Government ministers knew about P&O Ferries’ plan to cut 800 jobs before staff were informed, but were told by officials that it would ensure the company remained “a key player in the UK market for years to come”, it is have been reported.
Sunday Times the newspaper said it received a leaked note, apparently written by a senior Whitehall official, that sought to “justify” the mass layoffs, stating that “without these decisions, an estimated 2,200 employees would likely lose their jobs”.
The memo, which is claimed to have been sent before 800 P&O employees were told on Thursday that their jobs were lostadds the changes “will bring them in line with other companies in the market that have previously made a major staff reduction”.
The newspaper said it was “widely shared across the government” and the recipients included the prime minister’s private office, while Transport Secretary Grant Shapps is understood to have received a copy.
It comes after Mr Shapps openly criticized P & O’s handling of firing seafarers and replacing them with cheaper agency staff, saying he had written to P & O’s CEO Peter Hebblethwaite questioning the legality of the move.
Shapps has also ordered a review of all government contracts with both P&O Ferries and its parent company, DP World, and stated that ships will be subject to inspections and new crews will be inspected before they are allowed to sail.
Daren Ireland, a spokesman for Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT), said: “[In the memo] The DFT seems to be heating up the employers’ argument, but they are failing to take into account the £ 270 million dividend paid by DP World.
“So [they’re] clearly fails to step up to the plate in protecting ratings in the UK maritime industry. “
Last year, DP World’s revenue rose more than a fifth to more than $ 4.9 billion (£ 3.7 billion). Its profits rose by nearly $ 300 million to $ 732 million before tax.
It was not entirely common when the company was forced to demand around £ 10 million to fire 1,100 workers during the pandemic.
The ferry operator said it was closing down jobs in a “very difficult but necessary” decision as it “was not a viable business” in its current state.
Several routes have been halted following the announcement, but on Saturday night P&O said their services between Liverpool and Dublin had resumed.
Nautilus International’s secretary general, Mark Dickinson, has written to Mr Shapps urging the government to take urgent action against the ferry operator, urging them to revoke P&O Ferries’ licenses in British waters and pursue “any legal option” on how P&O handled the mass redundancies.
Workers have meanwhile held protests against the decision on Friday and Saturday, with Nautilus International and RMT saying more demonstrations will take place outside Parliament in Westminster on Monday.
Louise Haigh MP, Labor’s shadow transport secretary, said: “This bombing letter proves that the government was not only aware of the scandalous act of the P&O ferries – but complicit in it.
“They knew people’s livelihoods were at stake, and they knew P&O was trying to use exploitative fire and re-employment practices. But they sat back and did nothing.
“The chaotic reaction to this shameful episode proves that the Conservatives cannot and will not stand up for British workers. Labor’s new agreement for workers will strengthen protection and provide security and respect in the workplace.”
A spokesman for DfT said: “This was an internal government memo that, as standard practice, outlined what officials had been told by P&O Ferries shortly before their announcement was made.
“This was sent before the ministers were informed of the full details, and as soon as they were informed, they made clear their indignation at the manner in which P&O staff had been dismissed.”
They added that the DfT’s “immediate priority” was to work with trade unions to ensure that workers’ rights continue to be protected, and that Mr Shapps has called on the company to sit down with the workers and reconsider this action.
Additional reporting from the Press Association