will not be taken to court by the government despite admitting it broke the law by sacking 800 workers without consulting them, a minister has admitted.
MPs were told that – because of looser redundancy laws in the UK than other countries – the workers would have to take a firm to an industrial tribunal themselves.
There are “no powers to injunct” P&O Ferries, a senior official at the department for business admitted – although the firm is still being investigated under other possible offences.
The admission comes despite Boris Johnson promising, just 24 hours earlier, that the firm had landed itself in court, telling MPs: “P&O clearly aren’t going to get away with it.”
It prompted incredulity from Huw Merriman, the Tory chair of the Commons transport committee, who demanded to know why ministers were not taking “immediate action today”.
But Paul Scully, a business minister, said: “It is for the individuals concerned and their representatives to approach the tribunals.”
He told the emergency inquiry: “Some people may actually be satisfied with the offer,” – after P&O said it was paying out more than £36m in compensation.
Asked if P&O’s ability to sack the workers without consultation exposed the weakness of the UK’s “flexible labour market”, Mr Scully urged people to consider the “wider landscape”.
It was the “flexible labour market” that had allowed the UK to “create more jobs than the whole of the European Union put together,” the minister claimed.
However, his officials admitted they had not consulted the attorney general before reaching the view that the government has no power to injunct P&O.
And he refused to commit to changing the law to prevent a repeat in future – despite Mr Merriman calling for legislation in May’s Queen’s Speech.
“This company has broken the law because it knows it can get away with it,” protested Ben Bradshaw, a Labour member of the Commons transport committee.
“This hasn’t happened to the French and the Dutch because they have better legal protections,” he told Mr Scully.
The minister said the Insolvency Service is looking into whether other notification laws were broken by P&O – but it told the inquiry that work would not be completed until 8 April.
Furthermore, a leading maritime lawyer has argued the firm could legally sack 800 staff without informing the government, because of a law change brought in by Chris Grayling.
In 2018, the gaffe-prone former transport secretary quietly amended legislation meant to protect workers to create an exemption where there are mass redundancies on ships registered overseas.
Mr Scully also admitted that a failure to notify Cyprus properly about redundancies on the Cypriot-registered ships would only be an offence “under Cypriot law”.