(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the conduct of P&O Ferries’ chief executive and board and the action the Government will take to safeguard jobs.
I know that the whole House has been left appalled and angered by the behaviour exhibited by P&O Ferries towards its workers over the last week. As a Government, we will not stand by and allow hard-working, dedicated British staff to be treated in such a manner.
This morning, my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary wrote to the chief executive of P&O asking him to pause and reconsider and to offer his workers their jobs back on their previous terms, conditions and wages, should they want them. That is because we will return to the House to announce a package of measures that will ensure that the outcomes that P&O Ferries is seeking to achieve through this disastrous move to pay less than the minimum wage cannot be seen through. As a result, it will have no reason left not to reconsider its move.
As I said to the Transport Committee and the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee last week, as soon as the package of measures has been finalised, we intend to return to the House so that Members can rightly scrutinise it. In the meantime, we continue to review the contracts that P&O Ferries has with the Government, and the Insolvency Service continues to investigate the actions of Peter Hebblethwaite, who brazenly admitted to breaking the law before two Committees of this House last week.
I am clear that P&O Ferries cannot and will not be allowed to get away with its actions. I hope the whole House will now support our efforts to ensure just that.
I thank the Minister for that response. As he said, on Thursday the chief executive of P&O Ferries made a mockery of the rule of law in this country. As a result, seven of P&O’s eight ferries are now stuck in port, and on Saturday the European Causeway—the only passenger ship in Europe to be prevented from sailing over safety concerns—was seized.
P&O Ferries must face the most serious consequences for its misconduct. I know that the Minister and the Secretary of State feel the same way, and I appreciate the contact they have made with the Opposition and trade unions, but every available tool at the Government’s disposal must now be used to force P&O Ferries to reinstate workers on the previous terms and conditions.
Will the Minister provide some urgent clarity? First, the Prime Minister said very clearly on Wednesday:
“we are taking legal action…against the company concerned”.—[Official Report,
So has the Secretary of State given his direction to prosecute? If not, why not?
Secondly, given that the chief executive has shown no respect for the law, will the Secretary of State seek his removal under the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986, and the removal of all those who authorised this unlawful action?
Thirdly, the Secretary of State has said he will review contracts, but livelihoods are on the line now, so will he suspend all contracts and licences of P&O and DP World today? Why is DP World still listed as a member of the Government’s trade advisory group?
Finally, time is running out. The deadline set by P&O for this Thursday for workers to agree severance amounts to extortion and has no legal basis. What powers do the Government have to extend that unlawful deadline? As the Minister said, workers must be reinstated on the same terms as before. Many are paid above the minimum wage, so will he commit to working with the unions and all ferry companies to agree a binding framework that will prevent a race to the bottom to the lowest international standards?
I know the House agrees that we must send a clear message that rogue employers cannot get away with trampling over the laws of this country. It is time to throw the book at P&O and save this loyal workforce.
The hon. Lady is quite right that P&O must face consequences for its actions. We are looking at every tool available to the Government and doing so as fast as is humanly possible. We are looking to bring forward a package of measures. I apologise that I cannot go into any more detail at the moment—some of these matters are complicated and we need to go through them—but we will speak to Members and to the unions as we put the package together.
The Secretary of State has made his views known very clearly, as did I when I came to the House when the announcement was made and when I appeared before the Transport Committee. The letter the Secretary of State has written is absolutely clear about the view we take of P&O’s actions, and we will act on that.
The hon. Lady mentioned several other matters. We continue to review any contracts that may exist and continue to take any action we can on things like trade advisory groups. I hope the hon. Lady will pardon me for not going into detail at the moment. We will come forward with a package of measures that we will take, as I said we would when I was before the Select Committee. We are putting that package together as I speak and will of course work with the unions and all others as we do so.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for working so closely with me and others since P&O took this disgraceful decision. Does my hon. Friend agree that the minimum wage proposal is a floor and not a ceiling? It would put ferry workers in the same position as other workers in this country and defeat P&O’s agency foreign workers model, such that P&O should just reinstate the Dover workforce now, on their current terms. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government measures that are coming forward this week will support ferry operators and ferry workers and safeguard the Dover-Calais route for the future?
