P&O Ferries Update

Ministerial Statements – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 1:00 pm on 21st March 2022.

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Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party 1:00 pm, 21st March 2022

I have received notice from the Minister for the Economy that he wishes to make a statement.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a brief statement to the Chamber to update Members on the latest developments arising from the reprehensible actions of P&O last week.

I recognise that last week's announcement will cut across a number of Departments here; indeed, a cross-departmental group of officials has already convened to make sure that we join up on our respective responses. I certainly do not want to cut across the work of ministerial colleagues, so the primary purpose of my statement is to focus on the employment law aspects of what has taken place.

At the outset, let me be clear: neither I, as a constituency representative in East Antrim or the Minister for the Economy, nor my officials in the Department were afforded the courtesy of advance notice of the P&O announcement. I regard its actions as disgraceful. P&O has literally ripped up the employment rule book and, in the process, simply discarded 800 of its loyal and most diligent workforce.

Even now, I can scarcely believe how callously P&O behaved. I understand that up to 50 staff from Northern Ireland could be directly impacted by the announcement. Many of us in east Antrim know some of those in the workforce. The stories that I heard of staff being escorted off ships by men in balaclavas carrying handcuffs are as sinister as they are outrageous. Deploying such a tactic in Northern Ireland on an unsuspecting workforce was so ill-judged and shocking that our condemnation alone is simply not enough.

P&O's announcement last week affected four routes: Dover-Calais, Dublin-Liverpool, Hull-Rotterdam and Larne-Cairnryan. Clearly, it is the last route that I and Members will be most concerned about. Great Britain is, by far, the largest market for sales and purchases here. In 2019, we sold approximately £11 billion of goods into Great Britain and purchased nearly £13·5 billion in return. The Port of Larne — a port that I know very well from my constituency — accounted for approximately 10% of the total tonnage through all Northern Ireland ports. Nearly 400,000 passengers travelled through Cairnryan last year. As P&O is the biggest operator at Larne port, Members can immediately see why its announcement last week had such immediate consequences for both the wider supply chain and the connectivity of business and travel across Northern Ireland.

However, as I said at the outset, I do not want to tread across the responsibilities of others who are already engaged on many of these supply and connectivity issues. I want to focus on the employment aspects for the 800 staff impacted by the announcement. Employment law is a devolved responsibility for this Assembly, so we have every right to be concerned about what P&O did last week. I have heard much made about the financial situation within P&O, and I have some sympathy with any business operating in these challenging times, but that does not mean that a business can just break the law. The law actually recognises that businesses may need to restructure or downsize, and that has happened many times before. Our laws allow for that but recognise that there is a process to be followed. They make it clear in regulation what that process involves, so I do not believe that P&O has acted within either the spirit or the letter of our employment law.

P&O seems to recognise that, as it has offered what have been reported as "enhanced payments" to staff, but let us not be fooled into thinking that that is a generous step. It is not. Indeed, it is an even more cynical way of an employer simply seeking to circumvent its statutory obligations. When any employer falls foul of its obligations to give notice and consult, it is legally required to properly compensate its workforce accordingly. That is all P&O is doing here. It is not an enhanced payment. In truth, it could be considered nothing more than a bribe to stave off the threat of legal action by employees who have been denied their rights.

The law requires employers to engage and consult when they plan to make such numbers of staff redundant. No such engagement took place. There was no consultation.

The law also requires the employer to notify the Department, through the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA), when making such numbers of staff redundant. No such notification took place. I understand that there may have been some communication on Wednesday evening with the Department for Transport in London, but I repeat: there was no sharing of that news, or engagement from the employer, with us.

Here we have an employer that has deliberately flouted employment law, seeking to buy its way out of its statutory obligations and failing to consult or notify the responsible authorities along the way. It is simply not good enough.

Of course, this is not the first time we have seen this sort of sharp practice in this industry on these islands. Members may recall that, back in 2005, Irish Ferries unilaterally issued proposals to replace 543 directly employed seafarers with a predominantly cheaper, Eastern European, agency workforce. Its ships would also be reflagged to Cyprus in the process. That dispute was eventually settled only after the intervention of the Irish Labour Relations Commission, so perhaps P&O has failed to learn the lessons from that dispute. However, even now, at this late stage, I encourage P&O to come to the table and discuss this with us.

Earlier today, I met our Labour Relations Agency. It stands ready and willing to meet immediately with P&O to see how they can turn around what is a terrible situation. It must be in P&O's interest to engage, but let us be in no doubt: its reputation, not to mention its future commercial viability, stands to take a massive hit here if it does not change course. It may want to hide behind the small print of maritime law, which might, in its eyes, justify what it has done, but the court of public opinion will not be so sympathetic.

