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Government bows to pressure to investigate whether P&O broke law with mass sackings

Ministers had appeared to wash their hands of what they described as a ‘commercial decision’

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Friday 18 March 2022 14:31 GMT
P&O Ferries workers are told they have lost their jobs in video call

The government is investigating whether P&O Ferries broke the law by sacking 800 workers on the spot, after criticism that it was washing its hands of the controversy.

Ministers had described the move as a “commercial decision” – but Downing Street said the Insolvency Service is now exploring whether the firm flouted redundancy rules.

‘We are looking very closely at the actions this company has taken, to see whether they acted within the rules,” Boris Johnson’s spokesman said.

“Once we have concluded that, we will decide what the ramifications are. Obviously there are a lot of valid questions in relation to existing contracts etc.”

The spokesman also acknowledged that senior officials in the Department of Transport were informed by the P&O chief executive on Wednesday evening of the company’s plans.

“As is standard practice, the information was on a restricted circulation due to its commercial sensitivity and the potential for insolvency if this leaked,” he said.

The ferry operator triggered widespread anger by suddenly sacking the 800 crew members over Zoom with immediate effect – to replace them with cheaper, possibly overseas, labour.

P&O insisted it had no choice but to act – to stem £100m pandemic losses – yet is reportedly spending an identical amount to sponsor the 2022 European Golf Tour.

Ministers had appeared to rebuff calls to investigate, or to penalise the firm by withdrawing contracts, including to operate controversial new freeports.

But the Insolvency Service will now look into whether the body – or the staff themselves – were given the required 30 or 45-day notice period on planned redundancies, to allow negotiations to take place.

The prime minister’s spokesman said: “We don’t believe this was the case for P&O staff”, before adding it is “too early to be definitive” about whether the law was broken.

He declined to give any examples of the “ramifications” that will follow, if the law was flouted – but did not rule out targeting operation of freeports.

“We are establishing the facts of exactly what action this company took,” the spokesman said, adding he was “not going to speculate” on what punishment might follow.

He said Mr Johnson was not alerted to P&O’s plan in his meeting this week with the ruler of Dubai – whose government owns the firm’s parent company, DP World.

The TUC has insisted the law has been broken, pointing to sections 188 and 193 of the Trade Union & Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992.

“Employers are legally required to consult workers during a statutory notice period before making workers redundant,” the trade unions organisation said.

“P&O did not do this, so trade unions believe that the actions by P&O are likely to be unlawful.

“In addition, employers wishing to make more than 100 redundancies must notify the business secretary at least 45 days in advance of those dismissals (for 20 dismissals, it is 30 days).”

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