First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her fearless championing of her constituents. There is no one who speaks out with more persuasion, force and passion than she does for the people of Dover and her constituents, and I pay tribute to her for that. She asks whether the national minimum wage is a floor, not a ceiling, and I am very keen to say that there is a package we are considering. We will come to the House and explain what that package is in due course, and I hope the House will look forward to and welcome that when it comes.
I call the SNP spokesperson.
Can I, through the Minister, thank the Secretary of State for what he has said and the content of the letter that he and the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy sent to P&O today? These actions have been utterly reprehensible, but I do have to ask where the progressive zealot intent on protecting jobs was when British Airways threatened to fire and rehire 30,000 staff. If some action had been taken at that point, we might not have been in this position today with P&O. However, it is better that a sinner repenteth, and the Government are indeed on the right side of the road now, which I very much welcome, because the actions of P&O are abhorred by everyone not just in this House, but right across the country.
The Minister said in his response to the shadow Secretary of State that he cannot give any details now, but can I please reiterate that the deadline is on Thursday and this place breaks for recess on Thursday? This is of the most urgent nature, and we need details on that as soon as possible.
The Chairs of the Transport Committee and the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee—this is my final question, Mr Speaker—have written to the Secretary of State today with a number of points, including stating:
“The Government should prosecute P&O Ferries and remove its licence to operate in the UK.”
What consideration is the Minister giving to this action, and to showing P&O that it cannot operate where it does not abide by the law?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He is quite right that, in reality, this is something that unites the House. Whatever party, wherever we come from and whatever our politics, we are all disgusted by the way that P&O has behaved. He is quite right, and I am very aware that the deadline is pressing, which is why the Government are working so hard on this. As soon as we are able to do so, we aim to come back before the House and update the House on the package of measures we are looking to take—[Interruption.]
Sorry; the hon. Gentleman reminds me, as I am on my feet, that there are a couple of questions I have not answered. I will consider the point he has raised about licences in particular, and we can consider that as we are going along. I know that some letters have been written. I have not yet seen those, but I will be very keen to see the suggestions that are made in those as well. As I said when I was in front of the Transport Committee last week, I am very keen to work with the Select Committee and the unions on any constructive suggestions they have made. If you will pardon me for taking just a second longer to say this, Mr Speaker, there have been some very constructive suggestions from all sides of the House.
Stena is one of the largest employers in my constituency of Ynys Môn, and Holyhead is the second busiest roll-on roll-off port in the UK. The news about P&O last week was felt with palpable anger and shock. I have spoken to Stena seafarers such as David Gwatkin and Mark Harrison on the Stena Adventurer, and they are quite rightly concerned about their jobs. Will the Minister confirm to my constituents that he and the Secretary of State are doing everything they can to ensure that this despicable, callous behaviour never occurs again?
My hon. Friend speaks with enormous power and passion for her constituents in Ynys Môn, and I pay tribute to her for that. The distress felt by seafarers of all companies has been absolutely palpable over the last week. Clearly, those at P&O are in our hearts and minds, but equally there are those with other operators who are worried about their livelihoods. It is precisely the case that we are taking the time we are because we want to be able to provide the reassurance to others, no matter where they work or who they are employed by, that their livelihoods will be secure.
I appreciate the Minister’s comment about DP World or P&O Ferries being on the advisory group, and that he will look at this as part of a package, but can he just tell us today whether part of that package is going to be to take DP World off the Government’s advisory body? That would send a fantastic message right now to the company that its behaviour is unacceptable. Will the Minister send out that message now, not ask us to wait for the package?
I do apologise to the hon. Gentleman, because I know that he would like me to say a number of things and to send such a message now. The message will be sent. I hope he will forgive me, but I want there to be a package that we announce to the House so that the House can scrutinise it, rather than announcing things piecemeal. We will come to the House, and we will explain what all those are.
