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P&O Ferries news: Firm denies insensitive behaviour, ‘aims to have services up and running in a day or two’

Letter to employees from P&O CEO says new model will halve crewing costs

P&O Ferries suspends sailings but denies liquidation reports

P&O Ferries has once again defended its mass redundancies, announced yesterday, saying it aims “to have the first of our services running again in the next day or two” as it is losing around £1m per day that services do not run.

It also denied insensitive behaviour regarding the removal of employees, saying in a statement this afternoon: “The teams escorting the seafarers off our vessels were totally professional in handling this difficult task with all appropriate sensitivity.

“Contrary to rumours, none of our people wore balaclavas nor were they directed to use handcuffs nor force.”

In a letter to P&O Ferries employees seen by The Mirror, CEO Peter Hebblethwaite said the “new crewing model” would cut crewing costs by 50 per cent, calling it a “very difficult but necessary and pivotal decision, which was only taken after seriously considering all the available options”.

The RMT union is threatening legal action against the firm, calling yesterday’s move one of the “most shameful acts in the history of British industrial relations”.

Meanwhile MPs across each political party, including the transport secretary Grant Shapps, have condemned the ferry firm’s actions.

Read on for the latest news and developments.

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Good morning

Good morning and welcome to The Independent’s travel liveblog, where we’ll be posting all the latest news and updates.

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P&O Ferries: what are passengers’ rights after company suspended sailings?

British shipping company P&O Ferries has announced that it is making 800 of its UK seafaring staff redundant, prompting sit-in protests by those affected aboard its vessels on the advice of union representatives.

The sudden sacking has also resulted in the company suspending services for the next few days.

So what are your rights if you were booked to travel on one of the cancelled sailings?

Whether or not you can use your ticket on another operator’s service depends on the route you’re taking.

Read Independent travel correspondent Simon Calder’s full guide to your options:

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Government unlikely to support nationalising P&O Ferries

The Government is unlikely to support nationalising P&O Ferries after its decision to sack staff without warning, according to a Cabinet minister.

Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden, when asked about calls for the transport company to be brought into public ownership following the sudden dismissals, said: “I'm not aware of any plans to do that at all.

“No, I don't imagine we would do.”

Speaking to reporters at a Blackpool tram depot during his party's spring conference, Mr Dowden added: “But what we are looking at is to find out how these pretty sharp practices, as appears to be the case, what exactly is going on and how that came about and what we need to do in response.

“And that's what the Transport Secretary I believe committed to doing this morning.”

Asked whether he would like to see P&O ordered to pay back the furlough money it received during the Covid-19 crisis, he replied: “We need to look into all this - I think it is a bit premature to start jumping to that conclusion.”

Reporting by agencies

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P&O ‘aims to have first services running in a day or two'

In a statement, P&O Ferries has acknowledged the “distress” it has caused employees, but insisted it will have services up and running again “in a day or two”.

A spokesperson for P&O Ferries said: “We know that for our staff this redundancy came without warning or prior consultation, and we fully understand that this has caused distress for them and their families.

“We took this difficult decision as a last resort and only after full consideration of all other options but, ultimately, we concluded that the business wouldn’t survive without fundamentally changed crewing arrangements, which in turn would inevitably result in redundancies.

“We also took the view, in good faith, that reaching agreement on the way forward would be impossible and against this background, that the process itself would be highly disruptive, not just for the business but for UK trade and tourism.

“We have offered enhanced severance terms to those affected to properly and promptly compensate them for the lack of warning and consultation. The changes we’ve made bring us into line with standard industry practice.

“All affected crew who were working yesterday were notified face-to-face and in-person on board their vessels. For crew who were off, P&O Ferries made all efforts to notify them personally: they were individually called on the phone, as well as via email and text. Virtual meetings were also held but only 261 of our 800 affected staff were on those calls. To try to minimise disruption for our customers, we contacted everyone we could reach.

“If any passengers have any queries about travelling with us, we encourage them to get in touch with our customer services team. Our aim is to have the first of our services running again in the next day or two as we lose £1m a day for each day they are not moving.”

P&O also contradicted reports that their security staff had acted inappropriately during the sacking and removal of staff from its ferries.

“The teams escorting the seafarers off our vessels were totally professional in handling this difficult task with all appropriate sensitivity. Contrary to rumours, none of our people wore balaclavas nor were they directed to use handcuffs nor force.”

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‘It’s Tory laws that allow them to get away with treating workers like this’ - Conservative MP heckled at protest

The Conservative MP Natalie Elphicke was heckled by protestors when she stopped to take a video at the Dover protests against P&O’s sacking of 800 workers.

The MP for Dover was talking to the district councillor for Folkestone when a man interrupted her to criticise the Tory government.

“It’s Tory laws that allow them to get away with treating workers like this,” the man can be heard saying in the video.

“No it’s not, that’s nonsense - it’s bad business behaviour,” retorts Ms Elphicke, before walking away.

“That’s completely true. It’s anti-union laws,” replies the man.

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Could a P&O Ferries boycott be on the cards?

After The Independent’s travel correspondent, Simon Calder, tweeted “in the past 24 hours, P&O Ferries has demonstrated how to render a reasonably well-regarded brand toxic,” travellers have been responding.

Julie D wrote: “The Hull to Rotterdam ferry is on my doorstep. We have used these ferries for decades, but no more.

