Government ministers knew about P&O Ferries’ plan to slash 800 jobs before staff were informed but were told by officials it would ensure the firm remained “a key player in the UK market for years to come”, it has been reported.
The Sunday Times newspaper said it received a leaked memo apparently written by a senior Whitehall official which tried to “justify” the mass redundancies, stating that “without these decisions, an estimated 2,200 staff would likely lose their jobs”.
The memo, which is claimed to have been sent before 800 P&O staff were told of their jobs being lost on Thursday, adds the changes “will align them with other companies in the market who have undertaken a large reduction in staff previously”.
The newspaper said it was “widely shared across government” and 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 criticised P&O’s handling of the sacking of the seafarers and replacing them with cheaper agency staff, stating he had written to P&O chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite questioning the legality of the move.
Mr Shapps has also ordered a review of all the government contracts with both P&O Ferries and its parent company, DP World, and stated that vessels will be subject to inspections and new crews would be checked before being allowed to set sail.
Daren Ireland, a spokesman for the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union, said: “[In the memo] The DFT seem to be warming to the employers’ argument, but they’re failing to take into account the £270 million worth of dividends paid out by DP World.
“So [they’re] clearly failing to step up to the plate of protecting the jobs of ratings within the UK maritime industry.”
Last year, DP World’s revenue soared by more than a fifth to more than 4.9 billion dollars (£3.7 billion). Its profit increased by nearly 300 million dollars to 732 million before tax.
It was not all plain sailing as the company was forced to claim around £10 million to furlough 1,100 workers during the pandemic.
The ferry operator said it was cutting the 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 evening, P&O said its services between Liverpool and Dublin had resumed.
Nautilus International general secretary Mark Dickinson has written to Grant Shapps encouraging the government to take urgent action against the ferry operator, urging them to revoke P&O Ferries’ licences in British waters and pursue “any legal option available” over how P&O handled the mass redundancies.
Workers, meanwhile, have been holding protests against the decision on Friday and Saturday, with Nautilus International and RMT stating more demonstrations will take place outside Parliament in Westminster on Monday.
Louise Haigh MP, Labour’s shadow transport secretary, said: “This bombshell letter proves that the Government was not only aware of P&O ferries’ scandalous action – but complicit in it.
“They knew people’s livelihoods were on the line and they knew P&O was attempting to use exploitative fire and rehire practices. But they sat back and did nothing.
“The shambolic response to this shameful episode proves the Conservatives cannot and will not stand up for British workers. Labour’s new deal for workers would strengthen protections and deliver security and respect in the workplace.”
A DfT spokesperson said: “This was an internal Government memo which, as standard practice, outlined what officials had been told by P&O Ferries shortly before their announcement was made.
“This was sent before ministers were advised of the full details and as soon as they were informed, they made clear their outrage at the way in which P&O staff had been dismissed.”
They added that the DfT’s “immediate priority” was to work with unions to ensure workers’ rights continue to be protected and that Mr Shapps has urged the company to sit down with workers and reconsider this action.