I thank my hon. Friend for the strength of the Government’s response to the moral bankruptcy that P&O Ferries demonstrated at the Select Committee last week, and I welcome the Government’s commitments to protect seafarers in the future. Does my hon. Friend agree that every step needs to be taken to ensure that seafarers are properly protected in the future?
Moral bankruptcy is precisely the point; my hon. Friend puts his finger on it. We are taking every step. We will come forward with a package. We want to make sure that we get this right and are keen to make sure that people are protected.
We know that the unions met P&O Ferries on Friday—unsurprisingly, perhaps, the company was treating those unions with utter and complete contempt. I think the reason is this: the penny has not yet dropped for P&O Ferries that, very soon, legislation will come into force that will remove the incentive to exploit foreign agency workers at the expense of British seafarers. Will the Minister pick up the phone to P&O Ferries today and directly ask the chief exec to extend the clock for accepting what are essentially illegal offers? They are not redundancy offers—they are illegal.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who has been extremely constructive, for his input into this issue. I am grateful for it; I am taking it extremely seriously, and I am considering it all. I hope he does not mind if I say that at the outset.
The Secretary of State has already done more than make that phone call: he has written in no uncertain terms, in public, asking the company to do precisely what the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. I am not surprised that P&O has treated the unions with contempt, as the hon. Gentleman says; that is how we have seen it behave across the whole of this matter. It is deeply regrettable, and I urge the company to treat the unions and its workers with respect.
I come from a family of seafarers. The behaviour of P&O has been arrogant, disgusting and unacceptable. I am grateful to the Minister for the strong action that he and the Secretary of State for Transport have taken. Will they send a strong message to the chief executive of P&O and say from the Dispatch Box that he should resign for his behaviour?
Yes, absolutely. The Secretary of State has been absolutely clear: he has said in terms that the chief executive’s position is untenable, and I agree.
May I raise again the fact that the shipping companies have received over £2 billion of tonnage tax concessions, and P&O has been a major gainer from that? May we have an assurance from the Government today that no tonnage tax relief is now being paid to P&O and that, if necessary, we should seek to receive back some of the tonnage tax concessions that it gained? Why did it gain them? As a result of a commitment to protect and increase the number of British seafaring jobs.
I confirm to the right hon. Gentleman that we will be considering any actions that we can take. We will announce those as part of the package.
I am grateful for what the Secretary of State and the Minister have done. I just do not understand how a minimum wage, which by definition is a minimum, cannot be paid to people. Perhaps the Minister can explain that to me.
I take what the Opposition have said; we really need to hear in this House what the measures are. I understand why the Minister wants to make a package of announcements, but will he ensure that there is an oral statement before Thursday, when we go into recess?
My hon. Friend is quite right, and I agree with him. The House does need to know what the measures are, and we intend to return to the House as soon as possible to make that statement.
I also welcome the messages on safety, consultation and wages that the Government are sending out. I have spoken to workers affected in Larne, in my constituency. What they clearly want to see is the kind of sanctions that will be placed on the company to make sure that it obeys. As we have seen from the evidence it gave last week, the company still seems to think that breaking the law is okay.
The right hon. Gentleman puts his finger on the centre of the issue—thinking that breaking laws is okay. We saw an extraordinary display last week, when the CEO came here, brazenly admitted breaking the law and said he would do it again. We will make it absolutely clear that that is not acceptable. We will announce later in the week how that will be done. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will pardon me if we delay until then.
I have been speaking to people in South Ribble, and it is safe to say that P&O’s reputation is absolutely in tatters at the moment. Many people say that they will never use the company again. Through the Minister, I thank the Secretary of State for his strong letter this morning. Does the Minister agree that the chief executive officer of P&O Ferries should strongly consider his position?
I know a number of Members wish me to start talking about individual measures, and I hope the right hon. Lady will forgive me if I do not. We will come to the House and explain that package of measures, and we are clear about the position of the individual in question: his position is untenable and he ought to go.
