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Commons victory for seafarers as MPs vote to condemn P&O Ferries

21 March 2022

MPs have voted in favour of an Opposition Day Motion condemning P&O Ferries and demanding that the government take action to improve employment protection for all workers in light of the company's actions.

The vote was passed by 211 votes to none, with the government abstaining.

The Labour party forced the emergency vote in parliament on the motion, which calls on the UK government to:

  • outlaw fire and rehire and bring forward an urgent bill to strengthen workers rights
  • suspend the contracts of DP World – the owner of P&O Ferries – until the current situation is resolved
  • remove DP World from the UK government's Transport Advisory Group

As an Opposition Day Motion, the outcome of the vote is not considered legally binding on the government but it does represent the will of Parliament. It was sponsored by Labour party leader Kier Starmer, deputy leader Angela Rayner, shadow secretary of state for transport Louise Haigh, shadow leader of the House of Commons Thangam Debbonaire, shadow minister Justin Madders and shadow chief Whip Alan Campbell.

During the debate, Conservative MPs also revealed that P&O Ferries management told them the decision to make the workers redundant came directly from P&O's Dubai-owned parent company – DP World.

Speaking at the parliamentary debate, Ms Haigh criticised government inaction so far and called for them to move against P&O Ferries: 'They knew that, when they did what they did, the government would not stand in their way,' she said. 'The impotent response so far from ministers shows they were right to think so.'

She pointed out that ministers were informed before time of this 'illegal act from a rogue employer' and did nothing at the time. She asked the government to bring forward emergency legislation on workers rights. 'The Conservatives must back Labour’s motion and send the message that British workers cannot be treated in this way,' she said.

In a debate led by Labour figures but marked by much unity, MPs from all parties expressed their anger and shock at the actions of P&O Ferries. They repeatedly brought up the need to ensure that the layoffs do not pay off for the company, to send a firm message that no employer can act this way again.

Many Labour MPs, along with representatives from other parties including the SNP and DUP and some of the few Conservatives present in the chamber, demanded that P&O Ferries reinstate the employees and enforce laws broken by the company when attempting to make them redundant, which could lead to an unlimited fine.

Liberal Democrat MP Ian Carmichael, among others, asked the government to confirm that it will reconsider contracts with both P&O Ferries and DP World – including the London freeport project – which are worth billions of pounds.

Speaking for the government, transport secretary Grant Shapps confirmed that DP World contracts are also being reconsidered.

'Regretfully redundancies are sometimes necessary, but there is no excuse for what we saw last Thursday,' he said.

In his speech, Mr Shapps claimed that he had not seen the memo ahead of Wednesday night. He also said that earlier redundancies made by the company were properly made and consulted, and so this action was unexpected.

Responding to other MPs, who pointed out that it would be shameful that vessels with names such as Pride of Kent and Pride of Hull should operate without any UK seafarers onboard, Mr Shapps flippantly said it would be 'ridiculous' and that he would lobby to change the names of the ships.

However, Mr Shapps did lay out some current government actions:

  • review all government contracts with both P&O and DP World as a matter of urgency and consider other providers
  • continue considering legal action over how the layoffs were conducted. He confirmed that this could include criminal action
  • continue talking with ACAS regarding 'fire and rehire'
  • take further steps to remove P&O Ferries from positions on key advisory boards. 'We don’t want to see them advising on how British maritime is shaped'
  • speaking to Department of Work and Pensions to see that anyone who needs it is supported
  • putting workers in touch with other employers

Later, business, energy and industrial strategy minister Paul Scully said it was highly likely the company had breached existing laws when making employees redundant under UK jurisdiction.

Ian Carmichael MP asked Mr Shapps about safety, saying it is 'difficult to see how P&O can be in compliance with its obligations' under the law.

Mr Shapps said he has:

  • instructed the MCA to inspect all the vessels, including operational drills to ensure the new crews are safe and properly trained. 'If they are not, these ships will not sail,' he said. 'I suspect the public will want to vote with their feet and choose another provider.'

Ruth Cadbury MP later raised the spectre of the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster, which was partially caused by corporate culture.

DUP MP Sammy Wilson asked whether national minimum wage laws will apply to workers on the ferry from Larne to Cairnryan as it is between two UK ports. Mr Shapps promised to confirm if this is the case.

Mr Wilson went on to point out that the route, which carries 60% of trade from Northern Ireland, was shut down summarily and without consultation, showing the company's contempt.

Mr Shapps claimed that the government is 'putting maximum pressure on the company to sit down with the workers and unions to ensure this is not where it ends.'

Among many MPs making impassioned speeches was Karl Turner, MP for Hull East: 'I've never ever been so angry about such an act of brutal contempt for decent working people,' he said.

He highlighted the action of P&O Ferries seafarers in the Falklands war, and the pride of the company at the time in its ratings and officers – as opposed to their current mistreatment by management.

'If this was happening to any worker in any industry on shore it would be the most grotesque act in industrial relations that any lawyer or any employment tribunal judge had ever seen,' he said.

Mr Turner was joined by other MPs including Conservative MP Craig Mackinlay, Labour MP Grahame Morris and former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in praising the work of the RMT and Nautilus International on behalf of the seafarers and promising support to unions in their ongoing battle.

Outside the UK Parliament, MPs and others have been expressing their support for the seafarers and for the RMT and Nautilus International as the unions fight to preserve their jobs.

Hundreds marched on DP World heaquarters and parliament to express their anger at the company.

On Sunday, 40 Labour MPs signed a letter by Ian Byrne MP to transport minister Grant Shapps, in support of the six demands made by Nautilus International.

Today in Stormont, it was revealed that the NI Assembly will be looking into legal action against the company under the powers of the devolved administration.  

Also today, former maritime minister Nusrat Ghani MP also called on the UK government to take tough action against the company.


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