the Spirit of Britain to be staffed by a non-British workforce because employees had been sacked through the appropriate channels, that would be okay. That is not taking back control. It is weak.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. That is the point I was making. To have a ship called Spirit of Britain, Pride of Kent or any other name that attaches it to this country when it does not have British workers would be completely wrong, and I will be calling on P&O to change the name of the ships. It would be completely inappropriate. I think that was his point. [Interruption.]
I directly answered the hon. Gentleman’s question, but that seems to have brought derision, so I think I will make some progress to let the House, the country and those seafarers know what we are doing about this.
On Friday, I communicated my anger to the chief executive of P&O Ferries. I also urged him to engage with the seafarers and trade unions, and offered my support in organising those discussions. It is not too late for those discussions to take place to salvage the situation, so I implore him to do so. The maritime Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts), also spoke to the chief executive on Thursday and expressed in no uncertain terms our deep disappointment before coming to this House and explaining the Government’s position.
I want to make a little progress. We made it abundantly clear that the reputation of P&O Ferries has been badly hit by this episode, not just within government, but, more importantly, with the public. Many believe that they have seen this company’s true colours. Clearly, it has been handled disastrously by the company, which is why we have asked the Insolvency Service to look at the notification requirements and consider whether further action is appropriate, especially if, as we are concerned, the relevant notice periods were not given and the relevant consultation did not take place. I can inform the House that that would be a matter for criminal prosecution and unlimited fines.
We are reviewing, as a matter of urgency, all Government contracts with P&O Ferries and with DP World. Where possible, we are looking to use other providers if there are any contracts where the UK Government are involved—I believe, at this point, that such contracts have been historical in nature, rather than current. We are considering further steps that we can take to remove P&O Ferries’ influence from the British maritime sector, including positions on key advisory boards, because, again, I do not want to see that company, given the way the management have behaved, advising on the way the British maritime sector is shaped and rolls out.
Again, I wish to make a little progress, so let me turn to the critical issue of fire and rehire. It is only a rehire to a very limited degree here, from what I can see—it is more like just fire. I have already asked ACAS, or, rather, my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary has, to produce additional information and guidance to employees, and—[Interruption.] And wait for it: if we need to go further, this is something we will consider doing. I have spoken to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to ensure that those who have lost their jobs are supported with relevant help and a rapid response taskforce. Since Thursday, I have received many messages from blue-chip employers anxious to snap up the newly redundant workforce, and I have arranged to put them in touch. I pay tribute to those who have come forward, and with unemployment at 3.9% I very much hope that those excellent individuals will be snapped up very quickly indeed.
I hope that we are going to hear soon about the safety implications of this issue. P&O Ferries has obligations under the international safety management code, which requires each vessel to have a safety management system. That is then audited by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which produces a document of compliance. It is difficult to see how, with 100% crew changes in the way we have heard, P&O can possibly now be in compliance with those obligations. Will the Secretary of State look at the possibility of suspending the documents of compliance until he is satisfied that P&O is in compliance with them?
I will, but I will come back to the right hon. Gentleman’s precise points in a moment in my speech. Seafarers’ rights and wellbeing are a matter I take extremely seriously. Indeed, the House may recall that during the pandemic I ordered the MCA to board vessels forcibly to ensure that conditions were appropriate where I believed that there may have been maritime workers who were being exploited, as indeed they were being. So I take this matter incredibly seriously. Maritime employees have not in this country, and indeed throughout much of the world, received some of the same benefits and protections that exist otherwise for workers. That simply is not good enough and it is a practice we have been seeking to end.
In 12 years we have done an awful lot, and I am just about to tell the hon. Lady about it. As I was saying, that is why in our maritime 2050 strategy, which she may not have read, this Government committed to a social framework for UK seafarers that will promote working, pay and social conditions, levelling the playing field with—[Interruption.] Let me explain to hon. Members who have not read the strategy that it is called the 2050 strategy but it takes place now. I do not want them to be confused by the name of the strategy. [Interruption.]
The right hon. Lady says I am “so annoying” but—[Hon. Members: “Division!”] [Laughter.] I see that the Opposition have the advantage right now. I am trying to explain that the maritime 2050 document is not about something happening in 2050; it is happening right now, and its purpose is to level up conditions between those working onshore and those working on ships. Seafarers, regardless of nationality, who normally work in our territorial waters are now, thanks to this Government, fully protected by our national minimum wage.
Colleagues should be aware that the UK operates under international laws as treaty members, meaning that UK law does not apply in all circumstances—an issue which may in part be in play in this case. A further consideration is that we understand that some seafarers were employed under Jersey law, which has further complicated the legal picture. Such complications allow employers to take advantage in the way that we have seen with P&O Ferries, which is why we will do all we can to ensure that domestic law is applied in full everywhere around the country.
The laws apply in UK territorial waters, so I believe that they do. I will contact the right hon. Gentleman with the detail.
Despite the current disruption to P&O services, I can confirm that at present no major issues are reported on ferry routes to and from this country. I discussed supply-chain issues with my French counterpart this weekend, and both Government and industry have been working flat out to put alternative arrangements in place to ensure that the supply chain continues.
I place on the record my thanks to Stena for stepping up over the weekend at our request, laying on extra services from Scotland to Northern Ireland. We are monitoring the situation at other ports served by P&O, such as Dover, Liverpool and Cairnryan. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that Stena will be putting on additional services from Scotland to Northern Ireland from tomorrow, which will be of particular interest to retailers including ASDA and M&S.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way; I can perhaps help him and the House. National minimum wage legislation does now apply on UK-to-UK routes, but only since June 2020 when Opposition Members continually lobbied Ministers to ensure that it did.
I absolutely respect the hon. Gentleman’s knowledge and expertise, and I thank him publicly for ensuring that I was receiving information as he saw it break on the ground through his constituency contacts. As he says, it is the case that we introduced that legislation, and I am delighted that it was backed by all sides.
We will ensure that resilience plans are deployed on the supply-chain issue—
I want to make a little progress. Those plans will mean that passengers and freight traffic will be as little affected as possible.
While I welcome P&O’s plan to resume ferry operations this week, to the point of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), the safety of shipping remains a top priority. Staff must be experienced and trained to uphold the highest possible standards, as his intervention suggested. I have now instructed the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to inspect all P&O Ferries vessels prior to their re-entering service, including the operational drills to ensure that the proposed new crews are safe and properly trained. If they are not, these ships will not sail. I expect many customers—passengers and freight—will quite frankly vote with their feet and, where possible, choose another operator. On that subject, for the purpose of fairness, I point out that P&O Cruises, although it shares the P&O name, is nothing to do with P&O Ferries and should not be tarnished with the same brush.
I do not have details of how the ships will be recrewed. The hon. Lady will be aware that we are still putting maximum pressure on the company to sit down around the table with the workers and unions to make sure that this is not where this sad story ends. Ultimately, to provide the supply chain, which Northern Ireland Members have been raising, it is important that we have the resilience needed to ensure that goods flow, but that cannot be done using crews who are not properly trained to do the job to the highest standards.
I implore P&O Ferries to reconsider its decision. It is not too late to acknowledge its mistakes. I hope that the reaction to that now infamous video—in the House, the media and across the country—tells the company that this approach is quite simply unacceptable.
I just want to complete my speech. Others wish to speak, not least Members on the hon. Lady’s side of the House.
I say to P&O, “Please, repair some of the damage done last week by fully engaging in a true dialogue with seafarers and trade unions.” Otherwise, we are committed to re-evaluating our relationship with P&O Ferries and will review our contracts with it and with DP World as a matter of urgency. We will do everything we can to help the workers, where possible by finding them new jobs, and we will make sure we send a powerful message to every other employer in this country that such disgraceful treatment of workers will never be tolerated.
The Secretary of State said earlier that he was going to ensure that P&O Ferries would no longer advise on transport issues in his Department. Right now, DP World has press promoting its role advising the Government on trade matters. Has he picked up the phone to his colleagues in the Department for International Trade to make sure that DP World is summarily sacked from that role? I am sure he could make a video to let the rest of the world know if that was the case.
Order. Before I call the Scottish National party spokesperson, I wish to inform the House—[Interruption.] Mr Kane! I wish to inform the House that I will impose a seven-minute time limit to start with. I suspect that that will come down quite quickly, so if colleagues take less than seven minutes, more Members will be able to speak. I call Gavin Newlands.
We in the SNP welcome this debate secured by the Labour party, not least because, as the shadow Secretary of State says, there is unanimity on how deplorable P&O’s actions are, but how many times do we have to come to the House to debate the actions of a business before the Government take any action? P&O’s actions have sickened nearly everyone in the country and achieved a rare feat by uniting the Institute of Directors, the TUC, the CBI and the RMT in condemning what happened last week. When even the directors of DP World cannot stomach their company’s actions, with one non-executive director resigning, saying that he
“cannot support the way P&O Ferries has carried out this restructuring”,
it shows just how low the company has sunk. But it is okay, because it might rename some ships!
One small example of P&O’s complete lack of self-awareness came in an email to the remaining 2,200 staff. The P&O chief executive officer said that it was natural for them to be uncomfortable with the media coverage of its actions—not uncomfortable, angry, and deeply anxious about P&O’s crass and inhumane treatment of 800 of their now former colleagues, but with the media coverage. That is institutional arrogance writ large.
My Garthamlock constituent Mark Stewart has gone from being a cadet to a chief officer on these vessels. Indeed, he, as a professional seafarer, has experience of working on vessels that are more than 20 years old. May I say to the Government, through my hon. Friend, that my constituent is not worried about the media coverage of P&O. What he is worried about is the idea of people being paid less than £2 an hour to do a job that is very reliant on safety—the very expertise that he has. It would be good if the Government could take that into account and come forward with a much more stringent and robust approach to P&O ferries, which has acted disgracefully.
My hon. Friend is not often wrong, and he is right again on this. Sadly, I am not entirely sure that those on the Government Front Bench were listening to the message that he wanted to pass on. Nevertheless, I hope that they will look in Hansard and consider what was said.
I understand that the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy wrote to P&O last week asking for further information on its actions with a view to investigating possible breaches of criminal law. I do welcome that, but that investigation must happen as quickly as possible. I fear that shredders and mail servers here and overseas will be allowed to work overtime if delays are introduced. Those involved in this enterprise must be held to account for their actions and for the pain and misery that they have inflicted on P&O staff in this country. I would welcome more detail on the scope and the proposed timescale of that BEIS investigation in the Minister’s summing up.
We have been here before. Those seemingly tough words must be followed with tough action. The Government will not be forgiven if they allow this action to stand unfettered and unpunished. The fact that Ministers and officials knew of P&O’s plans and did not act beforehand to stop it or to minimise disruption is a damning indictment. It was claimed that only a limited number of officials knew about this, but further developments show—and, indeed, the Secretary of State has said this—that the Secretary of State was made aware of it at 8 pm the night before. This is an absolute abrogation of responsibility by the Government.
If P&O wants to squirm out of its obligations under UK employment law by claiming that it is not covered, let it repay every penny that it took from taxpayers, including the ones that it is trying to sack. It took that money while claiming to serve these islands. P&O has pocketed millions from the public purse—over £10 million in furlough payments, and £4.4 million in freight subsidy payments in the early stages of the pandemic. By sacking via Zoom the very same workers whom Government funds supported, P&O is laughing in the Government’s face.
Does the hon. Member agree that time is of the essence, and that the object of the exercise is to get those 800 workers reinstated? Does he get any reassurance from the Secretary of State, or does he share my complete lack of reassurance, that anything will be done to coerce P&O to do the right thing and reinstate those workers?
I thank the hon. Member for that intervention. I have always been a glass half full type of guy, but, sadly, I have to completely agree with his interpretation of the situation. I do not see the urgency that is required to deal with this situation. If P&O thinks that it has the right to bring its weight to abuse its staff, the Government should be looking at what weight they can bring against its owners. Why should DP World be allowed within a mile of the London freeport project? It has shown itself to be a company without morals and without a care about regulation or legislation. Why should it be involved in one of the UK Government’s flagship projects? If the aim of freeports is to provide less regulation within each zone, we can have zero faith that even a minimal rulebook will be followed by DP World or any of its companies.
Until the despicable actions of last week are rectified, DP World should not be allowed anywhere near any Government projects or funding. Today we have found out more about how much P&O value its staff—this time, its new staff. Evidence has emerged, as has been mentioned, that those being used to bust workers at P&O may be paid just £1.81 an hour. P&O’s plan is to exploit the maritime employment regulations and give the bare minimum to the staff that it recruits. This means paying the International Labour Organisation minimums of £16.27 a day for an able seaman, or just £3.54 an hour for a cook. That is the reality of what P&O is trying to pull off here. It is plumbing the depths of wage slavery so that it can save a few quid.