Going forward, not only do we stand ready to intervene, through the Labour Relations Agency, but, if P&O fails to take me up on that offer locally, I have already asked my officials to investigate what remedies we may have for breaches of our devolved employment law. I understand that a similar piece of work is under way in Whitehall. I will be writing to Ministers there to make sure that we are kept up to speed with their investigations.

As far as the staff are concerned, my Careers Service is immediately available to help anyone who has been affected. We have also been in contact with our counterparts in the Department for Communities, who can stand up redundancy clinics and job fairs. Our first and foremost priority must be the staff involved. My Department will do all that it can to assist and support them in the coming days.

Members will have heard me talk about the work of my Department to take forward a comprehensive employment Bill in the next mandate. I have already asked officials to look at the emerging issues from this dispute to identify what more we can do in legislation to ensure that employers do the right thing by their workforce. We will look closely at fire-and-rehire practices. There is no immediate suggestion that that is happening here, but I want to make sure that it has not been an underlying issue. We will also look further at increasing the financial penalty for those employers who think that they can simply buy their way out of employment obligations. If employers want to pay a price to avoid the law, I want to make sure that it is a price that will deter, not encourage, more of this behaviour.

Finally, I turn briefly to consumer protection issues that have arisen from last week's announcement. Yesterday, I read that P&O was, in effect, leaving customers with existing bookings to make their own arrangements. It was offering no further support or assistance with rescheduling. It is treating its customers with the same disdain with which it treated its workforce. P&O is nothing if not consistent, but it cannot do that. In order to make sure that they are aware of their rights, I ask any customers with bookings that have not been honoured to contact the Consumer Council. Compensation, in addition to the reimbursement of the cost of making alternative travel arrangements, may well be payable to customers who have had to reschedule.

Mr Deputy Speaker, my thanks for allowing me the time, in an already congested Order Paper, to make this statement. I hope that Members will appreciate that, because of the lack of engagement with P&O, this remains a fluid situation, which we are still learning about and investigating. Given the concerns already expressed in this place, however, I wanted to share my immediate thoughts with Members. I will do all that I can in the coming days to work with everyone to try to find a better way forward. I commend the statement to the House.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin 1:15 pm, 21st March 2022

I thank the Minister for his statement. It is important that there is strong and unanimous condemnation of P&O's scandalous actions. P&O showed utter contempt for its workers, workers' rights and employment procedures. I am sure that the Minister will agree that it would set a very dangerous precedent if that were to go unchallenged. Strong words are one thing, but we need action. I have heard reports that the bogus, so-called enhanced payments could be time-limited or conditional on workers not taking unfair-dismissal claims. What is the legal position, and what can be done to challenge it via the Department or the Labour Relations Agency? I ask those questions because workers are essentially being bribed not to do what they are entitled to do. I am sure that the Minister will join me in encouraging workers, in order to ensure that they are fully informed, to engage with their trade unions and the Labour Relations Agency before taking any decisions.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I absolutely agree that it is important that we send a very strong message not just to P&O but to all companies that might think of getting involved in a practice like this in some way. We need to send a message that it is not acceptable and that just because it has happened once does not mean that it should happen again.

It is absolutely right that we have that cross-party support. It is also right that we investigate exactly what is going on and, where appropriate, that my Department takes action to make sure that the law is followed and, where it has not been followed, that there are penalties for that. The Member will be aware of the employment Bill that the Department hopes to bring forward in the next mandate. I hope that there will be cross-party support to ensure that any potential issues that have arisen out of this and are not already covered by employment law are covered in that Bill.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. I join him in his strong words of condemnation of the disgraceful actions of P&O towards its staff. He has touched on the exploration of the legal options for action that can be taken against P&O. What examination has there been to ensure that this is not something that is used by other employers or could happen again in another sphere of employment law?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

The Member is absolutely right to raise that issue. I do not want our response to this to give cover or succour in any way to employers that might be thinking of doing this in the future. It is absolutely reprehensible that any company or employer might think that they can get around employment law by, as I and others have said, some sort of bribe. It is absolutely right that the Department takes all the action that it can. That is why I will be working closely with the Department for Transport to make sure that the law is followed and, where it is not followed, that appropriate penalties are put in place. I want to ensure that nothing that has taken place over the last week or that will happen next week will in any way give any cover to other employers like this in future.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his statement. I am pleased to say that my party was the only one in this Chamber that showed up to vote in favour of banning fire and rehire in the House of Commons last year. I am glad to see that others are now on board with that, and I welcome the fact that the Minister is saying that he is looking at legislation in the new mandate.