Further to that question, surely the results of those inspections will be published in full, so the public can have confidence in what is being done. It appears that, as well as being in breach of its duty to inform the Secretary of State about its intentions, P&O is also in breach of its duty to inform flag states. Do the Government intend to pursue that matter?
One of the most damaging concessions made to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee last week was that it was cheaper for P&O to dispense with its section 188 consultation obligations, and that it was more cost-effective for it to pay 800 protective awards and then move to agency worker rates of £5.50 an hour—below the national minimum wage. It is doing that by paying the British national minimum wage up to the limit of British territorial waters, and then moving to rates of below £2 an hour. I know how hard my hon. Friend is working on this issue, but we do not have such measures in the airline industry when people move between jurisdictions. Will he look carefully at the territorial limit of national minimum wage obligations?
I will indeed, and that is one of the issues we are discussing. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to it, and I thank her for her expertise.
I was at the port of Liverpool on Saturday, and I met sacked P&O seafarers from Liverpool and from Larne. They had come across using a different carrier to show their solidarity with their Liverpool comrades. They told me about the MCA inspection in Larne, which kept the vessel in port. I will pass on their message to the Minister: they want their jobs back on their existing terms and conditions. They do not want just a review of the licences; they want proper action. They want the Government to show that they really are on their side, and not to leave any doubts about whether they are on the side of billionaires from Dubai.
I can be absolutely clear: we are on the side of the workers, and we will explain what we are going to do in the House later this week.
I congratulate the Minister on the robust approach that the Government have taken to this matter. Many small business owners and managers work long and hard to get personnel matters right, to do the right thing, and to comply with employment law. What signal will it send to them if P&O Ferries gets away with wilfully ignoring the law?
That is a signal we cannot have. We cannot have any company wilfully ignoring the law, and we want to ensure that every company knows that it must do the right thing.
The Government’s response to the mass sackings of 800 P&O workers has been shameful. Ministers failed to step in and save jobs, and in October they refused to support Labour efforts to outlaw fire and rehire. They are not seeking to disqualify P&O’s chief executive from holding a company directorship, for brazenly and knowingly breaking employment law. Many of my constituents employed in the maritime industry are afraid that their jobs could also be under threat. Will the Minister urgently commit to introducing legislation that will guarantee that the strongest employment protections are available to everybody working in the UK maritime industry, so that no one is ever treated in as contemptible a way as the 800 P&O workers were?
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s way of describing the Government’s approach—I do not think we could have been any more robust—but the overall thrust of his point, that workers should be protected, I agree with. We will come to the House and explain how we are going to do that as soon as we possibly can.
I welcome the Minister’s statement, but two of my neighbours and constituents, with a combined service period of 51 years, were laid off by email last week. They are understandably upset that they do not know whether money is coming into their households going forward. Can the Minister assure me that at the heart of the package of measures he will be introducing—I understand he cannot go into detail—are workers’ rights, so that in future no company like P&O will be able to take such actions?
I was heartened when the Minister, in opening, said he will not stand by and allow workers to be treated in such a manner, but P&O’s arbitrary and illegal deadline of
The hon. Gentleman makes the point that the way these people have been treated is not on. It is absolutely unacceptable. This is complicated, so there are a number of things we just have to go through to get this right. As soon as we can come back to the House we will, but in the meantime the letter the Secretary of State has written makes precisely the demand that the hon. Gentleman asks for.
I thank the Secretary of State and the Department for the robust way they have taken on P&O over its disgraceful actions over the last few weeks. Can the Minister confirm a couple of things? First, will all contracts and relationships that P&O has with the Government be under review? Secondly, will he block the outcome that P&O is after, specifically trying to pay workers less than the minimum wage? Thirdly, does he agree with me that the CEO should either resign or be sacked immediately?
My hon. Friend makes a number of excellent points. We will consider them as part of the package, but I can assure him that the thrust of what he is seeking to achieve is the same as the Government’s.
