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Ferry services are too important to leave to chance

Published date
The scandal at P&O ferries makes clear that the industry needs an operator of last resort.

The UK’s ferry industry carries vital freight including food and medical supplies to ports across the country, and connects Britain to the rest of the world. We cannot be left completely at the mercy of the market for the delivery of such important cargo. The government must be ready to step in as the operator of last resort.

On Thursday 17 March 2022, employers at P&O informed their 800 of their UK based staff that they were being sacked effective immediately. They informed workers via a pre-recorded video message, giving employees thirty minutes notice. Private security, armed with handcuffs, then boarded the ships to escort workers off. P&O parent company, DP world, informed the government about their plans on the eve of the sacking, Wednesday 16 March 2022. Ministers failed to inform unions representing affected workers.

Disrupting a vital service

The UK maritime sector facilitates 95 per cent of all UK trade, contributes £46.1 billion to the UK economy annually and supports more than 1.1 million jobs. The shipping sector alone contributed £6 billion to the economy in 2020, accounting for 19 per cent of the transport industry.

P&O carries vital cargo, and the disruption to services caused by these sackings started to affect supplies within days. On Friday 18 March, it was reported that supplies of milk, chicken fillets, sausages and beef as well as some medicines could be affected, with food rotting while it waited for transportation.

Safety concerns

The TUC and our unions in the sector have strong concerns over P&O’s ability to operate safely. P&O have lost hundreds of workers with an average of 20 years’ experience. They are replacing them with inexperienced and low-paid staff.

Already, P&O have failed important safety inspections because their crew are inexperienced and unfamiliar with safety protocols. It is vital that they are all inspected and declared safe before they return to service. However, this necessity will add to the disruption and delays of vital goods.

An operator of last resort

The rail industry has a mechanism in place to ensure vital services don’t stop just because of troubles affecting a private operator. Prior to covid, if a train operating company (TOC) collapsed or had the franchise removed, the Department for Transport (DfT) would step in as the operator of last resort and run the service directly.

In 2018 Virgin Trains East Coast lost the East Coast Mainline Service. The DfT's operator, London North Eastern Rail (LNER) took over the service. The DfT run the line between 2004 and 2016 and the line won 60 industry awards. It also returned millions of pounds to the exchequer.

Maritime Unions and the TUC are calling for the government to become the operator of last resort for our ferries industry.

The maritime sector is larger than other comparable industries in the UK, including rail and Aerospace. The sector needs the same level of stability as our rail system, with government prepared to step in if a fit and proper operator cannot be found to replace P&O Ferries. This would ensure passengers aren’t left stranded and that vital supply lines remain open. If a private operator cannot run their services safely and in line with UK employment law, then the government must.

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