The Minister said correctly that labour and employment law is devolved here. Given the concern that one of the promises made by Brexiteers was that they would use Brexit to water down labour laws, will he make a pledge here that, even if the Tory Government in England decide to water down labour laws further, we will strengthen our employment laws in the new mandate?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I have already made a commitment to the House. It may well be that I will not be in post — I know that the Member would want me to stay on — but I think there is broad acceptance that we need to address a number of employment issues that we would have liked to take up in this mandate but were not able to. It is a devolved issue, so, ultimately, it is up to us to decide what our employment laws are. It is absolutely not the case that Brexit has changed anything. There has, of course, been no change to the retained EU regulation in terms of employment law.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I thank the Minister for making it clear that his Department got no heads-up from the employers. Did the Department get advance notice from any other source? Exactly which laws has P&O breached?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I do not believe that we got any advance notice or warning from any source whatsoever. I found out when a member of staff in my constituency sent it through to me.

It will be for the court, ultimately, to adjudicate on the laws that have been broken. However, we have basic statutory requirements with regard to redundancy. If an employer is making more than 20 employees redundant within any 90-day period, a consultation should take place between that employer and a representative. It is clear that that has not happened, and that is disappointing. In my view, this is a clear breach of Northern Ireland employment law, but, ultimately, it is up to the courts to decide.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

I thank the Minister for his statement. I very much welcome his informing the House that we will look to strengthen employment law in Northern Ireland in the next mandate, particularly around the issue of fire and rehire. Minister, the reality is, however, that you and your party participated in wasting years, during which that type of legislation could have been introduced in this mandate. We are now left without the strength and protection that could and should be provided.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Can I bring the Member to a question, please?

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

Quite simply, my question is this: what action will the Minister take now to meet P&O to discuss the issues?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I will address the Member's first point. Given that the Member has been in the Chamber two or three times when I have addressed this issue before, he will be aware that we had only two years in the Chamber to pass legislation. He knows the pressures that were on our time in regard to employment law. We passed the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Act (Northern Ireland) 2022. I would have liked to go further. However, I have committed that we will do that in the next mandate.

I have requested a meeting with P&O. I have said that I am willing to work with it. I have met the Labour Relations Agency and suggested that it could be an intermediary on the issue. I have not yet received a response.

Photo of Jemma Dolan Jemma Dolan Sinn Féin

The Minister touched on the fire and rehire concept. I look forward to legislation on that in the next mandate. I am disappointed that it has not happened in this mandate, given that there were complaints to his predecessor from councils.

Minister, you directed people with bookings with P&O to go to the Consumer Council. Have you been in contact with the Consumer Council around what consumers may be entitled to?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I will touch on the fire and rehire issue. Yes, we will look at employment law in the next mandate, and we want to address issues that can come from that. However, let us be clear: we have employment law in Northern Ireland now, and that is what seems to have been breached. Let us not in any way allow anybody to get away with this on the basis of what may or may not be in our law right now. It is absolutely the case that what is in our law right now appears to me to have been breached.

I have not spoken directly to the Consumer Council at this time. I am more than happy to do that. However, it is well positioned to hear directly from consumers, and I strongly encourage those who have been affected to get in touch with the Consumer Council so that they know their rights and know how they can proceed.

Photo of Keith Buchanan Keith Buchanan DUP

Minister, your statement referred to the fact that:

"up to 50 staff from Northern Ireland could be directly impacted".

Obviously, those staff members covered a range of tasks on the ferry. Do you have any concerns that, when the ferries start to sail again between Northern Ireland and Scotland, there may be a safety issue, bearing in mind that the new staff will have been trained in a very short time?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

It absolutely is the case that we have had competent staff on ferries not only between Northern Ireland and Scotland but, I am sure, right around the UK and Ireland, who have had many years — in some cases, decades — of experience. I want to make sure that any staff who are brought on and agency workers who are hired to do the job are properly trained. We need to make sure that no corners are cut and that they have all the necessary experience. Not only is what is being done a huge disservice to existing customers and staff, but it is imperative that we look out for the safety of those who will travel with P&O in the future. It is absolutely right for the Member to raise the issue, and P&O needs to be aware of its need to follow all the regulations that may be in place on not only the standard of training required but minimum wage and other entitlements for staff.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Minister, I am pleasantly surprised by the strength of your statement. It is as strong a statement as I have heard from someone in your position and from your party on employment law. "Well done" on the statement, but what we need now is strong action as well as strong words.

