Tory MP heckled by P&O staff after Govt admits being aware of mass sacking plan

18 March 2022, 16:05 | Updated: 18 March 2022, 16:18

By Sophie Barnett

Dover MP Natalie Elphicke was heckled as she joined a protest calling for P&O Ferries to reverse its "disgusting and appalling" decision to sack 800 on-board staff and replace them with foreign labour.

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The Tory MP joined the union-organised protest at the port of Dover on Friday, after the ferry company's move was widely condemned as "brutal and insensitive".

"It's Tory laws that allow them to get away with treating workers like this," one disgruntled member of the crowd hurtled at Ms Elphicke as she tried to speak to a local councillor.

She jumped to defend the Conservative government, saying: "No it's not, that's nonsense. It's bad business behaviour."

The protester hit back that his remark was "completely true" and claimed anti-union laws allow bosses to get away with treating staff badly.

Ms Elphicke appeared to dodge further criticism as she stormed out of the crowd.

Read more: 'Shoddy and appalling': Minister blasts P&O's mass sacking but admits Govt is 'powerless'

Read more: Explained: What has P&O done and why?

She previously told the crowd unions had been working with P&O on a restructure, accusing the company of taking a "complete U-turn".

"It's a complete undermining of all the assurances that have been given, and it begs the question whether people can really trust what they say when they are doing business with them."

She told KentLive: "I think what we're doing today is showing that we are really angry and shocked about the disgusting behaviour of P&O Ferries and DP World. It's absolutely vital they reverse their decision, they bring back these jobs and they come to the table and have sensible discussions."

Labour's shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh, who joined the rally in Dover, described P&O's actions as "nothing short of a national scandal".

"This is a disgraceful way for a Dubai-based conglomerate to treat British workers in this country," she said.

Read more: P&O crew member recalls being woken up after night shift to 'bombshell' firing video

She added: "I will be taking action in Parliament next week to push the Government to take sanctions against P&O now, to push leverage on them, to force them to change course and if it's not illegal ... then we need to make sure it is immediately made so."

Speaking on Tonight with Andrew Marr on Thursday, head of RMT union Mick Lynch said government ministers were told about P&O’s plans on Wednesday but "didn’t tell anyone".

Despite previously claiming to be unaware of plans to sack staff, the Prime Minister’s spokesperson confirmed some officials had been informed by P&O, a day before it was announced.

The spokesperson said officials are investigating whether P&O Ferries broke the law, while describing the firm’s behaviour as “extreme”.

“We expect companies to treat their employees fairly. It is only in extreme circumstances that employers need to make extreme decisions to secure the future of their businesses if all other avenues have failed, including negotiations between employer and employees.

Read more: Andrew Marr: What were P&O Ferries thinking sacking 800 staff like this in the modern era?

“We don’t believe this was the case for P&O staff,” he said, adding: “We are looking into this very carefully.”

The protest at Dover is one of many demonstrations taking place across the country - with others drawing in crowds in Liverpool and Hull.

Protesters held flags and signs, including one which said: "Shame on you!! P&O stop the carve up."

Dismissed staff with decades of experience working for P&O attended a rally at Larne, Northern Ireland, to voice disgust at their treatment.

Some described being escorted to their cabins by private security guards before being led off their vessel on Thursday.

There has been uproar since the news broke, with ministers among those condemning the abrupt move.

Downing Street said the Government is "looking closely" to see if P&O has broken rules to see what the "ramifications are".

Armed Forces minister James Heappey told LBC earlier the government is "powerless", as he slammed the "shoddy and appalling" move from the company.

Boris Johnson's official spokesman said companies should only make "extreme decisions to secure the future of their business if all other avenues have failed", adding: "We don't believe this was the case for P&O staff but we are looking into this very carefully."

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, speaking to the Conservatives' spring forum in Blackpool, said he reacted with "shock and dismay" at the "insensitive and brutal" decision.

"Sacked by a pre-recorded Zoom meeting with just 30 minutes' notice. No-one should treat employees in that way in the 21st century," he said.

In a new statement issued on Friday afternoon, P&O Ferries acknowledged that the sackings "came without warning or prior consultation, and we fully understand that this has caused distress for them and their families".

The statement added: "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.

"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."