Question marks have emerged over Boris Johnson’s assertion that the sudden sacking of 800 workers by P&O Ferries may have broken UK employment law.
The prime minister told the Commons on Wednesday the firm could face fines “running into millions of pounds” if found guilty.
But the Department for Transport later acknowledged that there had been a change in the law Johnson quoted.
P&O Ferries, owned by Dubai-based DP World, has denied it broke the law and has insisted that workers are being fairly compensated.
Chief executive Peter Hebblethwaite, who apologised for the mass sacking, is due to appear before the Department for Transport (DfT) and Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) joint committee today (Thursday).
The committee chairs Huw Merriman and Darren Jones want to ask him to explain the decision to carry out the sackings with no notice and to ascertain whether the action was legal.
Hebblethwaite has already told ministers that the sackings were a “last resort” to save the company.
The staff made redundant will be offered a total of £36.5 million. Some employees are set to get 91 weeks’ pay and the chance of new employment, and no employee would receive less than £15,000.
Johnson said in the House of Commons: “Under section 194 of the trades union and labour relations act of 1992, it looks to me as though the company concerned has broken the law.
“And we will be taking action therefore, and we will be encouraging workers themselves to take action under the 1996 employment rights act.”
Firms are meant to notify the secretary of state before they sack 100 people or more, according to section 194 of the act.
But the DfT later confirmed that this law changed in 2018 due to the implementation of an EU directive.
Firms no longer need to inform the UK government about mass dismissals but instead must tell the governments of the countries where vessels are registered.
Eight P&O Ferries ships are registered overseas in countries including Cyprus and The Bahamas.
“The government is strongly committed to protecting UK seafarers and those who work in UK waters continue to be protected by National Minimum Wage laws despite the 2018 legal change,” a DfT spokesperson told the BBC.
Tim Tyndall, employment partner at Keystone Law, told the broadcaster he believed P&O had not broken the law.
“The obligation to notify the government of P&O actions has not been breached as the competent authority for these foreign registered ships is the government of where they are registered,” he said.
“It would appear the government did not understand its own legislation when writing in the terms that it did to P&O.”
However, he said there may be other grounds for arguing the dismissals were unlawful.
“The P&O employees are covered by UK employment law as P&O crew members worked out of Liverpool, Dover and Hull.
“The fact that P&O are offering settlement agreements suggests that they are aware of this and hope to avoid unfair dismissal and other claims by financial incentive.”
Meanwhile, Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT union, accused the government of being “scared” to take action against DP World.
“Of course P&O need to be taken to court but that by itself won’t get our members’ jobs back. We need emergency action and legislation if necessary to enforce the reinstatement of our members,” he said.
P&O Ferries told the Times that it would not be responding to Johnson’s comments.