“I am willing to take the financial hit and drive down to Dover in the light of the despicable way they have treated their staff.”

Martyn Thornber said: “My booking order was Tunnel, P&O, DFDS. ‘Was’ being the operative word.”

Matthew Cheetham added: “Incredibly naive and very poor HR judgement which suggests that actions instigated from overseas shareholders who don’t understand UK labour laws or likely public backlash.

“That’s why we have consultation periods enshrined in labour law.”

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Prince William should intervene with P&O owner DP World, says Liberal Democrat MP

The Duke of Cambridge has been urged to intervene with P&O owner DP World, a backer of his global environmental prize, and help the 800 sacked ferry workers get reinstated.

William met Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, group chairman and chief executive of DP World, during a visit to Dubai last month and the company has donated £1 million to his Earthshot Prize.

Politicians of all parties and trade unions have condemned the decision by P&O Ferries to sack the workers with immediate effect on Thursday with no notice, so they can be replaced by cheaper labour.

Liberal Democrat former minister Norman Baker said: “Prince William did not create this situation but it’s an embarrassment to him and he can’t simply ignore it.

“In my view he needs to use his personal connections with his friend, the chief executive, to get P&O to change policy on this and to reverse what they’ve done.

“If he can’t do that then he should consider cutting all links with DP World. It’s not a great look for Prince William to be associated with such a company.

“If he can’t get P&O to change policy then the £1 million should be allocated on a pro rata basis - £1,250 - to all the people who have been sacked.”

During his day-long visit to the Middle East, William toured Dubai Expo and the nation’s Jebel Ali Port, which is operated by DP World.

The company is a member of the transport taskforce of the duke’s United for Wildlife umbrella organisation, which is trying to tackle the illegal trade in animal parts.

DP World is also a founding partner of the Earthshot Prize and, during William’s visit to Dubai, it announced £1 million in funding to be divided equally between two Earthshot Prize innovations whose creators pitched their ideas at the Expo.

Announcing the sackings on Thursday, P&O, which bought by DP World in 2019, insisted the decision to cut jobs was “very difficult but necessary” as it was “not a viable business” in its current state.

The Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) said there should be a widespread public and commercial boycott of the ferry giant until the jobs are reinstated.

It has called on the government to demand P&O reverse its decision and negotiate with the unions.

Reporting by agencies.

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‘It’s not too late for them to sit down with the workers’ says Grant Shapps

Transport secretary Grant Shapps has spoken out about P&O’s brutal sacking of 800 employees, saying “No-one should treat employees in that way in the 21st century”.

“I want to take the opportunity to put on record my shock and my dismay at the insensitive and brutal treatment of its employees yesterday,” said the transport secretary at the Conservative Party’s spring conference.

“Sacked by a pre-recorded Zoom meeting with just 30 minutes’ notice. No-one should treat employees in that way in the 21st century.

“If you need to reshape your company, if you need to make people redundant, there are laws and rules to do that.

“One thing not to do is record a video on Zoom and play it 30 minutes before people are dismissed.

“If you need to get rid of people, because you need to change the shape of a company, you need to sit around the table with them and discuss those redundancies.

“I want to see the P&O management do that even now. It’s not too late for them to sit down with the workers, sit down with the unions, and I’ll be putting pressure on all sides for them to do that.

“But I’ll be going further. I’ll be looking at whether there are contracts the government might have with P&O. I’ve asked my officials, legal teams, to look at whether they exist.”

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P&O employees may still benefit from English employment rights, says lawyer

While P&O Ferries may be intending to apply Jersey law to the redundancies announced yesterday, they may still benefit from the protections of English employment law, one lawyer has said.

“P&O does seem to be relying on applying Jersey law, especially given the letter it sent to staff, specifically making mention of ‘800 Jersey-contracted seafaring colleagues’,” says Chris Deeley, a solicitor in the employment team at JMW Solicitors.

“I imagine there may be a choice of law clause that identifies Jersey in those employees’ contracts, in an attempt by P&O to disapply English law.

“However, having a choice of law clause pointing to Jersey does not automatically mean that employees will not benefit from English employment rights. Employment Tribunals will look at the whole circumstances of a person’s employment, and weigh up relevant factors, to decide whether there is a sufficiently strong connection with the UK.

“For example, if an employee lived in England and was based out of an English port, those factors might lean more towards UK employment law applying, even though their contract said only Jersey law applied. This is especially so if that clause was part of P&O’s standard template contract, rather than something that was specifically negotiated.

“These issues are assessed on a case-by-case basis, so it is difficult to say with any certainty what law will apply. There will, therefore, always be a risk to P&O of an employee deciding to fight the issue in a Tribunal.”

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‘Minister never picked up the phone’ to warn of P&O Ferries move

The RMT leader Mick Lynch has criticised the under-secretary for transport, Robert Courts, saying he “never picked up the phone” when RMT initially contacted him about P&O Ferries’ plans.

Mr Lynch said the minister revealed to him that Department for Transport (DfT) had been told about P&O Ferries’ intentions on Wednesday night – but he declined to reveal the plans to the union.

“I would expect him to pick up the phone and tell the representatives of the workforce what’s happening so we can get straight on to the company,” Mr Lynch told The Independent.

“What they were doing instead was preparing a security force and the instant dismissal of our members.

“He never picked up the phone. He went to bed.”

The Independent has asked the DfT for its account of events.

The workers’ demonstration at Dover today

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