Orkney and Shetland MP, Alistair Carmichael, has spoken in a parliamentary debate on P&O Ferries’ sacking of 800 seafaring workers last week, warning that seafarers’ rights are at risk in the long term and that “what we allow P&O to do today, others will do tomorrow”. He highlighted the need for industry bodies to reflect on the reputational damage to UK shipping and to “get its house in order”.
Mr Carmichael also secured a commitment from the Secretary of State for Transport that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency would inspect all P&O vessels before they would be allowed to re-enter service in light of the mass change in staff.
Speaking in the House, Mr Carmichael said:
“P&O Ferries has obligations under the international safety management code, which requires each vessel to have a safety management system. That is then audited by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which produces a document of compliance. It is difficult to see how P&O can possibly now be in compliance with those obligations. Will the Secretary of State look at the possibility of suspending the documents of compliance until he is satisfied that P&O is in compliance with them?”
Responding for the government, the Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps MP said:
“The safety of shipping remains a top priority. Staff must be experienced and trained to uphold the highest possible standards. I have instructed the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to inspect all P&O Ferries vessels prior to their re-entering service, including the operational drills to ensure that the proposed new crews are safe and properly trained. If they are not, these ships will not sail.”
Speaking in Parliament later, Mr Carmichael said:
“As a country we have tolerated practices at sea that we would regard as simply unthinkable on dry land. I remember lobbying in 2016 for the enforcement of the national minimum wage for crews on the freight boats operating between Aberdeen and Lerwick, who were being paid £3.66 an hour.
“What we allow P&O to do today, others will do tomorrow. If anybody doubts that, they may wish to revisit the comments of Peter Aylott, spokesperson for the UK Chamber of Shipping that he was “content and very confident” that P&O had acted properly.
“If I were a company paying a subscription to the UK Chamber of Shipping and I saw P&O trashing my industry’s reputation, I would want something rather better than that from the trade body. However, it is an indication that others in the industry will look to what happens to P&O and will follow. Indeed, they will argue that they are compelled to follow if P&O gets off. We must also look carefully at the future employment of the 800 workers, because the industry has previously been guilty of blacklisting.”
“The shipping industry has never been slow to come to the Government with demands. I have advocated for it in the past in relation to the tonnage tax and getting more UK officers on to our ships. This, however, is a moment for the Government to turn the tables and to take a clear message to the industry as a whole: it is time for it to get its house in order, because we are no longer prepared to tolerate behaviour of this sort. Change has to come, and the industry must lead it.”