My hon. Friend will have heard the Minister say that because some of this was commercially confidential, he was limited in what he could do or say the night before. When we hear stories about “balaclava-clad security guards” dragging people off ships, surely commercial confidentiality goes out of the window?
Absolutely. I thank my right hon. Friend for that point, which speaks once again of how this Tory Government care more about the businesses than the employees. That is at the heart of this particular issue. The truth is—[Interruption.] We are being barracked from the Government Front Bench, but actions speak louder than words.
The truth of the matter is that this is a race to the bottom, pure and simple, with overseas workers on starvation wages and workers here tossed on the scrapheap for having the temerity to expect a decent salary. It is about exploiting the global south for cheap labour, with people shipped thousands of miles from their homes, with virtually no employment rights, and used as pawns by the likes of P&O in their attempts to break UK-based staff.
Over recent years, we have seen how P&O and other shipping companies have made mass use of ILO contracts to pay their staff the bare minimum. I have mentioned able seafarers, but cabin stewards on North sea routes receive £2 an hour and cooks less than £5. It is a scandal that, having driven wages so low across the maritime sector, P&O is now using that as an excuse for its victimisation of loyal, hard-working staff.
Back some quarter of a century ago, when I started my first ever part-time job at a certain well-known fast food restaurant at Glasgow airport, I was paid £2.70 an hour. That was thought of as a low wage even at that time, and it was, but here we are in 2022 and people are asked to move across the world and break their backs for pennies. Since the staff operate from UK ports but work for companies or on boats registered in other countries, they are exempt from the minimum wage legislation that governs the rest of us. That is a disgrace, and something that the Government and international partners must resolve as soon as possible.
It is shameful that this country allows such poverty wages and employment conditions—close to indentured labour—on boats that ply its waters day in, day out. That race to the bottom has meant the loss of hundreds of jobs at P&O and the continued exploitation of hundreds of other people.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Many of my constituents have been in touch to express their concerns. Is he also worried about the precedent this sets? City of Glasgow College in my constituency provides excellent maritime education, but what is the point of people’s going into that education if they can be undercut by wages from around the world?
I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. The college will be looking on in horror at the current story, as numbers applying for courses perhaps plummet.
This is modern-day slavery on the high seas and in our ports. It must end. I would like to hear the Minister state that he will take a lead on trying to secure the required changes in international maritime law when he speaks from the Dispatch Box. The role of the agencies involved, Clyde Marine Recruitment, Columbia Shipmanagement and International Ferry Management, must also be called out. They have provided support to this action without telling any of the proposed replacement crew what was happening—in fact, as I heard on BBC Radio Scotland the other day from a Paisley merchant seaman, actively lying to the replacement agency staff.
A former worker who had been working on a P&O vessel just three weeks prior and who had asked for opportunities on non-P&O vessels was told that this was a brand-new vessel that required to be crewed. Agency staff were told nothing while they were holed up in an East Kilbride hotel for three days; in fact, they set up a WhatsApp group called “Mystery Ship”. He and several others walked away when it became clear what was happening. They viewed going on to that ship as tantamount to crossing a picket line.
For the past two years I have worked to end the practice of fire and rehire, with colleagues from across the House. We said to the Government at the start of this problem that if they did not act when British Airways made fire and rehire threats to 30,000 people, more would follow. The Government did nothing. Then British Gas, Weetabix, Marshalls and even Tesco made similar threats. The Government response? A change to the guidance. The actions of P&O go beyond fire and rehire, however; they are a supercharged version, complete with balaclava-clad human resources and handcuff-trained personnel to enforce P&O’s interpretation of employment rights.
We have been forced to hear from the Government Benches for the past six years how Brexit is about taking back control. I ask the Government in all seriousness what control they think they have taken back. Anti-union, human rights-busting oligarchs in Dubai are approving plans to hire private security contractors with handcuffs and balaclavas to physically remove employees from their place of work, so what control have the Government taken back? What improvements have we seen in workers’ rights since the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) said in 2019:
“In the Queen’s Speech on Thursday there will be a specific law which will safeguard workers’ rights.”?
There was no sign of that Bill in that speech.
That is very kind. The hon. Gentleman is quite right to talk about fire and rehire. Is he going to discuss the issue of Ferguson Marine, with no hire at all? The contracts for the vessels that could have been used for ferries in Scotland are not even being done locally—they are going to Poland, Romania or Turkey.
Throughout the Brexit campaign we heard the Government talk about the importance of taking back control of our borders, our waters and our laws. Which part of the P&O debacle does my hon. Friend think shows that we are taking back control of our borders, our waters and our laws?
The answer is absolutely none of it. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State wants us to move on because he does not want to hear the truth of the matter. We have not taken back any control whatsoever. [Interruption.] Perhaps he could calm down a little.
After my attempts to introduce two Bills to ban fire and rehire that were blocked by the Government, the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) took up the issue. His Bill was talked out by Conservative Members rather than their having to vote, on the record, against a measure that would improve the lives of thousands of their constituents. Time after time Ministers have stood at the Dispatch Box and, in answer to questions from me and others, have told us that legislation is not needed. Indeed, the very last words spoken from the Dispatch Box during the debate on the hon. Member for Brent North’s Bill were:
“we will act and we do not need primary legislation to do so”.—[Official Report, 22 October 2021; Vol. 701, c. 1116.]
Where does that position lie now after this past week? How many companies need to treat their staff like dirt before this Government will act? The Government could bring forward their own Bill this week and have the support of Opposition Members in giving UK workers the same rights as their colleagues across much of Europe. We will be happy to support any measure that stops the duplicitous behaviour of companies like P&O. If the UK Government are unwilling to act, they should allow that power to better our employment legislation to be given to Scotland, with the Scottish Government already committed to banning fire and rehire.
The actions of P&O are shameful, but the blunt fact is that if it thought the UK Government actually took workers’ rights seriously, it would not have dared do what it did. It knows that a Government who waste three years doing nothing after pledging a workers’ rights Bill are not going to seriously tackle DP World and P&O. It knows that a Government who have consistently stuck their fingers in their ears over fire and rehire, and pleaded for employers to be nice, are not serious about protecting staff against bullying management and owners. It knows that unless and until the UK Government get serious about workers’ rights, and understand that they protect not just workers but businesses that play fair, it can do pretty much as it pleases. It is time the Government showed that they are actually interested in levelling up the playing field for workers against companies that have no scruples or basic humanity whatsoever.
Last Thursday, I spoke in this place and asked the Government to do everything within their power and influence, including tabling emergency legislation if necessary, to ensure that this appalling employment transaction cannot be completed. I agree with Opposition Members—time is of the essence now. The gloves are off. It is very important that we take immediate steps. With that in mind, I have a whole series of questions to put to those on the Front Bench about what we can do within the scope of the redundancy procedure, wages, safety measures, Government commercial bargaining power, and our intent under the maritime 2050 strategy.
A lot has already been said about the redundancy procedure, but the most important point for me is that under section 193 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, employers who want to make more than 100 people redundant have a duty to notify the Business Secretary of their plans before giving notice to the workers, and they are also required to do so at least 45 days before the dismissals. A failure to comply, as the Transport Secretary said, is a criminal liability. I have read the Business Secretary’s letter. He has given the company until 5 pm tomorrow—Tuesday 22 March—to respond before deciding whether to make a formal complaint to the prosecuting authorities. If he does not get that comfort by 5 pm tomorrow, will the Government immediately and formally issue criminal procedures, which, as the Transport Secretary said, carry an unlimited fine?
My second point is about wages, because the RMT reports that the new crew will be paid £1.80 an hour. I understand that because P&O trades internationally and its ships are not registered in the UK, it is not subject to UK employment law and the requirement to pay the minimum wage. The International Transport Workers’ Federation and the International Labour Organisation’s minimum recommended pay rate for an ordinary seaman is $1.99 an hour. It cannot be right that people who work between the UK and France, where the minimum wages are just short of £9, are being paid only £1.90—approximately 20% of what they should be paid.
My question is whether we are bound by the ITF and ILO rates of that type or whether we can impose our own minimum wage on routes that are clearly serving a domestic market and being crewed by those living here. As has already been asked, is there a difference between domestic routes, such as between Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the minimum wage should apply, and European routes? If we cannot intervene on the ITF and ILO rate, should we make it a legal requirement that routes of the type operated by P&O Ferries must be operated by ships registered in the UK if, in those circumstances, it would be more straightforward to ensure that the employment law and minimum wage rights were as in the UK? If we do not act, we risk other maritime companies following suit to compete in a race to the bottom. We must structure a way out to ensure that employees are paid the minimum wage.
My third point is about safety, which my friend the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) mentioned, and which seems to be the biggest area where we could surely intervene through our agencies. There must be a question as to how using staff being paid £1.80 an hour can meet our strict maritime safety requirements. Employers must ensure that their ships have enough properly trained and certificated officers so that ships can operate safely at all times.
Under the Merchant Shipping (Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping) Regulations 2015, according to the merchant shipping notice on those regulations, P&O Ferries must:
“Identify the skills and experience required to perform those functions”.
On the face of it, it has just identified the people with those skills and made them redundant. In making that assessment, the following must be considered:
“Hours of work or rest; Safety management; Certification of seafarers; Training of seafarers”.
Paragraph 8.5 of the merchant shipping notice relates to all passenger and roll-on roll-off ships. It expressly says:
“The need to handle large numbers of passengers unfamiliar with the marine environment must be taken into account in determining manning levels.”
Paragraph 11 states that if there are any changes in circumstances, companies will need to apply to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency
“for approval of a new Safe Manning Document under the 2015 Regulations…Ship owners must also inform the MCA of any change in circumstances which are relevant to a Safe Manning Document. The MCA will then review the document’s continuing validity or approve fresh proposals from the owner or operator.”
I heard the Secretary of State on that point, but I will chuck these questions into Hansard.
Will the Government confirm whether a notification of change has been submitted to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency? If so, how will the agency treat the change of seafarer workforce? If a notification of change has not been submitted, will the agency demand one and spell out the sailing sanctions should one not be forthcoming? Will one of those sanctions be that P&O Ferries cannot sail again until the agency has approved? I ask him to ensure that the agency goes in with its usual tough standards to ensure that every single nit-picking area is looked at in that regard. I am sure that we will get some action.
My fourth point is about Government commercial bargaining. P&O Ferries is an entity that has claimed millions in furlough payments. We have been here before with British Airways and we know that money cannot be claimed back, but there is an ethical point here on which the Government must stand. If the Government have legal and commercial powers at their disposal, they must use them immediately and indicate that contracts will be terminated unless P&O reverses its decision. Will they commit to so doing or, if they feel legally stymied, can they publish a legal summary and put it in the House of Commons Library to explain why they cannot act from a legal perspective?
My final point is about maritime 2050, on which, by coincidence, the Transport Committee has launched an inquiry. Its key objectives are to grow our skills base and inspire young people to join maritime. P&O Ferries’ decision will contribute to neither of those key aims. The maritime 2050 document states:
“Historically, the UK has grown much of its own talent and has kept a nucleus of highly trained and highly respected personnel, giving the UK a leading edge in its maritime work both at sea and at home.”
P&O’s decision goes completely against the Government’s desire for maritime 2050. For all those reasons, we need to fight fire with fire. P&O Ferries has disgraced itself, its workforce and this place with what it has done. It is time for us to respond and ensure that it reverses the decision.
Madam Deputy Speaker, you have known me a very long time, and you know, as others do, that I often get very angry about the policies of this Government. I get angry about injustice, I get angry about inequality and I get angry about the rich and the powerful deliberately stifling the reasonable aspirations of people—and the majority of people—in my constituency of east Hull. However, in the nearly 12 years since I was elected, which is 4,336 days, I have never ever been so angry about a single act of brutal contempt for decent working people as I was on Thursday last week, when loyal workers were sacked by a pre-recorded Zoom call, with replacement crews and balaclava-wearing, handcuff-trained and Taser-trained private security waiting on the quayside.
This thuggery against workers must be an ultimate new low, but this day has been coming for a long time. I have spent years—years—telling anyone prepared to listen to me about the unscrupulous employers using loopholes and ambiguities in maritime law to get away with gross exploitation. If this was happening to any workers in any business on the mainland, it would not just be illegal; it would be the most grotesque act of illegality in industrial relations most any lawyer or indeed most any employment tribunal judge had ever seen.
Imagine any of the big employers notifying its staff that they had been sacked with immediate effect, only to be replaced with exploited eastern European, Filipino, Portuguese or Indian agency workers paid less than two quid—less than two quid—an hour, but that is what happened. That is what happened here, and it is a scandal that the national minimum wage legislation does not apply to seafarers on international routes, despite me, members of the Labour party and Opposition Members begging successive maritime Ministers to sort it out. It is a disgrace that this Government have allowed this practice to carry on unchallenged.
