Louise Haigh – 2022 Speech on P&O Ferries

The speech made by Louise Haigh, the Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, in the House of Commons on 30 March 2022.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement, and for the briefing he gave me on these measures last week.

I know the whole House agrees that the action taken by P&O Ferries was beneath contempt. A sense of fair play and decency runs deep in this country—it is part of who we are—so the sight of a rogue employer who has made a mockery of the rule of law, trashed the reputation of a great British brand and upended the lives of 800 families saying that he would do it all again offends people deeply. The test, therefore, for this Government in the eyes of the country is simple: do not let them get away with it—because for too long, they have. The warning sirens have been sounding for years. P&O Ferries has been exploiting workers in plain sight. In this House, the Government were told repeatedly of seafarers on destitution wages, some earning just £1.74 an hour. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) warned:

“If the Government fail to act, how long will it be before we see the same thing happen…on other critical shipping lanes?”

The gate was left wide open, and P&O Ferries has sailed straight through it.

The steps announced by the Government, insisting on the bare minimum, cannot come a moment too soon. This is a move we warmly welcome, and which has our wholehearted support. However, can the Secretary of State confirm that under the harbour legislation he mentioned, the national minimum wage will apply on the entirety of all UK international routes, and not just in British waters, as P&O seemed to suggest yesterday? I very much welcome his action to instruct the Insolvency Service to consider the CEO’s disqualification. When will the Insolvency Service respond, so that the Business Secretary can seek an order for his disqualification in the courts?

Yesterday’s letter from P&O showed in black and white that regardless of the proposed legislation, it still intends to carry out its outrageous plan to sack 800 workers, to trample over the laws of this country, and to take an axe to the pay and conditions of these workers’ replacements and force through a 60% pay cut. This is, as the joint Select Committee was told last week, fire and rehire on steroids—and P&O Ferries must not get away with it. That is why the Government’s reluctance to use every tool at their disposal to force it to change course is bewildering. No prosecution has been brought, despite the Prime Minister’s announcement last week, and the deadline to act to protect these workers is tomorrow. The Chancellor confirmed yesterday to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) that the review of the relationship with DP World has already concluded—and it will keep every single taxpayer-funded contract.

Even with these very welcome steps announced today, the Government still risk giving the green light to P&O and other exploitative employers. Will the Secretary of State now guarantee that he will prosecute, disqualify the directors, and suspend their lucrative contracts? If P&O continues to proceed with this unlawful action, and to risk safety, is it not time to suspend its licence to operate? Will he introduce powers to allow the Government to step in and stop any such illegal behaviour in future and force employers back to the negotiating table? Will he amend the Trade Union Act 2016 so that employees can seek unlimited punitive damages against such unlawful action in future?

P&O Ferries has written the blueprint for bad business the world over. It must know that there will be consequences, because this scandal extends well beyond P&O. It is the consequence of a decade in which an axe has been taken to workers’ rights. The balance has tipped far away from working people. Fire and rehire has become commonplace, and millions of people are thinking, “Will I be next?”

The measures announced yesterday by the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), show, I am afraid, that the Government still do not get it. The measures may mean extra compensation, but only after people have gone through a tribunal process that is beset with delays and backlogs—and this is a price that bad bosses have already shown they are prepared to pay. If Ministers mean what they say—if this is going to be a line in the sand—they will bring forward an emergency employment Bill straight after recess. No more half measures, no more excuses—they must ban fire and rehire for good. They will also guarantee that not a penny of public money will be handed out to companies that disregard workers’ rights, and will work with the RMT and Nautilus International to pursue a binding agreement on pay and conditions to end the race to the bottom that P&O is determined to lead.

We will work constructively with the Government on the measures announced today, but 13 days on from this scandalous act, key shipping routes are still suspended, 800 workers are still without their jobs, those responsible have no regrets, and time is almost out. The stakes could not be higher. To reverse this scandalous act, the actions of Ministers must now match their words.