Boris Johnson’s Government cannot force P&O Ferries to reinstate 800 workers who have been made redundant, a minister has admitted as he asked the company to pay back £10million in holiday pay.
Defense Secretary James Heappey said it would be “right” for the company to return funds claimed during the Covid pandemic – and suggested the government was looking at ways to recover it.
“I feel it would be the right thing for P&O to return this money,” the minister told Times Radio. “I am sure that colleagues from the Treasury Department and the Department of Transportation will take care of it.”
Labor said the company “must not be allowed” to fire employees without notice and called on the government to suspend contracts with the owner of P&O Ferries and “reclaim” holiday pay.
Mr Heappey said the company had behaved “disgracefully” but said the government was powerless to stop the ferry operator from replacing the 800 workers with cheaper agency workers.
Asked if there was anything the Government could do, the Armed Forces Minister told the BBC: “I think that’s the reality… Ultimately the Government could not have stopped P&O from doing that.”
Mr Heappey was grilled at the urge for the government to recover the furlough pay, telling Sky News: “It’s exactly what I would ask if I were the Treasury.”
The ferry operator, owned by Dubai-based logistics giant DP World, sparked outrage on Thursday when 800 workers were immediately laid off – without notice – to be replaced by cheaper labour.
The Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT) is asking for legal advice to challenge the mass layoffs. Security forces handcuffed the ship to remove the dismissed crew, sources said.
Karl Turner, Labor MP for East Hull, said P&O Ferries received around £10million when around 1,100 workers were furloughed and urged the Government to get the money back.
“All that money, that £10m for pandemic furlough, should be recovered,” the Labor MP told LBC. “Any money that the UK taxpayer gave to this company should be taken back from them.”
Labor has urged Mr Johnson to suspend the contracts and licenses of P&O Ferries owner DP World until the mass redundancy dispute is resolved and to remove DP World from the Government’s Transport Advisory Group.
In a letter to the Prime Minister, Louise Haigh MP, Labor shadow transport secretary, said he must also “reclaim” furlough pay and ban companies from “sacking and rehiring” workers on cheaper agency contracts.
“British seafarers don’t need meaningless platitudes – they need action,” said Ms Haigh. “The government must now act to ensure that loyal workers in Britain are being undermined by foreign billionaires.”
On the ‘dismissal and reinstatement’ practice, union leader Sir Keir Starmer added: ‘I only wish the government had done what we said and strengthened workers’ rights so they couldn’t do something like that. The government said it will deal with this type of situation. It didn’t.”
But Mr Heappey defended the government’s decision to oppose a bill aimed at stopping “fire and reinstatement” – although he suggested ministers might want to reconsider the issue.
The Minister told the BBC: “While the practice of firing and reinstatement is clearly despicable and the Government has made something clear, they disagree [with]the scope of the draft law was too broad and would have been inappropriate and even harmful to the labor market.”
Mr Heappey added: “But I know my colleagues in the corporate, energy and industrial strategy department are looking at how we are going about things like this.”
Nautilus International’s Mark Dickinson told BBC Radio 4 today Program that there are “serious safety concerns” surrounding P&O Ferries’ decision to replace its seafarers with agency workers.
But Peter Aylott of the British Chamber of Shipping said he was “confident” that the temporary workers hired by P&O Ferries to replace their seafarers will operate the ships safely.
A series of demonstrations will take place on Friday against P&O’s decision to sack 800 seafarers, with union RMT calling for broader public support for demonstrations in Dover, Liverpool and Hull.
https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/p-o-ferries-furlough-money-government-b2038730.html P&O Ferries: Returning £10m holiday pay is ‘the right thing to do’ says Minister