For how they have stood up to the onslaught on the terms and conditions of their members, we should all pay tribute to the RMT union and Nautilus International. Since Thursday, they have been tirelessly defending the workers, and I want specifically to thank Gary Jackson, the RMT’s regional organiser, for the unflinching support for the crew on the Pride of Hull, and the ship’s captain, Eugene Favier, for his efforts. Captain Favier is a very modest man, and he said he was only doing what was right when he instructed—ordered—his crew to lift the gangway. These trade unions do this work year round, day in and day out, and the general secretaries, Mick Lynch of the RMT and Mark Dickinson of Nautilus, are here in the Chamber for this debate. I thank Mr Speaker’s Office for kindly for facilitating other trade union members being in the Gallery here today watching the debate.
The Government have continually refused to listen to me and the unions, and refused to close the loopholes. Now, 800 families are suffering the consequences. By kowtowing to unscrupulous bosses and refusing to back the Bill that would have outlawed fire and rehire, this Government have allowed these predatory capitalists—pariah companies like P&O and its parent company DP World—to exploit cheap foreign labour at the expense of British maritime professionals. Kids in east Hull grow up in the shadow of ships in ports but are shut out of rewarding and prosperous careers at sea. In 2020, a further blow was dealt to their aspirations when P&O axed the Hull-Zeebrugge route at the cost of many more seafarer jobs.
You can see that this is deeply personal to me, Madam Deputy Speaker, as my late dad Ken was a proud trade unionist. He was a full-time official for the National Union of Seamen, predecessor to the RMT, from 1971 until his retirement as national secretary in 2000. He fought for years, along with other trade unionists, to achieve the decent terms and conditions enjoyed by British crews in Hull and across the country until Thursday last week.
The British seafarers sailing out of Hull worked long and demanding hours at sea but got proper rest breaks and were paid rates that they could live on. They had work stints of two weeks on and two weeks off.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. and she is right: Labour councillors from Hull attended that rally and were incredibly supportive.
The work stints of two weeks on and two weeks off allowed seafarers proper rest times for safety at sea. Steward jobs are not just pulling pints behind the bar; they require skill and experience, and safety and survival training.
Once upon a time British seafarers were treated with respect. In my office in Parliament there is a painting of the MV Norland, predecessor ship to the Pride of Hull. It was presented to my dad and my predecessor Lord Prescott by Captain Don Ellerby CBE. When she sailed to the Falklands we were all proud of her: proud of her crew, fighting for Queen and country, supplying our Navy and the military personnel. The painting illustrates the vessel as she was under fire at sea. In those days the owners of P&O, and then North Sea Ferries, were also proud of British ratings and British officers.
Of course, I am bound to agree.
I am not going to spare my anger and wrath at this Government today for enabling this industrial vandalism. We now know that Ministers were told in advance, and we know that officials thought it acceptable to sack 800 men and women with immediate effect, ignoring any liability in law that might apply. It is absolutely despicable, and it is the fault of the Prime Minister and his Government. The ideology of the small state, a leave it to the market, full speed ahead, devil take the hindmost Thatcherite philosophy that allows, defends and incentivises this shocking corporate arrogance and this most malicious act of violence on workers’ rights is their absolute shame.
I spoke with the Secretary of State on Thursday and I think he was angry, but the Government can do something about it now. They should support this motion, or they should expect the electorate to sack them at the next election. Unlike our British seafarers sacked last week, they are on good and proper notice: do something now—close the loophole. It is possible; it takes a few minutes in a statutory instrument—get on with it.
P&O’s mass sacking of ferry workers and their proposed replacement with agency contractors is a body blow to our Dover and east Kent community, where the majority of these job losses have occurred. It is devastating news for the P&O workers affected, as well as their families. Be in no doubt that this is shameful corporate behaviour by P&O Ferries and its owner DP World, and DP World must be held accountable for it. It is an insult to the decades of loyalty and hard work shown by the Dover workforce.
If P&O’s reported behaviour with the mass sackings was not bad enough, a female P&O worker who is a constituent of mine was thrown off her vessel in Rotterdam. P&O said that she and others had a ticket through Eurotunnel, but P&O had not booked the tickets, and they were stranded on a coach in Calais. Eventually, they returned home by DFDS ferries. I take this opportunity to thank the ferry operator DFDS, which has stepped in and helped passengers and others deserted by P&O over the last few days. This latest development puts further strain on DFDS, and I would welcome a meeting with DFDS and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to see how the businesses operating with good practices can be better supported on the Dover-Calais route.
This announcement was a U-turn on solemn assurances given to me and the RMT union over the last two years. DP World should rethink its behaviour and reverse its decision. In recent days, I have spoken with many Ministers and pressed for the Government to do all in their power to bring pressure to bear on DP World to do so. In response, No. 10 has roundly condemned the sackings, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is considering action on possible breaches of the law, and Transport Ministers are reviewing all Government dealings with DP World and P&O Ferries. I hope that DP World will take heed and reverse its decision. This is not so-called fire and rehire; it is simply bad business behaviour, and we should all be united behind stopping it.
Does my hon. Friend agree that in telephone conversations we had with the chief executive of P&O, it became clear that he was acutely embarrassed by having to tell us what he told us, and that this came straight from the top in Dubai, not from P&O?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. It is clear that this decision was authorised and made by DP World, and it is right that DP World should be held to account for the decision and its impact on east Kent and UK trade as a whole. The decision is a violation of the principle that businesses should treat their employees fairly and with respect, and it cannot be tolerated. It is right that the Government have taken a firm position to condemn what DP World and P&O Ferries have done. However, like colleagues, I press the Government to go further over the coming days.
If P&O Ferries does not change its mind, it is also vital that the impacted workers are properly supported. I am grateful to the Work and Pensions Secretary and the Employment Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), who have listened to my calls for immediate action and a rapid response team to support the workers impacted in our community. In addition, I am working closely with the leadership of Dover District Council and Kent County Council to do everything to see that the maximum possible support is provided. I am grateful to local businesses that have already come forward with job offers and practical support.
I have said that several times.
The appalling mishandling and mistreatment of P&O workers also threatens to cause problems on Kent roads and wider harm to the UK economy. I have been working with Kent police and the Kent Resilience Forum to see that such disruption is kept to a minimum. I am clear that DP World should be held to account if there are any further problems on our roads or with our trade.
In addition, the council leaders and I have today written urgently to the Chancellor to ask him to ensure that road resilience is addressed, and in particular that the Dover access road on the A2 upgrade is progressed. We have also asked the Chancellor to look again at our proposed east Kent extended enterprise area, from Discovery Park and Manston airport through to the port of Dover. Ours is an area of great opportunities, and it is vital that we get support from the Government to make the most of all of them.
Let me say again that what DP World and P&O Ferries have done is a complete disgrace. They should reverse their decision and reinstate the workers. Their behaviour breaks the social contract between employers and employees. They have been rightly condemned across the board in both business and political worlds. The right thing to do, I say again, would be for DP World to immediately reverse its decision and reinstate the workers.
Finally, I would like to take a moment to address the dangers of militant unionism. I worked closely with the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers on the previous restructure of P&O. I have always found the union to be firm and constructive in the workers’ interests, as am I. In light of our close working in the interests of my constituents, I was invited by RMT leaders to join a march in support of Dover’s P&O workers on Friday, which I did along with the Conservative leader of Dover District Council and Conservative councillors, because we are united in getting those jobs back and doing right by the P&O workers affected. However, I found myself surrounded, bullied and abused by hard left militants. It was clear that they were unelected bully boys seeking to drown out the voice of democratically elected representatives—me, as the representative for Dover. It is the hallmark of the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s, and we must guard against that returning.
I will not be intimidated while serving my community by odious hard left militants who thrive on division, nor will I be deflected from serving my community and my duty to represent the ferry workers. That is why we must all call out the behaviour of hard left militants. It is not just me. The same hard left extremists also seek to bully the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield), a Labour MP. Bullying and physical intimidation is wrong whoever it is done to and we should call it out. That is why it is appalling that the Labour leadership has failed to address the bullying and intimidation of the hon. Member for Canterbury, just as it is shameful that the Labour leadership and the shadow Minister, who by her own account was present, has failed to tackle the bully boy tactics in relation to me.
We need to be clear that the issue we are dealing with is bad business behaviour by P&O Ferries and DP World. That is what we need to focus on and reverse. Our community in Dover has given decades of loyal support to P&O. Our country has given millions of pounds of support in furlough and other pandemic assistance. It is not too late for P&O to come to the table for discussions and do the right thing. For everyone’s sake, including its own, I hope it does so now without delay. Reinstate those jobs in Dover, and come to the table and have discussions about the future.
A most remarkable speech from the hon. Member for Dover (Mrs Elphicke).
Millions of people across the country saw in horror the fascistic scenes on social media, with taser-trained security guards with handcuffs boarding P&O ships to forcibly remove workers. It was an abomination. Civil liberties and employment rights may well be trashed in Russia, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, but despite this Government’s acquiescence they are still supposed to mean something in the United Kingdom. I am sure many colleagues will rightly focus on the domestic employment law deficits and the whole employment environment that gives rise to such thuggery, while the Government sit on their hands and do diddly squat about it, but I also need to remind the Government of their international obligations.
DP World has—or had—a human rights statement on its website, which states:
“DP World respects and supports the human rights of our employees, our extended supply chain and the broader community around us. DP World releases its modern slavery and human trafficking statement annually. This states our commitment to ensuring that slavery, servitude, forced labour and human trafficking are not tolerated in our global operations or in those of our suppliers.”
Clearly, that does not apply to £1.80 an hour—that is slavery.
DP World goes on to say that its statement has been guided by:
“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights…ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work…Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights; Implementing the UN ‘Protect, Respect, and Remedy’ Framework…The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals”.
This country is a signatory to all those, so let us look at the UN guiding principles, which
“are grounded in recognition of…States’ existing obligations to respect, protect and fulfil human rights and fundamental freedoms;…The role of business enterprises…required to comply with all applicable laws and to respect human rights;…The need for rights and obligations to be matched to appropriate and effective remedies when breached.”
Where on earth is the adherence to those principles?
There are also the OECD guidelines for multinational enterprises, which set out that proper notice has to be given, as does the International Labour Organisation tripartite declaration of principles concerning multinational enterprises and social policy. The best one, however, is the Government’s document, “Good Business: Implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights”. It boasts:
“The UK was the first country to produce a National Action Plan to implement the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights”.
Where is the action? If there is supposed to be a plan, where on earth does it lead to?
The UN’s global goals for sustainable development speak of taking
“immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking”
and about needing to
“Protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working…for all workers, including migrant workers”—
we have heard little about how the Government will do that.
We all know what will happen: DP World—these bandits, these pirates of the seas—will replace workers with cheap migrant labour from the Philippines and across the world. If the Government will not seize these ships, they should not be allowed to dock. Despite all this, they are still going to allow DP World to run our freeports. We know that these anti-trade union oligarchs will do as they like and take advantage of the industrial-scale corporate welfare that the Government are shovelling their way, with no corresponding benefit for working people who are left to scrabble for whatever benefits they can derive. If that is allowed to happen, I warn the Minister that the working people of this country will not tolerate their abuses and this programme will blow up in their faces. It is indeed time that we took back control—of our jobs, our economy and our key infrastructure, including our ports, to rebalance power in the workplace and deliver the Labour party’s new deal for working people. I support the motion.
I wish I could say that it was a pleasure to contribute to this debate, but it really is not. None of us wants to be debating the act of industrial brutality committed by DP World and P&O Ferries last week. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), who is not in his place, articulated an anger that I have seen is shared by many people across the country. This incident has more cut-through than any other I have witnessed in recent years and I hope that DP World is taking note of that.
As chairman of the all-party maritime and ports group, I care very deeply about this matter. It must not be without consequence for DP World. Although I was very pleased to hear the robust messages from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State at the Dispatch Box, I fear that DP World has got its ducks in a row legally and that the threats of criminal prosecution will be rebutted quite robustly. That is why we must use all the tools at our disposal to make sure that there is some punishment for DP World for taking this action. This was a decision taken in Dubai, so the company cannot claim that its subsidiary has nothing to do with it.
We must make sure that we use all the tools at our disposal. I say that as an enthusiastic supporter and proponent of the Thames freeport, which hon. Members have heard me wax lyrical about several times. I say in all honesty to DP World that if it is really serious about a resolution, it should step aside from the freeport agreements that have been struck. It would simply be wrong to give that company any tax incentives while the dispute continues. I associate myself with the calls to have the workforce reinstated; I suspect that they will fall on deaf ears, but that is why we simply must take all action at our disposal.
