P&O Ferries Update

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

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Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP 1:00 pm, 21st March 2022

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.