Minister's Assembly Statement on P&O

Date published: 21 March 2022

Mr Speaker, with your permission, 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 the announcement last week will cut across a number of Departments here; indeed, a cross departmental group of officials has already convened to make sure we join up on our respective responses. I certainly don’t want to cut across the work of Ministerial Colleagues, so the purpose of my statement today, is primarily, 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 as Minister of the Economy, nor my officials in the Department, were afforded the courtesy of advanced notice of the P&O announcement. 

I regard their actions as disgraceful. P&O has literally ripped up the employment rule book, and in the process, simply discarded 800 of their loyal and most diligent workforce.

Even now, I can scarcely believe how callously they behaved. I understand that there could be up to 50 staff from Northern Ireland directly impacted by this announcement. Many of us in East Antrim know some of the workforce. The stories I heard of staff being escorted off ships, by men in balaclavas, carrying handcuffs, was as sinister as it was outrageous.

Deploying such a tactic here, in Northern Ireland, to an unsuspecting workforce is so ill judged and shocking, our condemnation alone is simply not enough.

P&Os announcement last week affected 4 routes:

  • Dover – Calais
  • Dublin – Liverpool
  • Hull -  Rotterdam
  • 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 both sales and purchases here. In 2019, we sold approximately £11bn of goods into GB and purchased nearly £13.5bn in return. The Port of Larne, a port I know very well within my own constituency, accounted for approximately 10 per cent of the total tonnage through all NI ports. Nearly 400k passengers travelled through Cairnryan last year. As P&O are the biggest operators at Larne Port, you can immediately see why their 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 don’t 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 this 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; I have some sympathy with any business operating in these challenging times.

But that does not mean they 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 there is a process to be followed. They make clear in regulation, what that process involves. So, I do not believe P&O have acted either within the spirit, or the letter, of our employment law.

They seem to recognise this themselves by offering what have been reported as ‘enhanced payments’ to staff. But let us not be fooled into thinking this is a generous step forward. It is not. Indeed, it is an even more cynical way of an employer simply seeking to circumvent their statutory obligations. When any employer falls foul of their obligations to give notice and consult, they are legally required to properly compensate their workforce accordingly. That is all they are 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, denied their rights.

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

The law also requires the employer to notify the Department, through NISRA, when making these numbers of staff redundant. No such notification took place. I understand 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.

So here we have an employer, who has deliberately flouted employment law, seeking to buy their way out of their 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. Back in 2005, members may recall Irish Ferries unilaterally issued proposals to replace 543 directly employed seafarers with a predominantly cheaper Eastern European agency workforce. Their ships would also be reflagged to Cyprus in the process.  That dispute was only eventually settled after the intervention of the Irish Labour Relations Commission. So perhaps P&O have failed to learn the lessons from that dispute. But even now, at this late stage, I would encourage them to come to the table and discuss this with us.

Earlier today, I met with our own Labour Relations Agency. They stand 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&Os interest to engage, because let us be in no doubt. Their reputation, not to mention their future commercial viability, stands to take a massive hit here if they do not change course. They may want to hide behind the small print of maritime law that might, in their eyes, justify what they have done. But the court of public opinion will not be so sympathetic.

In terms of going forward, not only do we stand ready, through the Labour Relations Agency, to intervene, but if P&O fail to take me up on that offer locally, I have already asked my officials to investigate what remedies we may have for any breaches of our devolved employment law. I understand that a similar piece of work is now underway in Whitehall and I will be writing to Ministers there to make sure we are kept up to speed with their own investigations. As far as the staff themselves are concerned, my own Careers Service are immediately available to help anyone who has been affected. We have also been in contact with our counterparts in Communities who can stand up redundancy clinics and job fairs. So our first and foremost priority must be for the staff involved and again, my Department will do all it can to assist and support them in the coming days.

Members will also 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 employers do the right thing by their workforce. We will look closely at ‘fire and re-hire’ practices. There is no immediate suggestion that is happening here. But I want to make sure it hasn’t been an underlying issue. We will also look further at increasing the financial penalty for those employers who think they can simply buy their way out of their employment obligations. If employers want to pay a price to avoid the law, I want to make sure it is a price that will deter, not encourage more of this behaviour.

Finally, I want to briefly turn to Consumer Protection issues that also arise out of this announcement last week. Yesterday, I read with incredulity that P&O were in effect leaving customers, with existing bookings, to make their own arrangements. They were offering no further support or assistance to reschedule. They are treating their customers with the same disdain they treated their workforce. They are nothing if not consistent. However, they cannot just do that. I would ask any customers with bookings that have not been honoured, to contact the Consumer Council and make sure you are aware of your rights here. Compensation may well be payable for customers who have had to reschedule – in addition to reimbursement of the cost of alternative travel arrangements.

Mr Speaker, my thanks for allowing me time, in an already congested order paper, to make this statement to the Chamber. I hope members will appreciate that because of the lack of engagement with P&O, this remains a very fluid situation which we are still learning about and investigating. However, given the concerns already expressed across this place, I wanted to share my immediate thoughts with Members and of course, I will do all I can in the coming days, to work with everyone to try and find a better way forward here.


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