I crave the indulgence of the House for a moment, because Thames freeport has been associated with DP World in recent press comments since these tragic events. Thames freeport is not just DP World. Thames freeport is Ford Motor Company: the freeport will breathe life into Dagenham, which has been a centre of motor engineering for a century or more. It is also Forth Ports: while DP World has been marching around Whitehall demanding everything left, right and centre, with concession after concession, Forth Ports has been quietly operating its ports in Scotland and its port in Tilbury without asking for those favours. We have massive ambitions to expand the operation at Tilbury, and those companies do not deserve to be disadvantaged because of their association in good faith with DP World. I ask for a very clear commitment from those on the Front Bench not to let Thames freeport be disadvantaged. However, we should by all means give DP World the challenge that it cannot necessarily expect to be treated with favour after behaving in this way.
The other element of the Thames freeport is Thames Enterprise Park, which is on a redundant petrol refinery, the biggest brownfield site in Europe. That is what freeports are all about: resurrecting that growth and that regeneration. Frankly, we should not let DP World’s association with the Thames freeport undermine the very real objectives that all of us across the estuary wish to achieve.
As colleagues have recognised, our maritime sector is in our DNA. If we are serious about being a maritime nation, we have to value our seafarers. The truth of the matter is that we have all quietly looked the other way while shipping costs have been kept low. Our seafaring workforce has declined and has been replaced by overseas workers being paid a pittance. This example puts that into stark relief. We have happily looked the other way because, if we do not, it will mean higher prices in supermarkets as a result of shipping costs that properly reflect the cost of labour. At a time when the cost of living is a challenge, that is not something that we want to tackle, but perhaps now we will. We are not going to be a maritime nation unless we give young people who live in coastal communities the ambition to see the world by working in this fantastic industry.
Liverpool is where much of our personal protective equipment freight is imported into the country, including by P&O. Seafarers were and still are essential workers, keeping our country supplied with food and medicines as well as PPE. I hope that all Members in the Chamber will take the opportunity to join me in thanking every single seafarer who has kept our country going in the face of the deadly pandemic and the supply chain shortages.
On Thursday, all the workers who have kept us all going were sacked without warning by their employer. On Friday, I was at the port of Liverpool, just outside my constituency. There was an impressive turnout from trade unionists from across the north of England and concerned local residents. They were all united in outrage at this draconian, Dickensian approach and in support of the 800 workers who have been sacked by video call. We heard impassioned speeches from RMT regional officer Daren Ireland and Nautilus national organiser Steve Doran. Speaking as one, they were united in standing up for the members of both trade unions.
On Wednesday, the Chancellor will have his chance to spell out a plan to help the British people with the cost of living crisis, but the reality is that the cost of living crisis has grown even harder for the people and their families who have just lost their jobs.
So what should the Government be doing? They can suspend the P&O licences and contracts, including DP World’s contracts for two freeports, until the dispute is resolved. They can apologise to the workers for not intervening on Wednesday evening. They can claw back the covid money accepted by DP World. It beggars belief that the Secretary of State’s main suggestion this afternoon seems to be that P&O should change the names of its ferries.
What happened to the promise from the Business Secretary last year to strengthen employment protections in the UK? The Government blocked the private Member’s Bill to ban fire and rehire—and before Conservative Members say that that Bill contained flaws, let me ask why, if that is true, they did not give it a Second Reading and amend it in Committee. The Government’s failure to ban fire and rehire when they had the chance to do so has given P&O the green light to sack its workforce.
To ensure that P&O workers are the last group of workers abused by this pernicious loophole in employment law, the Government can make sure that this never happens again. They can introduce emergency legislation. They can ban fire and rehire. Yes, they can do that if they want; the question is, will they do it? I say to the Government, “Reinstate the 800 sacked seafarers, and say no to P&O!”
What happened to the workers at P&O is one of the most disgraceful examples of industrial practice in my adult lifetime. It speaks not to the weakness of our employment laws but to their strength that the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 and the Employment Rights Act 1996 have, for the last 30 years, rendered cases such as this so rare that we are debating one such case in Parliament today. What is extraordinary about this case is not that the laws did not exist, but that P&O, or DP World, thought it could break them with impunity. Let us take a moment to establish what those laws are.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) spoke about section 193 of the 1992 Act, which provides for a statutory obligation to inform the Secretary of State 45 days before any proposed redundancies could take place. That law has been broken. Section 188 provides for a duty to consult 90 days before any dismissal takes place; that law has also been broken. Section 86 of the Employment Rights Act, on the duty to give notice, and section 98, on unfair dismissal? Those laws too have been broken. The question for the House is why DP World thought it could do that, and the issue, I think, is enforcement.
It is true that failure to notify the Secretary of State is a criminal offence, but I can think of no example in my lifetime in which any criminal proceedings have been brought against any employer anywhere in the United Kingdom since the passing of the 1992 Act. The fact is that a breach of this nature is so rare that parliamentarians have probably not had to worry about it, but none the less we have not insisted on it, and I was glad to hear the Secretary of State say that he would consider enforcing section 194 in this exceptional circumstance.
Section 194 relates to a summary offence, punishable by a level 5 fine, but the Secretary of State referred to another section which gave rise to an unlimited fine. Does my hon. Friend agree that in such an extreme circumstance as this, the egregious nature of the sackings and the number of people involved would constitute gross aggravating factors in consideration about the size of an “unlimited” fine?
I think that that is correct, and I think that that was what the Secretary of State was alluding to. It is also the case that DP World has obviously concluded that it would prefer to make a severance payment that takes into account the 90-day consultation period, the notice period and the redundancy period, because that is less hassle for them than going into a consultation for 90 days with the RMT and facing strike action.
I will come to my solution in a moment, but I want first to briefly address what Labour Members have said about banning fire and rehire. The hon. Members for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) and for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) said that the commendable private Member’s Bill presented by the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) would have done that. Let me, with great respect, refresh the House’s memory. The hon. Gentleman said at the time:
“I have no intention in this Bill of banning, and there is nothing in this Bill that would ultimately ban, fire and rehire. There is an important reason for that and I will come on to it in my speech.”—[Official Report, 22 October 2021; Vol. 701, c. 1051.]
The hon. Lady is absolutely correct: nothing in my Bill would ultimately have stopped fire and rehire, and that was with the full cognisance of the 22 unions that supported it. As she knows, however, there were measures in the Bill that would have prevented the current situation.
Order. Let me say this before the hon. Lady responds to the intervention: I recognise that important points are being made, but if there are interventions it would be helpful, to ensure that we can get everyone in, for Members to try to stick to the original time limit.
I thank the hon. Member for Brent North for his intervention. As he will know, the reason we do not want to legislate to ban fire and rehire is that we would end up with more dismissals from the decent employer who is under extreme financial stress. As the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) said during that debate, fire and rehire must be “an absolute last resort”, and Conservative Members have always agreed with that proposition.
We feared that the Bill risked more job losses, not fewer, and that is the prevailing view at the employment law Bar. Yesterday I spoke to John Bowers QC, one of the great trade union lawyers of his generation, and his view was that the hon. Member for Brent North was jeopardising jobs with his Bill. If I am incorrect in that regard, I ask the Opposition Front Bencher who winds up the debate to address the question of why, as a matter of law, he is wrong, but it is true to say that the idea that any provision that sets conditions so onerous—as the proposed new section 187B did—that any failure to consult or to disclose everything, no matter how sensitive, could lead to unlimited damages would not lead an employer to dismiss rather than to renegotiate employment terms is fanciful. The Bill would risk more job losses, and we know from the bitter lesson of P&O that if employers can take short cuts, and if they can take the easy option, they will. The Bill would risk more P&Os, not fewer.
I have said previously that the answer to this lies in the ACAS code of practice. Parliament intended it to do so, through sections 203, 207 and 207A of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act, which conferred on the Secretary of State a power to pass codes of practice backed up by financial penalties. I have said repeatedly in the House—and I respectfully ask the Minister not to make me do it again—that that is the correct mechanism. It turns the screw on the unscrupulous employer in a way that nothing suggested by the Opposition does. It is also consistent with the prevailing view in the excellent ACAS consultation that took place last summer, when a number of points were made by practitioners, including the question of how it could be demonstrated that fire and rehire was a genuine last resort. Consultation is one aspect of that, but employers should also be required to demonstrate that they had considered other options.
What I think is imperative is a new form of injunctive relief, which is not available to the claimants in this case, and which would allow the High Court to mandate employers to impose a 90-day consultation period. I think that that would address some of the problems, but, again, it could go into an ACAS code of practice. We do not need new laws; we need to turn the screw on exploitative employers by hitting them with penalties that will stop them doing this in the first place. We can talk in the language of emotion and recrimination—
The first thing I want to do is express my solidarity with the 800 seafarers and their families, and pay tribute to the RMT and Nautilus for the swift support that they gave their members, along with the whole of the TUC.
I am pleased that Ministers and Tory Members have said how disgraceful P&O’s behaviour has been, but they have said how unacceptable such practices are on previous occasions. It appears today, from both their words and their body language, that they are embarrassed. Maybe somebody has been saying “Shame on you”. It is almost as if it is more about justifying this disgusting treatment of summarily firing the workforce and justifying why they did not outlaw it five months ago when they had that opportunity.
I was a supporter of my hon. Friend’s Bill when he brought it forward, despite being on the Conservative Benches at the time, and I even shared a platform with him at the party conference. We heard from the Secretary of State earlier that ACAS would be bringing forward further guidance, but guidance would not have helped the people from P&O. Does my hon. Friend agree that guidance is not the solution and that we need legislation to prevent this from happening again?
I do agree with my hon. Friend. It is clear that nothing currently in the law could have stopped this incident from happening and that, whatever the outcome, 800 families are suffering as a consequence. Had it been clear in statute and had the company known that it could not take advantage in such a way, it would not have done so. It is the Government’s lassitude on this matter that has led to where we are now.
I do not want to engage in recriminations about who said what. Let us try to be positive and think of a way in which we could develop a law in this country that could solve these problems. The first thing, to which the Minister alluded earlier, is the importance of negotiation and the fact that the negotiations that ultimately took place in previous disputes were positive. Let us get it round the right way, so that we have consultation at the beginning of the process and a statutory obligation on the employer to consult, to negotiate and to be transparent. Incidentally, that happens to be in clause 1 of my Bill.
The hon. Member for Newbury (Laura Farris) referred to proposed new section 187B, but she knows very well that this was not about a duty of disclosure on employers that was completely open-ended. No, it was a very specific one. It involved information that would be in accordance with good industrial relations practice that the employer should disclose for the purposes of the consultation and
“without which the appropriate representatives would be to a material extent impeded in carrying on consultation with the employer”.
It was a measured, sensible approach, and if the Government had any concerns about it, they could have been ironed out in Committee, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) said. But the Government were not prepared to do that.
There was also the facility in my Bill to make complaints about the failure to follow good practice. The Bill was all about instantiating good practice and penalising bad practice. That would have meant that where an employer had not followed the rules properly, not obeyed the statute, not consulted or engaged openly with their workforce or not negotiated transparently, a complaint could have been made to the central arbitration committee and ultimately an injunction could have been made to restore the jobs of the people who were fired. That is not about rehire; it is all about fire. The Minister for lassitude whispered in the ear of his colleague the other day that this issue was not about fire and rehire, but those measures would have protected the workers in this situation and the Government now need to act. They should take this opportunity. They have had a rap over the knuckles and they have been embarrassed. Now they must legislate.
The links between seafaring communities are strong but the links between those communities that run ferry operations, such as those at Holyhead in my constituency, are stronger still. The maritime Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts), visited the port of Holyhead recently and saw at first hand how important the seafaring community is to my constituency. Over recent decades ferry operators have merged and de-merged. Ships have passed hands or been sent to other routes to cover refits and repairs. Workers often move fluidly between different ports and routes, based on fluctuating demand. Back in 1996, P&O merged with Stena Line. Stena still owns the port of Holyhead and continues to run ferries from Holyhead to Ireland.
I say all this to outline the fact that the bonds between my constituents and the employees of P&O are incredibly strong, and also that P&O’s recent actions have struck fear into our local ferry workers. I have spent time on the phone with constituents who work for Stena, including David Gwatkin, a steward on board the Stena Adventurer and a union representative. They were all seeking reassurance that such things could not happen to them and their colleagues, but more importantly they wanted to share their deep anger at people losing their jobs in such an unfair and devastating way. I know that that concern is felt in other ports and industries right across the UK. I also spoke to Ian Hampton, the executive director of Stena Line, who was also in shock. He spoke about the importance of Stena’s company values and good industrial relations, highlighting how it is a partnership working together to provide the best affordable terms and conditions for their people on their vessels.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said over the weekend:
“It cannot be right that the company feels tied closely enough to the UK to receive significant amounts of taxpayer money but does not appear willing to abide by the rules that we have put in place to protect British workers.”