Will the Minister take action with regard to the public funds that P&O has received? I have no doubt that that company, despite making £1·3 billion of profit last year, will have its hand out again for more public money. Will the Minister ensure that it does not receive public money until the practices that it has been involved in are dealt with and it has been punished for what it has done to those workers?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP 1:30 pm, 21st March 2022

The Member has thrown me off a little bit by complimenting me, but I appreciate his words. I think that that was because we are all united on what has happened. P&O's treatment of its staff, especially those who served the company for so long, is reprehensible and disgusting. It is right that we have strong words. I completely agree with him that we need strong actions as well. Some of the financial support provided to that company in the past was via the Treasury or elsewhere in HMG. It is right that they look into that. Certainly, I am more than happy to look at what support has been given and how we can ensure that we do not support companies that disregard employment law in that way.

Photo of Stephen Dunne Stephen Dunne DUP

I thank the Minister for the statement. I, too, concur with Members on P&O's disgraceful treatment of long-serving and loyal staff. Is the Minister concerned about supply chains in light of recent activity?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

Yes. I have outlined the volume of freight that comes in via those ferries. That will inevitably have a knock-on effect. We are seeing additional sailings by other companies and some of the hole being filled in that way. I will work very closely with the Department for Transport, and I get regular updates from it. I will work with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs as well on those issues to make sure that we do everything that we can to ensure that that supply comes in.

That brings up a further question about what role and responsibilities a private company should have when it is responsible for a strategic national asset like that and then goes ahead and closes it down at a moment's notice. We will have to look at that as well.

Photo of John Stewart John Stewart UUP

I thank the Minister for his statement today. I echo completely what he said about the deplorable way in which P&O has treated its customers and staff. It is absolutely disgraceful.

Minister, I do not think that any of us could understand the notion of Belfast City Airport being owned by Flybe or British Airways or Belfast Aldergrove being owned by easyJet. That is almost impossible to accept in the interests of competition and delivery for customers. Yet that is exactly what we see in the Port of Larne, where the owner/operator is the only company using it. That cannot be good for competition, and it is not good for delivery to the public. What conversations have you had about alternatives and the potential for a free port in Larne?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I am very keen to explore having a free port in Larne. That is another opportunity for us. Ultimately, my aim is to see much more competition not just between Larne and Scotland but, indeed, between all ports in Northern Ireland and Scotland. The cost of travel between Northern Ireland and Scotland is very high, because we do not have the same competition that you might see in, for example, the English Channel. We need to do all that we can to increase competition.

I have been pleased to work with councillors and MSPs in Scotland to look at the A75 and the A77, because improving those roads will be key to getting more traffic there. That will help to make the ports more sustainable for transport — passenger transport in particular. We should explore all the options. I am very keen to see a free port and to ensure that we harness the opportunities that can come from that.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

Minister, you quite rightly called out the shameful and disgraceful behaviour of P&O. You stated:

"Our first and foremost priority must be the staff involved."

Again, that is quite right. However, there was no mention in your statement or in the questions of engagement between you and the trade unions that are supporting the workers. Given that P&O is trying to divide workers and pick them off with pay offers, it is absolutely crucial that the Minister engage with the relevant trade unions. Can he confirm today that that is the case?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I am more than happy to confirm that I requested a meeting with RMT this morning. Unfortunately, it was not able to attend that meeting. I am more than happy to engage with any of the trade unions that have an interest in the issue. There is no barrier whatsoever to doing that.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I thank the Minister for the statement and for the detail regarding planned actions. I associate myself and my party with the comments from across the House about the workers involved and those working to help those members affected.

As I am a member of the AERA Committee, my question relates mainly to supply chains. Some of the parties — including the Minister's, it seems — on the local council thought that resources should not be shared with Belfast port at this time of need. I have raised those matters with DAERA for clarification of its intentions. Might good practice involve resource sharing between ports and between agencies to ensure supply chain sustainability at this time?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

Of course, I want to see the sustainability of the supply chains. That is why I am an opponent of the Northern Ireland protocol, which has caused so many of the issues and problems that we have seen over the past year. It is contributing to the increase in costs: the Road Haulage Association estimated that anywhere between 10% and 25% has been added to costs. If the Member wants to see a more secure supply chain between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, I hope that he will join us in our efforts to dump the Irish Sea border.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

P&O has brutally cast its workforce aside in a Dickensian fashion. There was no consultation or notice, and the company delivered a live message by video link. Will the Minister clarify whether the P&O redundancy announcement is covered by maritime law, Northern Ireland employment law or GB employment law? There seems to be a variety of thoughts on that.

