Boris Johnson’s government cannot force P&O Ferries to reinstate 800 sacked workers, a minister has admitted, as he called on the company to return £10m in furlough cash.
Defence minister James Heappey said it would be “right” for the firm to hand back money claimed during the Covid pandemic – and suggested the government was looking at ways to reclaim it.
“It certainly feels to me that it would be the right thing to do for P&O to hand that money back,” the minister told Times Radio. “I’m sure that colleagues at the Treasury and Department for Transport will be looking into it.”
Labour said the company “mustn’t be allowed” to get away with sacking staff without notice – calling for the government to suspend contracts with P&O Ferries’ owner and “claw back” the furlough money.
Mr Heappey said the company had behaved “disgracefully” but said the government was powerless to stop the ferry operator replacing the 800 workers with cheaper agency staff.
Asked if there was nothing the government could do, the Armed Forces minister told the BBC: “I think that is the reality …. Ultimately, it’s not something the government could have stopped P&O from doing.”
Grilled on calls for the government to reclaim the furlough money, Mr Heappey told Sky News: “It’s exactly the sort of thing that if I were the Treasury I would be asking for.”
The ferry operator, owned by Dubai-based logistics giant DP World, sparked outrage on Thursday when 800 workers were sacked immediately – with no notice – to be replaced by cheaper labour.
The Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT) is seeking legal advice to challenge the mass sacking. Security guards boarded ships with handcuffs to remove fired crew, it was claimed.
Karl Turner, Labour MP for East Hull, said P&O Ferries had received around £10m when around 1,100 workers were furloughed, and demanded the government get the money back.
“All of that money, that £10m for furlough in the pandemic, should be clawed back,” the Labour MP told LBC. “Any money that the British taxpayer provided to that business should be taken back from them.”
Labour has called on Mr Johnson to suspend the contracts and licences of P&O Ferries owner DP World until the mass sacking row is resolved, and for DP World to be removed from the government’s Transport Advisory Group.
Writing to the prime minister, Labour’s shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh MP said he must also “claw back” furlough money, as well as banning firms from “firing and rehiring” staff on cheaper, agency contracts.
“British seafarers do not need meaningless platitudes – they need action,” said Ms Haigh. “The government must now stand up for loyal workers in Britain being undermined by overseas billionaires.”
On the “fire and rehire” practice, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer added: “I just wish the government had done what we said and strengthened employment rights so they couldn’t do this kind of thing. The government said it was going to deal with this sort of situation. It hasn’t done it.”
But Mr Heappey defended the government’s decision to reject a bill aimed at stopping “fire and rehire” – though he suggested ministers may wish to look at the issue again.
The minister told the BBC: “While the practise of fire and rehire is clearly despicable, and something the government has been clear it disagrees [with]the scope of the bill was too broad and would have been unreasonable and actually damaged the employment market.”
Mr Heappey added: “But I know that my colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy are looking at how we do clamp down on this sort of thing.”
Senior Conservative MP Huw Merriman, chair of transport select committee, also urged the government to try to block P&O’s “appalling” decision, suggesting that minister could look at “emergency legislation” to stop it.
Cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg said the way P&O have behaved was “very damaging, very foolish and very improper” and risked “undermining” capitalism.
He told the Tory party’s spring conference: “I believe in a Labour market which is flexible but employers have duties to behave well and properly and considerately to their employees and P&O failed in that.”
Mr Rees-Mogg added: “P&O ought to be very careful in behaving this way because it risks undermining the capitalism and free markets which are essential to our prosperity.”
A series of demonstrations will be held on Friday against P&O’s decision to sack 800 seafarers, with the RMT union calling for wider public support for demonstrations in Dover, Liverpool and Hull.