P&O and DP World may claim commercial reasons for taking this action, but it is enshrined in UK law that no operating business should be able summarily to dismiss hundreds of employees at a stroke without notice or consultation. This Government have a strong record of introducing and supporting fair and realistic employment rights. They introduced the national living wage, and they protected millions of jobs with swift and decisive action through the pandemic. It was also this Government who introduced equal parental leave. One need only look at the progress made in this Parliament towards protecting vulnerable and disadvantaged workers to see that it is this Government who are committed to supporting workers’ rights and putting legislation in place to prevent just this kind of worker abuse from happening.
I want to reassure P&O’s staff and others working in the sector, including my own constituents, that the UK Government are taking this matter very seriously. As the Secretary of State made clear at the start of this debate, there is absolutely no excuse for the way in which these workers lost their jobs. The strength of feeling in this Chamber today is palpable, and my colleagues and I will be pressing for swift answers to our questions and ensuring that those affected by P&O’s actions are given the support they need at this difficult time.
I hope that the whole House can agree on this motion tonight. No matter where we are on the political spectrum, no one can defend what we saw happening last Thursday morning. Rather than being a picture of what should happen in the 21st century, it was like something out of a Charles Dickens novel. My constituents came into Larne harbour expecting a turnaround of their ship and then to head off again to Cairnryan. They found that too many buses had arrived, one with a replacement crew and one with a crew to put them off the ship. That is by no stretch of the imagination the way in which workers should be treated in the 21st century. The company has simply ignored all the requirements of law—consultation with workers, replacing workers they say they are making redundant, giving redundancy payments—while it has been planning for weeks and recruiting around the world for replacements. No one can describe that as abiding by the law.
Then the company brought in workers who will be operating at a fraction of the salary of the previous workers. The odd thing about that is that the company says that it was losing £100 million a year and had to deal with that, but it will not overcome that deficit by sacking 800 workers. Those workers were not getting paid £125,000 a year. One has to ask what else this company has in its plan for doing away with its deficit and at the same time supplying a vital service.
It is not only its workers that the company has treated with contempt; it has treated its customers with contempt, too. Those companies that relied on P&O were told, as the lorries were heading towards Larne harbour, “You’d better go elsewhere.” There was no notice given, because they had, of course, operated in secrecy. Larne harbour is owned by P&O and is a strategic point of entry into Northern Ireland. P&O is the only operator from that harbour and it carries 60% of the trade for Northern Ireland, and yet it was closed down summarily. It treated those people who rely on that strategic asset with contempt.
I accept what the Minister has said today and appreciate the work he has done to get extra capacity for Belfast through Stena. Over the past number of days, however, queuing at Cairnryan every day, Asda has had six lorries of fresh food, which cannot be held up, and 14 lorries of food that could stay for a while, although requirements do need to be fulfilled. All that has been held up.
I want three things from this debate. First, pressure must be put on P&O and DP World to ensure that they do not do this again. Secondly, we have to ensure that those workers who have lost their jobs are reinstated. Thirdly, action must be taken to address the issues and weaknesses that we now know about in the law, to punish this company and also to send a message.
I wanted to take part in this debate because I wanted there to be a united front in condemnation of P&O’s tactics in firing 800 seafarers without notice via Zoom last Thursday. I watched that Zoom video, which was extraordinary and amateur. It thanked staff for their service while sacking them with immediate effect and without notice.
The motion condemns the decision of P&O to fire 800 staff without notice and demands their reinstatement. Despite the anger among Opposition Members, I think that this is a case of us furiously agreeing with each other, because we have shared overriding objectives. We must try to get those seafarers reinstated, and it is only if we cannot achieve that first objective that we should move on to secondary objectives, including making sure that this tactic is not seen to work either for DP World/P&O or as an example for other employers. It is really important that we set a standard and make a stand. It is quite right that through this debate—I congratulate the Opposition on calling it—we maximise public pressure on DP World to reconsider.
The Maritime and Coastguard Agency also needs to make absolutely sure that the re-manned vessels comply with all safety regulations. That means physical inspections and crew-related training and safety drills. No benefit of the doubt or leeway should be given to this business. I am not suggesting adopting discriminatory behaviour towards the company. However, if a company has lost the trust of the Government and of the public, it should be up to it to prove compliance.
I welcome the announcement that the Insolvency Service is being asked to look into the potential for a criminal prosecution and an unlimited fine. I have already mentioned that in an earlier intervention. It is also right that the Government immediately instructed officials to review all Government contracts. I understand that the Government must comply with any legal relationships that they have already entered into, but thereafter there should be no further positive relationship with a company that has forfeited its good name. The company I have in mind is DP World, not just P&O Ferries. P&O took the decision to follow the money. We need to challenge and change that calculation, to make sure that the sums for this act no longer add up.
We have to recognise that the business losses of P&O Ferries have been substantial and over a prolonged period. It is losing more than £100 million a year on an annual turnover of not much more than £600 million. That is unsustainable in the long run, even with a profitable parent company. The answer may be that a restructure is the only way to prevent the loss of the entire business, leading to many more—an additional 2,000—job losses. My complaint is not necessarily about the business decision to restructure, but about the manner and approach of P&O Ferries. There is no immediate and catastrophic change in circumstances—it has been like this for the past couple of years. There is and there has been time for notice and for consultation. There has been and there is time to work with staff to at least try to agree a route back to sustainable profitability, yet it has not even been attempted. No reason has been given for failing to treat employees seemingly within the realms of the law. This is a case of terrible business mismanagement, flouting the law in a calculation that money will be saved. We have to make sure that that calculation is wrong.
This has been a rather strange debate so far. I am a bit discombobulated by a number of things. I want to place on the record my sincere gratitude to the RMT and Nautilus International for their fantastic work in such a short space of time on this unbelievably poor situation.
The Secretary of State stood there and said that this is not about politics. Of course it is about politics. Everything in this place is about politics, hence the name “politicians”—it’s a giveaway. The fact that 800 hard-working people got their notice in the way they did last week is an absolute outrage, an embarrassment, a disgrace—call it what you want.
The hon. Member for Dover (Mrs Elphicke) should not really get mixed up with people who are angry at losing their jobs, and she should not suggest that somebody who has lost their job is a hard-left militant. If I lost my job, I would be desperately disappointed. If I lost my job in the fashion that these individuals did, I would be more than angry—I would be incandescent with rage. She should not get mixed up with people who got up in the morning, kissed their partner and then, when they got to work, were told that an announcement was going to be made that day. These are ordinary people. These are 800 hard-working individuals with families, mortgages, cars and all the rest of it, who carried this country through the pandemic. To criticise them for being hard-left militants because they are angry about losing their job is distasteful, to say the least. [Interruption.]
The reality is that these people were absolutely right to say what they did at that moment in time. They got to the workplace and were told that there was going to be a Zoom call. And then the chief executive of P&O Ferries was saying how hard up the company is and that that was why they were getting their notice that day, even though they did not realise that they were going to get their notice. The right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) said that the chief executive was embarrassed that he had to do that and that this is not really about him but about DP World. Come off it! Let’s be honest. This was a commercial decision and DP World and P&O Ferries are awash with finance. DP World paid out £270 million in dividends last year. It even sponsored a golf competition for £147 million. What on earth? What sort of golf competition is that? At the same time, there is a £145 million black hole in its pensions. It would rather support and sponsor golf competitions than pay money into the pension schemes of hard-working people.
We have to get this right. The Government pride themselves on being a patriotic party. There is nothing more patriotic than looking after the people of this country in the way they should be looked after.
I think the House is united this afternoon about the egregious manner in which these sackings took place by pre-recorded video. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mrs Elphicke), who went down to speak to these people. She has explained carefully that these were not just local workers; some people had been bussed in as well. However, that is an argument for another day. A number of my constituents were working at P&O. I know that for a fact because when I have been on a P&O ferry and enjoyed a café breakfast, they have come up to me and said, “Oh, you’re my MP.” That will not happen again, not because my constituents are not working there, but because I will never use P&O Ferries again.
Let me pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts), because I watched the ministerial statement he made last week and I could feel his anger. He laid out clearly what the Government are thinking about this. They will be looking at the contracts they have with P&O and DP World, and the Insolvency Service has been appointed to look at the manner in which these people were dispensed with. I am pleased that the Government are ensuring that all those bound up in this will get the support of the Department for Work and Pensions and others—that is scant thanks, but they will be available to help them. I am sure that the unions, which I will be supporting, would be looking at breaches of any contract law. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Laura Farris) said, we know that this is a complex area; it is about maritime law, with international contracts, which puts it in a very different place from what we might usually see.
I do not have the benefit of full, detailed knowledge about the profit and loss and finances of P&O Ferries. Undoubtedly, there have been substantial losses during the covid period, but P&O Ferries has received significant amounts of furlough money from the public purse. As the House will know, I am a chartered accountant, and I find it hard to believe that after the redundancy costs are taken into account over a period this could possibly be the salvation of a company in trouble. I am sure that fuel costs have quite a lot to feed into this as well. I would have hoped that the company would look for stability of revenues post-covid and perhaps some stability in the fuel price market and then made proper, duly considered restructuring decisions if and when they were needed. I agree fully with the rehire proposals that are coming out of this House, but I wonder: what on earth were the board of P&O and DP World thinking of? Did they not realise the reputational damage that this measure would do? My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) laid it out clearly: did they not think about the freeport proposals and DP World’s involvement with them?
I have advertised widely on the usual channels that I will never use P&O Ferries again and I recommend that we all do the same. Do you know what I would like to see as an outcome to this? I would like to see P&O Ferries going down the toilet and a new carrier coming out of the woodwork that is prepared to deal with local people properly and hire in the appropriate way.
There is much in the motion I agree with. The first line says that this House “condemns” this, and of course we do. The motion rightly notes that DP World received a lot of Government money and that the Government should look at suspending DP World from Government contracts—I agree with all that. I do not agree with the call to outlaw fire and rehire, much in the vein that the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) put forward, as I do not think this is the time to jump on other employment legislation; this is the time to try to put this right and to show up P&O as a disgraceful company. I think we can unite on that this afternoon.
P&O’s mass sackings are clearly a matter of putting profits before people, and the fact that they were done by Zoom just confirms the employer’s callous stance. It is scandalous that this should be happening at a time of a cost of living crisis. It is an attack on the viability of the UK maritime sector as a whole. In Wales, thousands of people are directly employed in the sector, on ferries in Holyhead, Fishguard, Pembroke Dock and Swansea. The additional indirect employment and benefits reach far out into our economy. The estimate is that for every £1 of domestic output initially generated by the maritime sector in Wales, the Welsh and UK economies get a gross value added gain of £2.70. That is the scale of loss we are facing. This attack on the rights and jobs of seafarers will do great harm to the maritime sector as a whole and to the wider economy.
As we have heard, P&O does not operate ferries from Holyhead, although it has a long history with the port; Stena Line is the major employer and it is a significant employer for north Wales. It, however, has been under pressure with the post-Brexit trading arrangements. A significant proportion of the former UK land-bridge freight now moves directly from the Republic of Ireland to France and north-west Europe, with traffic through Welsh ports permanently down by 30% since 2019. That is the situation we are facing. Any actions the Government do or do not take now will set a precedent for others, and I fear we might be facing a race to the bottom across the industry.
The Government must therefore pursue all legal options available, including criminal proceedings, in response to P&O’s failure to follow its statutory obligations. They should also review all P&O Ferries’ licences to operate vessels in British waters, review any contracts they currently have with P&O Ferries and leverage future Government support to restore the jobs lost—we need to see these seafarers get their jobs back. I include in that contracts with the parent company, DP World. Importantly, as has been mentioned, that includes plans for DP World to run freeports in the UK, which the Chancellor had previously said he was “delighted” about. If the Government do not end their contracts with DP World, they are actively signalling a green light to those low standards for the maritime industry in the UK and the bad effects that we have heard about and I have outlined.
Finally, and importantly, the Government must outlaw fire and rehire. My party’s view is that in the long term the best way to safeguard workers’ rights in Wales is to devolve employment law, so that we can create a strong and fair settlement for workers that protects their livelihoods from opportunistic bad employers by providing decent working practices, pay, terms and conditions.