Regarding disruption to trade, our supply chain is exposed because no replacement crew has been approved to operate that passenger vessel safely. Will the Minister get in touch with Her Majesty's Government so that nothing like that can ever expose Northern Ireland again?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

The Member is right to raise those issues. As I said in my answer to Mr Dunne, there have to be ways to protect a strategic asset such as that.

On the question of redundancies, discussions may go on about which employment law applies here or whether the redundancies are covered by maritime law. The ferry in question, Larne to Cairnryan, spends all its time sailing between UK ports in UK waters, however, so it is likely that Northern Ireland or Great Britain employment law will apply. Even if Jersey law were to apply, there would still be redundancy requirements. It is absolutely right that people be held to account to the law of the jurisdictions in which they operate.

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

I, too, thank the Minister for his strong statement and his written reply to the cross-Committee letter that was issued on Friday, to both of which, unfortunately, we are still waiting for a response from his South Belfast colleague, the AERA Minister.

Minister, you stated:

"P&O has literally ripped up the employment rule book and, in the process, simply discarded 800 of its loyal and most diligent workforce."

Even P&O could not disagree with that. It is largely accepted that P&O has calculated the move to be its cheapest option. When we look into remedies to breaches, I imagine that that has already been costed. Financial penalties aside, Minister, I want to push you on the question raised by Mr O'Dowd: how will you make sure that P&O will not profit from public funding for any and all efforts to clean up the mess that it has deliberately made, particularly given that it owns the port?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I hope that I was clear in my answer to Mr O'Dowd. I reiterate that, if it is a role for the UK Government, I will strongly support them in taking action, and, if there is a role for us to play, I will be more than happy to do that as well. If P&O gets public money and continues to act in that way, and if there is a role for us to play, I will be keen to look at all the options available, because it has acted in an absolutely disgraceful way.

What irks me even more is the fact that P&O knew a long time ago that this would happen. Six weeks ago, it engaged a security firm to come onto the boats in the event of trouble. The employees of that security firm were told to ensure that they had their utility belts and handcuffs. P&O knew six weeks ago the difficult situation that it was going to send that security firm into, yet it was not prepared to give its staff any notice ahead of time. It has acted in a reprehensible way, and there needs to be consequences for that.

The Member asked me what that action will be. That depends. I do not know what level of public funding the company gets at the minute. She will understand that we have not been able to have that engagement with P&O yet, but we will take whatever action we can. I hope that she hears the strength of my words today. I am prepared to do anything that I can to support the workers and to ensure that no company thinks that it can get away with this again in the future.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I am sure that we all agree that any company that is dealing in a decent fashion with its workers does not need balaclavas or handcuffs. I want to focus the Minister's attention on the current economic consequences of the situation. There are hauliers who are at their wits' end wondering how they are going to get their goods, some of which are perishable, transported. I will read the Minister a comment that has just been sent to me by a haulier who listened to the Minister's statement. You will get the frustration:

"All very nice words, but he'd be better focusing his attention on actually doing something about it before small businesses go to the wall while Stormont watches them."

There are not enough spaces on the surviving services to transport necessary goods and —

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

I ask the Member for his question, please.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

What is the Department able to do to bring pressure on other companies in order to alleviate the situation?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I understand the frustration of not just the Member but the haulier he has spoken to. I am aware of those difficulties. I do not want to tread on the responsibilities of other Ministers. That having been said, I have had engagement already with what might be considered alternative providers in order to see what we can do to address some of the hold-ups that we are seeing. I know that that will have consequences.

I also know that it is a frustration for the Member and the haulier involved. I am dealing with the employment law side of the situation because that is primarily my responsibility, but I recognise the impact that it is having on the wider economy. Although supply chain issues are the responsibility of the Agriculture Department, we are working together to see how we can ensure that the capacity that is required is there. My Department and I will do everything that we can to get that capacity up to where it was before as soon as possible.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I was proud to stand with RMT workers and former P&O workers at Larne harbour on Friday past against that despicable decision. Minister, their union is calling for the public ownership of P&O and its fleet so that the jobs can be kept and the service allowed to continue. Do you support that call? People will find your talk of making employers do the right thing a bit hollow considering that you and your party voted against the trade union freedom Bill only a matter of weeks ago.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

Of course, it is nonsense to suggest that the trade union Bill that he brought forward would in any way have prevented the situation. It is absolute nonsense, again, from the Member to suggest that. The one problem that we have right now is that the employment law that we have has not been followed. I am more than happy to look at what else we might be able to do to make sure that our employment law is completely fit for purpose, but let us make it very clear: the responsibility lies with the company to follow its obligations. That has not been done, and that is the root of the problem.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

That concludes questions on the statement. Members should take their ease while we move to the next item of business.