The problem we have here is that we have had fire and rehire with British Gas and British Airways, and I remember warm words from Ministers just a few months ago but no changes to the outcome. The words of my fellow Liverpudlian, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, that Tory MPs protesting the behaviour of P&O bosses is
“Like your neighbourhood arsonist offering you a flask of tea over the smoking ruins of your house” come to mind. Will Ministers now look at whether they can commit to securing a collectively bargained fair pay agreement for the entire sector?
We will consider all suggestions made by hon. Members across the House and I thank them for them. We will announce to the House in due course the measures we propose to take.
At a time like this, conversations take place across Government and across the devolved Administrations to consider what action we can take together.
I thank the Minister for his statement. I hope he introduces legislation very quickly. In that legislation, will he also take on board the scandal of the way seafarers are treated in international waters generally—they suffer from low wages, poor conditions and terrible working arrangements—which has been exposed by the P&O scandal? We need to address the issue of fairness and justice for all seafarers. As a major seafaring nation, we can take the lead on that.
This country absolutely is a major seafaring nation and has taken the lead already; for example during the pandemic when we were the first country to declare seafarers as key workers and took the issue of their rights to the International Maritime Organization. I am very keen that we continue to take the lead. The right hon. Gentleman puts his finger on a number of really pertinent issues.
Before I entered Parliament, I was an employment rights lawyer for more than a decade, and in all that time I do not think I ever saw such blatant disregard for the law or contempt for workers’ rights. This Government say that that is wrong, but the reality is that it has been allowed to happen under their watch. They have failed to ban fire and rehire; they have failed to extend the national minimum wage to seafarers; and if it was not for the legal challenge from Unison, we would still have fees for the employment tribunal. It is no wonder that employers think they can get away with it. When are this Government finally going to stand up for workers’ rights?
Unfortunately, the hon. Lady is just wrong on a number of points. For example, in regulations from 2020 the national minimum wage was extended to the vast majority of seafarers working on the UK continental shelf, so she is just wrong about that. There is an issue here that we are seeking to address, and we are addressing it.
After Peter Hebblethwaite admitted to the Select Committee that he had broken the law and would do so again, the nation has concluded that he is not a fit and proper person to be a director of P&O, or indeed of any company. When will the Government also reach that conclusion and disqualify him? When will they seek to ensure that workers onshore are not treated with the same contempt as those seafaring workers have been, and make sure that people cannot be fired in such a way, whether they are working for Weetabix, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, British Airways, British Gas or any of the other companies that have done the same thing over the past two years?
The Government have reached the same conclusion as the hon. Gentleman about Mr Hebblethwaite, and that is why the Secretary of State has written to him in the terms that he has done today. It is a matter for a court, not the Government, to disqualify a person. That would be an unusual position for any Government to take, as I know the hon. Gentleman will understand. We are looking to see what else we can do to protect workers in this sphere, as I have explained, and I look forward to updating the House before the end of the week.
I thank my hon. Friend for taking such a robust stance on this issue. May I invite him to make it absolutely clear that the despicable action of P&O Ferries is not connected in any way with P&O Cruises, because there is some concern about that? P&O Cruises is a completely separate company, owned by a separate organisation, and it is concerned that it may lose bookings as a consequence.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that there is no connection whatsoever between P&O Ferries and P&O Cruises. They are wholly separate organisations, separately managed. No blame whatsoever for the actions of P&O Ferries attaches, or should be seen to attach, to P&O Cruises.
The chief executive of P&O came into this place where the laws of the land are made and told us that he broke those laws in a premeditated way. He went on to compound the situation by showing scant regard for safety measures on his ships, resulting in their being impounded. Knowing all that, does the Minister not think that the chief executive deserves to be summarily dismissed, and should the Minister not make sure that that is done immediately, regardless of any package that he will bring forward?
I entirely share the hon. Gentleman’s state of shock at the statement that Mr Hebblethwaite made in front of the Select Committee last week. The Secretary of State and I also share the view that Mr Hebblethwaite’s position is untenable. We have told him that he ought to go, and I urge him to take that on board very seriously.