When the chief executive officer of P&O rang me last Thursday at about midday, he told me that this was not a choice about some 800 jobs; it was a choice about 800 jobs or 3,000 jobs. Many companies, in the air, on the roads and at sea, have had to make redundancies as a result of both covid and rising fuel prices, but I know of none that have done it with the brutality, sheer indignity and crass stupidity with which P&O has handled this on behalf of head office in Dubai. About three months ago, P&O was running an advert for staff recruitment, saying:
“It’s not just a job. It’s family”.
In east Kent, those of us who use P&O regularly and those of us whose constituents work for P&O regard them as family and friends. They are good, honest, decent, hard-working men and women. They are skilled and dedicated, and we cannot afford to lose them. So my message is simply this to Dubai: reinstate those 800 men and women now. Then, if you need to, get around the table and talk about what restructuring may need to be done and do it properly. If you don’t do that, I fear that the ship will be renamed—it won’t be the Pride of Kent, but the Shame of Dubai.
This debate comes at a time when 800 workers have lost their jobs in the most disgusting and disgraceful of circumstances. I join others in paying huge tribute to the RMT and Nautilus, not just for immediately defending their members, but for providing brilliant information and support to help us ensure that this debate is fully informed.
As Members have said, one coach turned up at the portside to replace the crew with low-paid staff. They are not the enemy; they are migrant workers who are being grossly exploited. The enemy is P&O, which sent them there in the first place. Then, as the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) said, another coach turned up full of people trained in the use of tasers and handcuffs to remove current staff, some of whom had worked for the company for 30 years or more. Just think about that. This is modern Britain, and people turned up wearing balaclavas, with tasers and handcuffs, to get workers off a ship because they might not want to leave. The workers were then told that if they did not accept the money and sign an order that would forever seal their lips on the subject, they would get no money at all. This is modern Britain at its absolute worst.
The situation also calls into question a lot of legislation. Over the years, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and I went many times to the Department for Transport demanding that the national minimum wage apply to international seafarers operating in and out of British ports as well as, obviously, to those working routes within the UK’s territorial waters. That never happened, I guess because of pressure from ship-owning companies on successive Governments. It is absolutely disgraceful. Other legislation is weak on trade union protection and weak on employment protection—weaker than most countries in Europe and many other countries in the world—and that must change.
The Minister comes here with his crocodile tears of concern, yet he refused even to support the principles behind the excellent Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) on fire and rehire. If we are serious about protecting employment rights, we need legislation that protects those rights and does not allow companies to behave like this and get away with it. I suspect the hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) may be right that the company gamed the process through on a legal basis to see whether it could get away with it. Well, if it does, the Government have options.
The options put forward in the RMT document are as follows. First, the Government could tell the company to reverse the decision. Secondly, they could remove all Government contracts of any sort from P&O with immediate effect. Thirdly, we can all boycott P&O. Nobody needs to go on P&O. Fourthly, we could pass the necessary legislation.
If at the end of that process the 800 have still lost their jobs and P&O thinks it can still get away with this kind of behaviour, the Government have not just an opportunity, but a duty. Shipping is a major strategic industry. We are an island. We need shipping. Those ships have to sail, so it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure that they do. If all else fails, the option of taking the industry, or that section of it, into public ownership should be used as a direct threat to that company given its behaviour and its financial and investment strategy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) pointed out, the company has money for golf and Formula 1, but the pension fund has a huge hole and £200 million was paid out in dividends last year.
P&O has a long association with the Northern Isles, where for many years it provided the lifeline services between Scotland and Orkney and Shetland. It was originally founded almost two centuries ago by a Shetlander, Arthur Anderson. However, we looked on with horror at what that company did last week, and we simply do not recognise it as the company we have known. The Secretary of State talked about renaming ships, but I do not think he quite carried the House with him when he identified that as a priority. If any names are to be changed, I suggest it should be that of P&O Ferries itself. It can be rebranded as DP World (UK Branch), or something of that sort, because continuing to trade as P&O damages the other P&O companies and dishonours the memory of Arthur Anderson and the thousands of good, hard-working seafarers who have served my communities so well for decades.
Of course, we all know that this day has been a long time coming. As a country, and successive Governments within it, we have tolerated practices at sea that we would regard as simply unthinkable on dry land. I remember lobbying in 2016 for the enforcement of the national minimum wage for crews on the freight boats operating between Aberdeen and Lerwick, who were then being paid £3.66 an hour. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs said that it was okay, because that route was deemed to be wholly outwith UK territorial waters. That is the importance we have given to the maritime industry until now.
What really matters is that what we allow P&O to do today, others will want to do tomorrow. If anybody doubts that, they may wish to revisit the comments of Peter Aylott, spokesperson for the UK Chamber of Shipping, on the “Today” programme on Friday morning. He could not comment on anything that had been done, but he was somehow happy at the end of the interview to say that he was “content and very confident” that P&O had acted properly. If I were a company paying a subscription to the UK Chamber of Shipping and I saw P&O trashing my industry’s reputation, I would want something rather better than that from the trade body. However, it is an indication that others in the industry will look to what happens to P&O and will follow. Indeed, they will argue that they are compelled to follow if P&O gets off. We must also look carefully at what may happen to the future employment of the 800 workers, because the industry has previously been guilty of blacklisting.
The shipping industry has never been slow to come to the Government with demands. I have advocated for it in the past in relation to the tonnage tax and getting more UK officers on to our ships. This, however, is a moment for the Government to turn the tables and to take a clear message back from this House to the industry as a whole: it is time for it to get its house in order, because we are no longer prepared to tolerate behaviour of this sort. Change has to come, and the industry must lead it.
I only want to take a few moments to express my solidarity with the workers given the disgraceful way in which they have been treated, and we can all agree with much of what has been said about that across the House. There has been a great temptation to transfer guilt this evening. Some want to blame the Government and others want to blame the unions, but that allows P&O to get away in the dark. We cannot allow that to happen. Let us keep the focus on this company and keep the punishment where it needs to be. Otherwise, P&O will get away with it, and the workers will lose even more.
I have several questions for the Government. Are they going to challenge the decision legally? If so, how? What do they have to say about the issues affecting various ports across the United Kingdom? My right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) spoke of P&O’s monopoly over Larne, which he represents. Indeed, it has a strategic impact on goods coming in and out of Ulster, so I wait patiently to hear what the Government have to say about that. What will happen to freeports? Will P&O get control? It has put in bids for several ports, but will it then control these strategic lines in and out of our island nation? How will the Government respond?
Finally, I thank the employers in my constituency, in East Antrim and in other parts of her country who have indicated that if workers are in need of immediate employment, they will step up to the mark and offer it, especially those in the hospitality sector and other sectors where there are vacancies. In the teeth of being made redundant in such an awful and brutal way, that will show the workers that there is solidarity across the community, that people are appalled by what P&O has done and the manner in which it was done, and that they want to help.
The actions of P&O Ferries are among the most appalling abuses of British workers that I have seen in my adult life, but they did not happen in a vacuum. We did not get here by accident. I listened to the Secretary of State with care; I heard his outrage about P&O’s methods last week, but not his condemnation of the context in which this happened. A toxic combination of factors applicable in the UK but not in other jurisdictions where P&O workers live, such as France and the Netherlands, of weak employment rights, weak enforcement, a loophole in the minimum wage legislation and insignificant penalties for breaking law—have all contributed to this nationally embarrassing scandal.
In this House in June 2020, I told Ministers they needed to ensure that employers such as British Airways could not get away with their fire and rehire tactics. The Government did not listen to the warnings about where this would lead voiced by Opposition MPs and even a few in their own party, nor to workers at British Airways and the trade unions. We are in this situation today because this Government failed to act to protect workers in and of this country.
P&O’s skilled and experienced staff are being replaced by workers paid £1.80 an hour. That is morally unacceptable, but this is not just a moral issue, nor is it merely about employment law. It is about safety risk. Lloyd’s of London—hardly the most radical organisation in this country—has raised concerns, saying that the change of crew represents an underwriting risk that needs to be “swiftly assessed”, including an assessment of whether the ships can be considered seaworthy with a crew of unknown provenance who are unfamiliar with them.
I am old enough to remember the 1987 sinking of a ferry in Zeebrugge with the loss of 193 people, and the subsequent inquiry, which found that weak corporate culture was a factor. Ironically, that ship was named the Spirit of Free Enterprise. Now, in 2022, P&O’s tactics call to mind what a Conservative Prime Minister described as the “unpleasant face of capitalism”.
I think I would get in trouble if I did.
For too long, there has been a dirty bargain between UK Ministers and cowboy employers, such that employers know they can get away with it. They know what happens: Ministers appear at the Dispatch Box, all bluster and outrage, but what happens next? Absolutely nothing. In 2020, we saw thousands of British Airways employees being fired and rehired. Over 400 of my constituents were cast aside, and even now about 1,000 BA staff have significantly weaker terms and conditions. What is worse is that the Government were giving these companies billions of pounds of taxpayers’ support—a blank cheque—while they abused their workforces.
Ministers cannot just stand at the Dispatch Box and offer crocodile tears and words of wind. If they really care, they can use the might of their offices to stand up for workers. Specifically, they can outlaw fire and rehire, they can suspend contracts with DP World, and they can remove it from the UK Government’s transport advice workforce.
We told the Government in 2020 that they needed to act to send a clear message to bad employers. They did not listen. The Secretary of State’s key ask of P&O is to change the names of the ships. If the Government do not act today, the dial shifts. What is seen as outrageous behaviour this week could become the norm, in which the message is that all employers can treat their workforce how they like.
I commend the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) for her outstanding speech to open the debate, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) for his long campaign for legislation to be introduced banning fire and rehire.
The actions of P&O are morally reprehensible and may well turn out to be unlawful, even criminal. I hope those processes are carried out as quickly as possible, but even if the entire board of directors goes to jail, even if they are fined so much that the company goes into liquidation, it will not put a single plate of food on the table in front of the children of any one of the 800 people who have been treated so despicably. They are the ones who matter now. The workers have to be reinstated immediately, but even if they are, P&O and the parent companies in Dubai must be held to account. It must be made clear to them that this Government, the Scottish Government and all the Governments of Europe will not have any truck with a company that treats people so appallingly.
It was mentioned earlier that despite claiming to be losing money, P&O managed to pay dividends of £270 million. Even at £50,000 a person, those 800 employees could have been kept on for six years; it is equivalent to £337,500 per person. Instead of going to the employees though, that money went to the owners. A big chunk of it went to one of the richest and most powerful men in the United Arab Emirates, and therefore in the world—a man who was found in a UK court of law to have probably kidnapped, abducted and imprisoned his own daughters, one of whom accused him in court of torturing her to punish her for running away. Who thought it was a good idea for that person to be allowed to own a controlling interest in a company that is responsible for the livelihood of thousands of British workers, and to allow that individual to have a stranglehold on trade between Britain and Northern Ireland? Who thought it was acceptable for that sort of person to be involved at all in running businesses in these islands? Well, some people obviously did. That’s the free market for you.
We have to ask ourselves what the Government’s response would be to seeing all the ships tied up suddenly, with no notice, people’s plans being cancelled and lorries stuck on the quayside because of trade union industrial action. We would not be here today debating an Opposition motion condemning P&O. We would probably be here debating emergency Government anti-trade union legislation. If this chaos had been caused by the trade unions, the Government would have moved a lot more swiftly and a lot more fiercely against them than they are prepared to do against wealthy Arab oil sheiks. I wonder why that is.
Earlier, a Conservative Member, who is no longer in his seat, wondered why P&O thought it could get away with this action. I wonder. What could it be about six years of rhetoric about the sunlit uplands of a post-Brexit, deregulated, free-for-all Britain that made a big company think it might get away with it? After six years of being told, “We need to get rid of all the red tape that holds back businesses,” and a former Prime Minister actually saying that workers’ rights were one of the things that needed to be looked at post Brexit, I wonder what made P&O think that Britain was a good place to start trampling on the rights of its workers.
The Secretary of State, who, to his credit, turned up for the debate—a lot of his Cabinet colleagues would have run away and hidden—wants to rename the ships. May I suggest that, as a tribute to the legacy his Government are following—the trampling underfoot of centuries of hard-won rights for employees and trade unions—at least one of those ships should be renamed the MV Margaret Thatcher?
Last week, we saw one of the most shameful and debased episodes in our industrial history: 800 workers sacked, not because their employer was on the verge of collapse, but because they could be replaced by cheaper labour, and security personnel boarding ships in balaclavas, with handcuffs and Tasers, to remove crew who had given their lives to the company. It is the stuff of a dystopian Hollywood blockbuster, not the actions of a business in our own supposedly civilised economy.
