Nine-point Shapps plan for P&O: things to welcome, but much was missing

Andy McDonald
© Richard Townshend/CC BY 3.0

The dust is settling on Grant Shapps’ statement on P&O, delivered on Wednesday. Whilst there were undoubtedly some good things in there – and I do genuinely welcome them so far as they go – none of that deflects from the stark reality that there is absolutely nothing in this for the sacked P&O workers.

The gangster bosses at P&O and DP World will be mightily relieved. No reinstatement. No operator of last resort. As it currently stands, no unlimited fine. Boris Johnson said he was taking legal action. The expectation was that the government would have been in the court by now – but no, nothing of the kind.

There is no injunction against P&O, nor is one being sought. If that remedy is really not available, then it’s government’s job to put that right by legislating and to do it now. In short, I say again, there is nothing for those workers who have lost their jobs.

So, what of the rest of his nine-point plan? Shapps says he’ll ensure resources are devoted by HMRC to enforcing the national minimum wage in the maritime sector. That really should be a given, but amen to that. Let’s see how that works out. It’s a terrible admission for a government minister to “devote resources” to ensure something is done that ought to have been done as a matter of course.

Enforcement is regularly far too inefficient, and we as a country miss a trick in getting money circulated into the economy and taxes into Treasury coffers. He’s toughening up on the Maritime and Coastguard Agency safety and enforcement regime. Again, that really should be a given, but ships are being kept in dock, so fair play to him on that one.

His third pledge was around fire and rehire tactics. I’m sorry, the new statutory code simply doesn’t cut it. Like many of the Tory responses in this area, it’s not only far too little far too late – it also does nothing to stop the tactics being deployed. There are no new legislative tools to intervene. Government missed its chance to legislate for injunctive relief when they talked out Barry Gardiner’s fire and rehire bill. That could have been deployed here.

All the new code of practice does is introduce a very slight improvement on woefully inadequate compensation that can, in any case, only be sought after the event and is then still subject to the delays of the tribunal system that workers and their unions have to plough through. Even then, if an award is made, it might never be paid. So that one is for the birds.

The fourth measure, the ask of Insolvency Service pursuing Peter Hebblethwaite, is good. Whilst they are independent, if ever there was a case for disqualification of a director, then surely this is it. That man should be nowhere near a workforce ever again. That said, the Insolvency Service needs to get a lick on.

Shapps’ focus on training and welfare and working with the International Labour Organisation is laudable, but I’d just like this country to abide by the ILO treaty obligations, and others, that it’s already signed up to.

On his point about P&O exploiting a loophole by flagging vessels in Cyrus to escape UK laws: you’re not going to address the real problem here by trotting out the “cutting red tape” mantra to encourage more UK flagged vessels with a consequent positive impact on safety, desirable as all that is.

It just doesn’t go the heart of the problem. I said in the joint Select Committee session that I could not care who didn’t get the statutory notification of redundancies – be that the minister or the relevant flagged states. It should be irrelevant. The fact that the notification was not given should constitute the offence. That, in turn, should lead to an unlimited fine. But if it’s needed, government should bring forward emergency legislation to correct any deficits in the law and make that happen. And happen retrospectively.

I very much welcome the intentions around minimum wage corridor working with France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Ireland and Germany. I’d urge the government to go further and pursue a sector-wide fair pay agreement negotiated by the unions with the employers and reinforced at law.

I said in the House some days ago that P&O Ferries, as now configured with cheap agency staff, should not be allowed to dock in the UK. They broke the law and there are safety concerns. That should be enough to keep their vessels from moving in or out.

On the face of it, the proposed amendment of the Harbours Act 1964, so that ships paying pay staff less than the national minimum wage won’t be able to dock, appears to be a positive move. As ever, it’s all going to be in the implementation and enforcement.

I’d like to think that this will also scupper some of the practices aboard the Filipino crewed slave ships and the like. I read a piece from a port chaplain about the conditions of deckhands that made me want to weep. That has to stop. But international shipping is addicted to crewing ships at poverty wage rates. So, I have my doubts, but live in hope.

There were things to welcome, but much was missing. P&O still have their licences. Shapps said in the chamber that nobody wants to work for them. I suspect he’s right about that, but whilst I’m not entirely sure about his answers about railway comparisons, he really does need to revisit the possibility of stepping in as “the operator of last resort”.

These vessels are key to our nation’s trading capacity and if P&O don’t like what Shapps has had to say, then they have already said that the future of their remaining 2,000 workers is in jeopardy and those workers will have to be protected even if the 800 have not been. Operator of last resort could provide that protection.

I agree with Grant there are other private providers – DFDS, Stena, Brittany Ferries, etc – but they don’t have the P&O vessels. Stepping in as operator of last resort gives the government the opportunity not only to reinstate the workers under new and respectful management, but also to allow those workers’ terms and conditions to be rolled across under the Transfer of Undertakings regulations so that they don’t lose out. If keeping it as a publicly owned entity doesn’t appeal, then government can always put it back out to the market once stabilised.

Again, thinking of the sacked workers, I’d suggest the Secretary of State considers further legislation to overreach the illegally secured non-disclosure agreements whereby the workers, who have been paid out, keep that money but it is disregarded for the purposes of further action and compensation by way of punishment of P&O for having the audacity to deliberately break the law.

This would apply to any bully boy employer disregarding the law and blackmailing its workforce into giving up their jobs. With unlimited exemplary damages, such gangster capitalists would feel the full consequences of the UK legal system.

My major concern is that despite the glaring and fundamental gaps in the statement, some of the good stuff we heard might not be delivered or implemented. Time will tell, but sadly for the 800 workers who are still without their jobs, the Shapps statement, and anything the government plans now intends, will do nothing to restore them.

It was only in 2013 that Grant Shapps as Tory Party chair told the world of the need to make it easier for firms to sack workers, saying: “There should be a way of saying to people, ‘thank you very much, it hasn’t worked out but here’s decent package for you to move on from this role”. I’d like to think he’s been on “a journey” since those remarks.

But this P&O insult to these workers cannot be allowed to stand. Further action is needed now but I don’t think the Tory government has the genuine political will to do the right thing by these sacked workers.

I fear that despite all their promises, come the Queen’s Speech, the government will fail yet again to bring forward the much-heralded employment bill they spoke of in their 2019 manifesto to make Britain “the best place in the world to work”, which they have continually and repeatedly promised but have never delivered.

The government is already on notice, but if they renege on that promise again, the working people of this country will never forgive them.

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