Written by: Hannah Williams

Yes, I know the law and yes, I chose not to follow it. The latest news regarding travel company P&O’s so-called redundancies is almost comical. Not because of the detrimental act itself, but for the company’s, namely Peter Hebblethwaite’s response. Let’s take a closer look at the decision.

P&O’s Decision

On Thursday 17th March, P&O announced their action to make around 800 staff members redundant on multiple travel routes across the UK. Although redundancy itself is a potentially fair reason for dismissal, it must be done in a certain manner to ensure it is legal.

This does not appear to have happened in this instance. Staff have reported to have been given zero notice for the dismissal and escorted off the ships with immediate effect. RMT Trade Union has commented on the event and stated that some of its members were actually forced to remove their belongings from their cabins under the watchful eye of ‘intimidating security teams’. RMT members claim that this is not the only act of corporate hostility that they have experienced when working with P&O.

Furthermore, the company also failed to consult trade unions or individuals affected about the decision which only added to the shock and destruction of the decision.

P&O’S Legal Breach

In relation to the fact that P&O made the decision not to give notice, this conflicts with both s188 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 and the principles given in Williams and others v Compare Maxam 1982 which governs the common-law understanding of procedural fairness.

Section 188 states that ‘where an employer is proposing to dismiss as redundant 20 or more employees at one establishment within a period of 90 days or less, the employer shall consult about the dismissals all the persons who are appropriate representatives of any of the employees who may be affected by the proposed dismissals or may be affected by measures taken in connection with those dismissals’. The Act requires that this is done at least 45 days before action is taken. This has clearly not happened and so the company has acted outside of the law.

Williams v Compare Maxam also proposes that in order to ensure procedural fairness in dismissals, the employer should consult with the union to decide the best way in which the desired management result can be achieved fairly and with as little hardship to the employees as possible. This again has not been done and so the court would declare such an action to be procedurally unfair and thus not in accordance with the requirements of a fair dismissal.

This common-law case also explains that the employer should seek to give as much warning as possible of impending redundancies so as to enable the union and employees who may be affected to take steps to consider alternative solutions. This again was not done and so P&O have arguably acted unfairly towards their staff.

P&O’s Questioning

The decision was brought to the Commons where Peter Hebblethwaite, P&O’s boss, was greeted with many questions.

When asked whether P&O had a duty to let the trade unions know about the redundancies pursuant to section 188, Hebblethwaite replied with ‘yes, but we chose not to as the change was of such magnitude that no union could possibly accept our proposal’. He continued to say that he ‘Did not believe that there was any other way to do this, and we are compensating everyone in full’. However, it has been highlighted that this compensation came in the form of requiring staff members to effectively sign a non-disclosure agreement to prevent any further action against the company. This appears to be unethical in itself. In response to these statements, Andy McDonald (Labour lawmaker), remarks that Hebblethwaite provided ‘such farcical answers.’

McDonald also asked P&O’s boss whether the wages that new staff members were to be paid, which is around £5.50 on average, are sufficient to sustain a family. Hebblethwaite avoids the question and contends that the company will always pay the minimum wage when required. This question was furthered to ask whether Hebblethwaite himself would be able to sustain his lifestyle on this wage. The boss failed to reply.

Questions also arose regarding whether ministers had received warnings related to the redundancies prior to the decision. DP World, P&O’s parent company, claims that the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, had been warned of these changes in November. This has been denied by a Department of Transport spokesperson.

Conclusion

Hebblethwaite has effectively stated that he knew the law and chose to ignore it anyway. This is clearly a violation and is continuing to be dealt with. Workers are due to be supported by the Department for Work and Pensions in the upcoming weeks and the government has stated that they will ‘engage closely’ with the issue.

It is likely that fines will be issued to the company and the positions of those who made the decision are likely to come into question.