It is important to stress that this is a business that received huge bail-outs from the British Government. Even though the company stated that it had lost over £100 million a year since the start of the pandemic, P&O Ferries actually made declared profits of nearly £63 million in 2020, and DP World, which owns P&O, made a profit before tax last year of over $1.3 billion. What about the poor workers on lower wages whom P&O now proposes to exploit? In some cases, they will be paid below the national minimum wage for much longer periods working at sea.
This whole scandal is not only illegal, but a serious warning to workers everywhere of the consequences of DP World’s strategy of international investment in shipping and logistics, including the Government’s freeports policy, which will allow even more companies to operate in this immoral and scandalous manner.
I truly hope that the Government share the outrage felt by so many Members on all Benches of this House, but I have to say that I am concerned by what I have heard today. The Government knew that this was going to happen, and they did nothing. The Secretary of State now knows what has happened and he can take robust legal action. He also needs to demand that P&O reverses its decision and holds negotiations with trade unions so that the 800 jobs and key supply chain services are reinstated. If that does not happen, the Government should take over P&O vessels as an operator of last resort and remove any Government support for P&O’s owners, DP World, including future contracts, and directly support the retention of P&O jobs instead.
Beyond that, the Government must now introduce legislation to ensure that this can never happen to any other UK workers again, and introduce new laws to protect the long-term future of workers in the maritime industry. There has been a lot of discussion today about the way in which this whole process was managed by P&O, but the fundamental point is that it was engaged in trying to do this in the first place—a profitable company trying to drive down wages and conditions for its workforce because it wants to make even more profit. We cannot stand for that as a democracy. It is up to the Government now: if they have any shred of moral decency, they will act today.
Let me declare an interest: by visibly wearing my RMT tie and badge, I can say that I am indeed a member of the RMT parliamentary group. I wish to acknowledge the fact that RMT and Nautilus members were lobbying Parliament today, and I was honoured to meet them, to listen to their concerns and to try to relay those concerns in the Chamber today.
Thursday 17 March 2022 was St Patrick’s Day and also a day that will live in infamy for people involved in the maritime sector. Those appalling scenes that we have seen repeated—those video sackings—are really diabolical. I will not go into too much detail because of the shortage of time. The Minister said that he did not see the note, but it seems to be all over the BBC website that people are making fun of that. Whether or not that is the case, the horse has bolted. What we are looking for from the Treasury Bench is some action. The British taxpayer stood behind P&O during the pandemic. Indeed, having the honour of serving on the Transport Committee, I can say that we saw evidence and received reports that up to £15 million was paid to P&O Ferries both through furlough and through the freight subsidy scheme. That was in the same year that huge profits were recorded by this particular group—some Members have quoted £270 million in dividends.
The Opposition motion is quite reasonable. We are calling on the seafarers who have been affected—the 800 men and women seafarers and officers—to be reinstated and for workers’ rights to be strengthened. If Ministers do not act with some haste and alacrity, the great danger is that other unscrupulous employers are likely to be emboldened—I do not just mean in the shipping and maritime sector. A number of hon. Members on both sides of the House have raised those concerns with the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts) and Finance Ministers about what more can be done to support the industry.
This case is not unique. Eight hundred staff have been made redundant, so the Government have a decision to make about whose side they are on, and whether they will speak out in public. If the Minister fails to stand up for British workers today a dark cloud will linger over every employee in the maritime sector and in other sectors across the country. After the comments of the Transport Secretary today, those workers will possibly be thinking that they have no rights, or few rights, to security at work.
The Government have a choice: are they on the side of rogue employers, bandit capitalists, or do they stand up for British workers? People are becoming tired of platitudes from Ministers. I want to conclude with some words from the former RMT general secretary, Bob Crowe, who said:
“If you fight you won’t always win. But if you don’t fight you will always lose”.
So, today, is a day to fight. Will the Minister fight for what is right and stand up for those 800 seafarers who were employed by P&O?
Before I make my main points, may I just say that I have heard reference to the tonnage tax a couple of times in this debate? Some of us have been dealing with the tonnage tax issue for more than 20 years, and, time and again, we have raised it with successive governments. The fact is that, although tonnage tax has now paid out something like £2.4 billion to shipping companies to enable them to promote and preserve British seafaring jobs, there has actually been a significant loss of seafaring jobs. I resent the fact that P&O has had tonnage tax money and has just brutally and grotesquely sacked 800 workers, as everyone has seen.
I was in Dover on Friday at a demonstration organised by RMT and Nautilus. Of course people were angry about losing their jobs, and of course some RMT members expressed their anger—I thought relatively politely—when MPs who had voted against the legislation to bring about hire and fire protections turned up. Nevertheless, there were two things that came out of the discussions that I had with RMT and Nautilus members. What they wanted from this debate was, first, the reinstatement of the jobs, and, secondly, legislation to prevent this from ever happening again.
I hope for some form of consensus today. Nothing that I have heard from the Secretary of State gives me any reassurance either that the jobs will be reinstated, or that there will be legislation brought forward to prevent this from happening to other workers. I listened in detail to the various actions that the Secretary of State said that the Government were taking. None of them gave me confidence that there was a sense of urgency about reinstating those jobs. I worry that the anger that we have heard expressed today will deflate and that those workers will be forgotten about over the coming weeks and months, and that, I believe, would be a tragedy.
My right hon. Friend and I have campaigned as part of the RMT parliamentary group for many years on the fact that the national minimum wage does not apply on international routes. The Government changed that in June 2020 to apply to UK routes. Will he say something about that?
I will come onto that. That was my second point. My first point is that we need to inject a sense of urgency into this debate. I have listened to what the Government have said, and the Government have listened to what the Opposition have said and to what their own Members have said. I would welcome the opportunity for the Government to meet us on a cross-party basis and that should include the Select Committee Chair, because in the next week—no later than that—I would like to see a report on the legislative changes that need to be brought together to enable this practice to be outlawed completely. We have legislated in emergency situations before.
The second point is that we are not dealing with a normal company. This is a state company; it is effectively owned by the Dubai state and we have a responsibility in international relations to point out to it that we will not tolerate this behaviour. We also have an international responsibility to work with others across Europe and elsewhere to make sure that it is not just our Government making this point, but other Governments working with us who want to uphold basic labour standards. This gives us the opportunity to bring forward an international initiative for which some of us have been arguing for some time.
The third point is that no one should underestimate the historic moment that we are at in terms of industrial relations in this country. No one should underestimate the anger in the wider trade union movement. Working people have woken up to what is happening. The point has been made in this House time and again, that if it can happen to these workers, no one is safe. If we are not seen to be acting responsibly, both as a Government and in this House overall, people will think that parliamentary politics is not working for them. What we will see is working people out there taking it into their own hands to enforce their basic rights to decent employment and security of employment. The responsibility is on us to act. Otherwise, I warn the Government that we will see a wave of industrial unrest, and not just from RMT or Nautilus, but from other unions, because others will see the significance of what is happening to working people.
We can avoid that by bringing forward legislation that installs in law the proper protections that working people need. I believe there should be some acknowledgment now of the seriousness of the situation we are in, and emergency action should be taken. I would like a report back to this House, next Monday and no later, on what action the Government, working cross-party, can bring forward.
Like so many in my community, in this House and across the country, I am sick to the back teeth of working-class people in our society being treated with contempt and like dirt. That was shown graphically, was it not, with balaclava-wearing, handcuff-trained security guards boarding ships to chuck workers off their ships?
We have also had enough of the crocodile tears and manufactured anger from Conservative Ministers. We heard the Secretary of State earlier make the pathetic suggestion of a response including asking P&O to change the ship’s name from “Pride of Britain”. Now, if it were to be renamed, I would suggest the unwieldy yet accurate title “Pride of Neoliberalism”, because that is where it has landed us.
The brutality and authoritarianism of the security guards—people laugh, but it is a company whose parent company is in Dubai, and trade unions and labour strikes are illegal in Dubai and the United Arab Emirates—provided a grotesque spectacle of workers being treated like dirt. We need action. Forty years of the domination of neoliberalism and the celebration of the weakening of trade unions and working people’s legal powers have brought us to this despicable point.
DP World has done very well. It posted record profits and has paid dividends of hundreds of millions to its owner, the state-owned Dubai World company, in the past two years. Its own website has a press release saying:
“DP World announces record results”,
“DP World Limited announces strong financial results for the year ended 31 December 2021.”
It states that revenue grew 26% to $10.8 billion and earnings grew 15% to $3.8 billion.
Today, the Government have a choice. They need to act like a Government, because what this company is doing is treating not only workers and trade unions, but an elected Government with contempt. It is saying to the workers, “You can’t do anything about this. We can treat you like dirt,” and it is saying to the Government, “We know you won’t dare to act.”
The Government need to act. Nothing should be off the table. That means that until P&O reinstates the workers, the Government must ban P&O from using British waters, cancel any Government contracts with P&O and DP World, including future involvement in freeports, and launch a national consumer boycott campaign encouraging citizens of this country not to go with P&O. If after all that P&O still does not comply, the Government should take the P&O ferries on those routes and run them.
The reason P&O has not been able to sack seafarers this way in France is simply because France has better employment laws than we do. We need stronger employment laws in favour of employees. We need stronger trade unions. We need a repeal of the anti-trade union laws. Let us stop attacking trade unions. We heard the nonsense about so-called militant trade unionism earlier. If the Government want to see militant trade unionism increase—because it will have to increase—they should allow P&O and DP World to get away with this, because all that workers will be able to do in response is increase action and increase strong, fighting trade unionism.
I add my voice in expressing outrage at the utterly appalling treatment of staff by P&O Ferries. Its methods may be more brutal, more direct and more organised, but there is a reason the company thought it could get away with them: it is simply doing what some of the most high-profile and respected businesses in our country have been doing for years. Sainsbury’s, Asda, B&Q, Marks & Spencer and even companies that bear our country’s name and flag, British Airways and British Gas, offer 90 days’ consultation and someone’s contract—however long they have worked for the company, however loyal they have been, however much they have done their job to the best of their ability—counts for nothing.
I only entered the debate on this issue when my constituent Joseph came to see me, six years ago now, to show me a consultation document from B&Q. He was a man with two children, who earned £16,000 a year working for the company and was being consulted on losing £2,500—his bonuses, his break money, his forklift truck allowance—because B&Q could not afford to pay him £16,000 a year. I would like to see anybody in this Chamber live on £16,000 a year in London.
Sainsbury’s is a company regarded as among the most respectable. I hold one share in Sainsbury’s and I went to its annual general meeting in 2018 to talk about the 8,000 members of long-term staff who were going to lose up to £3,000 a year. Hon. Members should not be mistaken: P&O will not be the last, although it may be the least successful. There are thousands of people destined to have their terms and conditions changed unless we change the law.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) made the point about the recession. If those members of staff lose the little money they currently receive and are under greater pressure to pay their gas and electricity bills, food bills and travel costs to work, we will see disquiet and trouble in our country of a size that we have never seen before.
We know the problem exists, we know the loophole exists, and we know that other companies that have difficult times over the coming months and years in our economy will look to do the same thing. The Government must decide whether they will close those loopholes and stand up for those workers, or whether they are prepared to see levels of discontent in our country that we have not seen in 50 years.
We have heard some excellent speeches today from my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and my hon. Friends the Members for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), for Easington (Grahame Morris), for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) and for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh).
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden and her campaigning on this issue over the past six years. She was absolutely right to talk about the work she has done there and the long list of employers that have tried this before, many successfully, highlighting exactly why a change is needed. Time prevents me from mentioning every speech in detail, but I will refer to the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East—a powerful and deeply personal speech about why this situation matters so much to him. As we heard, he has been campaigning on these issues for years, and surely now we must all regret that the Government have failed to heed his warnings.
My hon. Friend called this action industrial vandalism, and that sums up the situation perfectly. What has happened to P&O workers is nothing short of a scandalous betrayal. Workers with families to support, bills to pay and lives to live had their plans upended in three minutes by an unscrupulous employer acting in the most cynical and calculating way. Every Member of this House should be united in condemning the brutality we have seen: thugs for hire, some wearing balaclavas and carrying handcuffs, turning up to boot people off the ship straight after they were sacked on a three-minute video call. If that is not bad enough, the pariahs responsible for this had already lined up cut-price workers at the dockside to replace them: workers who, let us be clear, are going to be paid at a rate that drives a coach and horses through the minimum wage laws. Those who have been sacked have also been threatened with losing what little compensation they have been offered if they talk to anyone about it, further compounding the sense of injustice they feel and further exposing the bully-boy tactics of their employer.
We need to be clear that this decision cannot stand. Unscrupulous employers cannot be given free rein to sack their workforce, destroying secure jobs and replacing them with cheap, insecure agency work. Such actions must have consequences. Every tool at the disposal of the state must be used to its maximum effect, because if one company can divest itself of responsibility for its workforce in such a callous, cynical and frankly offensive manner without a serious response from Government, then others will see that as a green light to do exactly the same. This must be a line in the sand.