My hon. Friend Karl Turner is absolutely right. These are not redundancies, because the positions are not redundant; crew are still needed to man those ships. The fact remains that it is cheaper, quicker and easier to sack British workers than it is to sack workers anywhere else in Europe. When the Minister brings forward this package, will he have a discussion with the rest of Government and say that the time has come for proper employment rights in the UK?
I take on board entirely the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. The most important thing we have to do now is to make sure that the rights of those workers, and others in a similar position, are protected. Government will be taking note of any lessons that we might have to draw in the wider sphere, but it would be precipitative of me to make any commitment about that.
The Minister has been given example after example of fire and rehire this afternoon; every hon. Member, unless they have been living on another planet, is acutely aware of all those examples from the last two or three years. At what point will the Government say, “This is wrong. It should be illegal”?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, this is not really a fire and rehire situation, but we are absolutely clear that the way that those workers have been treated is wrong. That is why I have said in no uncertain terms that we are bringing forward a package of measures and I will be able to update the House before the end of the week.
Will the Minister confirm whether the Government have received advice from the Insolvency Service? If so, can he confirm that P&O, simply by not notifying the flag states of the intended redundancies within the prescribed time limits, has committed an offence that could and should lead to an unlimited fine being imposed? If not, will he bring forward legislation to correct that position retrospectively and make that unlimited fine happen?
It would not be normal for any Minister to comment on the legal advice that has been given, but I share the hon. Lady’s concerns, which is why we have asked the Insolvency Service to investigate in these circumstances. I take on board her suggestion, as I do those of all hon. Members, and we will update the House on that package shortly.
Dockers in Rotterdam refused to load freight on to a ferry in support of 800 unlawfully and illegally sacked P&O workers. Does the Minister endorse that action in support of saving those 800 jobs? If so, why is it good enough for workers and trade unions in Rotterdam but still illegal in this country to take solidarity action?
This is a Government who are standing up for workers. We have been absolutely clear about our condemnation of the way that P&O workers have been treated in this case and we will be taking action, which I will explain in due course.
The P&O pension pot has a shortfall of £147 million. P&O’s parent company, DP World, has previously sponsored a golf tournament to the tune of £150 million. Does the Minister agree that P&O’s parent company should step in and pay up so that workers’ pensions are secure for the future? Will he add that to his package that needs sorting out?
I entirely understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern. I think that DP World and P&O should get together, talk to their workers and look after them, which they have not done so far.
The Minister’s response there was interesting. DP World is the parent company and has corporate responsibility for the actions of P&O Ferries. Has anybody picked up the phone to the Government of the UAE, who have responsibility for DP World, to say that this situation is simply not good enough and not good for their reputation?
We have been absolutely clear, when we have written to P&O, that the decisions that it has taken are absolutely catastrophic for its reputation and we have said the same thing to DP World.
The Minister is absolutely right that this is not fire and rehire, because the P&O workers have not even had the indignity of being offered back their contracts on lesser terms and conditions. The flippant disregard for the UK workforce, the contempt for the rule of law and the disgusting abuse of foreign workers in what can only be described as slave labour are not just wrong; it is not on. I hope that when the Minister comes back to the House with his detailed package, we will be not just tough in words but tough in actions and tough on P&O.
I agree with the hon. Member that the way that the workers have been treated is absolutely not on. We have been absolutely clear about that and we are keen not on words but on action.
What is worse is that DP World and P&O Ferries were prepared to put untrained crew and passengers on to those ships and for them to sail, which is completely against health and safety measures. There is therefore something at the core of the company’s culture that needs to be addressed and that must result in the licence being removed, because it is clearly prepared to be unsafe and break the law.
I understand the hon. Lady’s concern. The thing that I hope will give her confidence is that we have the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, in which I have full confidence; it is an outstanding safety regulator. It inspects all those ships and if they are not safe to sail, they will not sail.