Condemnation, while necessary, is insufficient, and condemnation after the event from a Government who knew it was about to happen is simply not good enough. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), a memo was circulated beforehand that makes it clear that the intention of P&O was to replace staff on lower terms and conditions, and with agency workers.
I am sorry but I do not have time to give way.
That means that the Secretary of State should have known that this was not an ordinary redundancy situation. The memo also says that disruption was expected to last for 10 days. Why would there be disruption if normal consultation procedures had been followed? The Secretary of State himself said that previous redundancies had been made in the past few years and consultation procedures had been followed, but there was no disruption then, so it was absolutely clear that there was going to be something different this time. Despite those warnings, the Government could not find the time to make one single phone call before P&O went ahead with the sackings, neither to the company nor indeed to the trade unions. All the anguish, distress and heartbreak for these 800 families could have been avoided if Ministers had made the effort to contact P&O before it went ahead with its plan. Having said that, given that their first attempt at letter-writing to P&O after the horse had bolted was addressed to somebody who left the company last year, I do wonder how effective such interventions would have been. As we have heard, the Secretary of State’s big demand of P&O is that it change the name of the ship: absolutely pathetic.
The internal Government memo makes it clear that there is a level of acceptance that these measures are necessary to ensure that P&O can stay competitive, but paying workers well below the minimum wage is not being competitive; it is cheating the system. Sacking permanent staff and replacing them with agency workers is not being competitive; it is yet another example of a big company chipping away at job security and safety just to make a few extra quid.
When I was on King George dock in Hull on Thursday, I met some of the new crew. They did not have a clue what they were doing there. They were told they were joining a brand-spanking-new vessel. They did not know they were there to take jobs. Does my hon. Friend want to say something about safety? Does he think that those new crew have been trained sufficiently—for example, in lifeboat practice and safety at sea? Those courses are absolutely crucial, not least given that a few days from now it is 36 years since the Herald of Free Enterprise went down.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has made another excellent point. There really are serious safety concerns. We have to be absolutely crystal clear that the Government are enforcing all safety checks, because people simply cannot get on to a ship without any experience or knowledge of it beforehand, and that certainly cannot be done with an entire crew while expecting things to run okay.
No, I do not have time—I am sorry.
The memo that the Government issued makes it clear that they are content for companies to ride roughshod over good employment practice. The net result is that bad employers have been emboldened by how little this Government do to protect the rights of workers. They think they can abuse workers and get away with it because for 12 years this Government have allowed exploitative work models to grow unchecked. They have let fire and rehire practices proliferate entirely untouched by legislation. Yes, guidance has been issued by ACAS, but that has not changed the legal position one bit. It has merely restated the existing law, but that law has been shown to be hopelessly unbalanced against the worker, open to abuse, and totally unacceptable in 2022.
The Government have the power to institute criminal proceedings against directors for this—I can assure the House that those P&O staff being sacked last Thursday felt like criminals when they were confronted with security guards carrying handcuffs—but it is those responsible for the decisions who are the true lawbreakers. Exactly how many people in the past have been prosecuted and hit with those unlimited fines? If anyone has been successfully prosecuted and fined for breaching these rules, the Government have kept remarkably quiet about it. Let us hope that this time the threats made to P&O are not empty and the Government follow this right through to the end and actually make some noise about it. If that does not happen, they must understand that they continue to send the message to these bad employers that they can carry on with impunity and that this Government are more interested in protecting their own Back Benchers’ second jobs than everyone else’s first.
On the review of DP World contracts, when will the Minister be able to update the House on the outcome of that? Why are the Government still just considering removing P&O from Government advisory boards? Why have they not done it already? What more evidence do they need that P&O is totally unfit to be part of these bodies? Labour stands firmly with the P&O workers and the work being done by the RMT and north-west unions to stand up for them. Today we are asking all Members to join us in standing up with them and for the rights of all workers, who deserve security and respect in return for an honest day’s work.
This is an opportunity for us to really say what kind of country we want. Insecurity is baked into so many workplaces that it is little wonder that so many people feel a sense of helplessness and inevitability about what has happened in this case. But it does not have to be this way. Job security does not have to be out of reach to millions; it should be the basic cornerstone of any civilised society, and one building block of that has to be an end to fire and rehire.
The destructive combination of weak employment laws, opportunistic employers and an indifferent Government is leading to a race to a bottom, and it is time that race was stopped. It is in all our interests that we have strong workforce protections. A secure workforce is a productive workforce. It is good for employers and good for the economy. It creates a level playing field. Do we really think it is a healthy sign for our economy that the only way businesses think they can get ahead is for their staff to be paid £1.80 an hour and to live in a tent? Is that what we really want as a future for our country? Are we not here to try to improve the lives of the people we represent? Do we not think that security, fair pay and decency in the workplace are central to that?
For too long the pendulum has swung too far away from protection at work and too far into the hands of those who wish to exploit British workers. Changing that is a fundamental part of why Labour Members are here. We should not be bystanders but defenders of working people and workplace rights. If we let this go now, who will be next? Without job security, people have no security. We cannot—we must not—continue to allow the worst excesses of capitalism to stick two fingers up at the workers in this country. It is time that these disgusting practices met their end.
It is time that this place sent out a message—a message that was backed up by the full force of the law. We are not going to be the soft touch of Europe, we are not going to be the easiest of easy pickings for the billionaires who want to boost their profits still further, and we are not going to be a country where loyalty is rewarded with the sack and the race to the bottom is all that matters; we are going to be a country where employment protections have strength and meaning, where security, prosperity and respect run through every workplace like a golden thread, and where those who seek to undermine those values and rules are sent packing. I commend this motion to the House.
I thank the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) for bringing this debate to the House; it is absolutely right and important that she has done so. We have heard many powerful and passionate speeches and I am grateful to all hon. Members who have contributed. The strength of feeling in this place is absolutely clear: P&O Ferries has conducted itself appallingly.
We are working to establish the facts of the case, but there can be no excuse for the way that workers have been treated. We have seen that P&O Ferries felt close enough to the UK to receive furlough payments, but not close enough to respect UK employment law. In Britain, we expect companies to treat their employees fairly. That is not just the right thing to do; that is the law.
P&O Ferries has dismissed 800 loyal and hard-working staff without any consultation or notice. Those workers have given many years of loyal service to the company, including playing a critical role during the covid pandemic and dedicating their time, skills and experience to P&O. They should feel proud of their contribution to society, but instead of being rewarded for their efforts, they have received a massive slap in the face from their employer at a particularly difficult time. My thoughts are with those people who have lost their jobs—people who have bills to pay and families to support. It will be a very worrying time for them and their loved ones.
Businesses have experienced a challenging time during the pandemic and many may continue to face financial pressures. To stay afloat, businesses sometimes need to make staffing changes and unfortunately redundancies are sometimes necessary, but UK workers benefit from robust protections in such circumstances. I will briefly explain how those protections should work.
Collective redundancy occurs when 20 or more employees may be made redundant at one establishment within a 90-day period. Employers have a statutory duty to consult employees’ representatives about proposed redundancies. The consultation should be of good time and good length depending on the number of redundancies proposed, must be completed before any dismissal notices can take effect, and must be entered into in good faith, which means that it should be undertaken with a view to reaching agreement with those representatives. The consultation should include a consideration of ways to avoid dismissals, reduce the number to be made redundant and mitigate the effect of the dismissals.
Those rules are not a suggestion; they are the law and must be followed. If the work has a sufficient connection to the UK, the workers will have the benefit of UK employment rights, irrespective of the terms of the contract. P&O Ferries has clearly been well aware of those requirements and its responsibility under the law, which is what makes the situation particularly scandalous.
We are taking the matter incredibly seriously. As we have heard, on Thursday, the Maritime Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts), spoke with P&O and made the Government’s anger and disappointment absolutely clear. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport wrote to the chief exec of P&O last week to make it clear that the Government will review all current contracts with P&O and its owner DP World and will instruct the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to inspect all vessels before they return to service to ensure their safety.
I have not got time, because I want to ensure that I answer the questions before the Opposition Whips inevitably cut me off early.
With my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary, I wrote to the CEO of P&O Ferries on Friday to demand answers and explanations of its decisions and actions. Once we have established the exact facts of the case, we can determine whether employment laws have been broken here in the UK and take necessary further action if needed. P&O Ferries has until 5 pm tomorrow to respond to our questions and I absolutely expect it to meet that deadline. We have also asked the Insolvency Service to look at whether P&O Ferries breached the requirement to notify the Secretary of State in advance of making those redundancies. If we believe that it is in breach, we will not hesitate to take further action.
On fire and rehire, briefly, the P&O Ferries situation, unlike other examples that have been cited in this place over the last year or so, does not appear to be simply fire and rehire. It is worse; it seems to be just “fire”, without the required consultation, the required notice or any definite prospect of further employment—that is, no “rehire”. It appears that hard-working British workers were given no choice and no notice and were instead immediately dismissed. There are reports that they may be replaced by cheaper labour from overseas. As I have said, I have written to P&O to demand that it explains itself. We will determine what further action may be required based on a detailed assessment of the facts of the case.
P&O already has statutory obligations under the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 and the Employment Rights Act 1996—both of which were creations of a Conservative Government. It is highly likely that it has breached both under UK jurisdiction. Under sections 193 and 194 of the 1992 Act, any employer proposing to make 100 or more employees redundant has a duty to notify the Secretary of State no less than 40 days before any dismissal will take effect. It has not done that and we demand to know why. The point is that whatever P&O has done appears to be in breach of existing laws within US-UK jurisdiction—it is not because we have not passed new ones.
I thank the Minister for giving way; I will be as quick as I can. It is no good quoting domestic legislation. The reality is this: P&O Ferries has done what it has done because it knows that the sanction is worth it. He needs to address the issue and tell it to reinstate the workers immediately.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will try to answer many of the questions that have been asked.
On fire and rehire, we heard an excellent speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Laura Farris), who asked what action we will take. She knows that we have had many conversations. I look forward to coming back to update the House after recess with further measures that we may be able to take, reflecting our conversations, on tackling and strengthening our guidance and our rules about fire and rehire. That will indeed have an effect on tribunal findings against anybody who is doing the wrong thing in that regard.
We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mrs Elphicke) about her standing up for her local workers and her local constituents. It is a shame that that was misrepresented in contributions from the Opposition. When she was talking about militant activism, she was clearly not talking about the people from the union who invited her or the workers who have lost their jobs. She was talking about the people who have been bussed in and have come in from outside to agitate. That is absolutely not appropriate and it is not appropriate for hon. Members to accept bullying when it suits them politically.
I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), who spoke about her port. I was at the Thames estuary with several representatives to look at Tilbury and the benefits that can come from the Thames freeport. She is absolutely right to make sure that she dissociates DP World from the rest of the great work that is going on in that area.
I want to accentuate what we heard from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport when he emphasised that P&O Ferries is not the same as P&O Cruises. I think P&O Cruises should be able to continue to do the great work it is doing without being tarred with the same brush as P&O Ferries, which has acted disgracefully.
From the contributions today, P&O should be in no doubt about the collective condemnation of its behaviour. It has lost the trust of the public and given business a bad name. It is not too late for it to undo some of this damage, and I implore it to get round the table with workers and unions to discuss this issue and find a way through. ACAS stands ready to help, and I know it has reached out both to the company and to the unions involved.
On the national minimum wage, which has been raised, individuals can contact ACAS if they feel they have not been paid the national minimum wage, but HMRC has an intelligence-led approach to enforcement, so please will everybody contact HMRC to make sure that it can look at any egregious abuses of the national minimum wage on the wider scale that has been outlined? In the meantime, the Government will act on any findings we discover from our conversations with the company.
This House should be left in no doubt but that this Government will always continue to stand behind workers, because it was a Conservative-led Government who banned exclusivity clauses in zero-hours contracts, a Conservative Government who introduced the national living wage, a Conservative Government who scrapped the Swedish derogation and a Conservative Government who extended the right to a day one statement of rights to all workers. I want to reassure P&O workers that this Government stand shoulder to shoulder with them, and we will hold P&O accountable for its actions.
That this House condemns the decision of P&O Ferries to fire 800 staff without notice and demands their immediate reinstatement; notes that DP World, the owner of P&O Ferries, received millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money during the coronavirus pandemic; calls on the Government to suspend the contracts and licences of DP World and remove them from the Government’s Transport Advisory Group; and further calls on the Government to bring forward a Bill urgently to outlaw fire and rehire and strengthen workers’ rights.