Sir John Redwood is MP for Wokingham, and is a former Secretary of State for Wales.
My comments the other day about business needing to pay truck drivers more and improve their conditions of employment have apparently upset some people.
It is a curious but now deep-rooted view of many on the Left that the UK should have remained in a free movement of labour zone with the EU. They favour us attracting skilled people from the lower-paid parts of the European Union to fill our job gaps instead of putting the pay up for UK residents, or training more home talent.
Since the per capita income of the eastern parts of the EU remains at about one third of UK levels, there is still plenty of scope, as they see it, for us to bid people away from these lower pay countries whilst keeping well beneath our own current pay bounds.
I have some moral as well as economic and political issues with this approach. Should we denude Poland of truck drivers, or train more of our own? I read industry reports that Poland has an acute truck driver shortage at the moment. Should we plunder the lower income countries of the world for trained nurses, or step up home education to nurture our own?
Importing so-called cheap labour is not a cheap solution. Whilst it is clearly cheaper for the company recruiting, the new migrant employee may well need and qualify for state financial help with housing costs, a range of free public services and pay top-up in some cases. If we recruit someone who already lives here, we are covering their public sector costs already. The cheap labour system sounds like the caricature of capitalism of old. We have figures on the Left encouraging businesses to scour the world to keep wages down.
Some of my critics cannot get over the decision of a majority of the UK voters to leave the EU. They blame Brexit for most things they do not like. The truck driver shortage is no exception.
I find this a difficult argument to believe, as there are similar truck driver shortages in Germany and the USA. Neither of those countries changed its relationship with the EU at the beginning of this year. I also remember articles being written and the industry complaining of the driver shortage before Covid and well before we left the EU. Again, this calls into doubt the anti-Brexit soundbite.
So why are several important economies and countries facing a truck driver shortage at the same time? Why has this problem been building for some years?
It does come down to terms and conditions. Truck driving the larger vehicles over the longer distances has remained an employment dominated by older men. The industry has been failing to attract women and younger men to it in sufficient numbers for a long time.
Gradually the older men reach retirement, and the shortage grows. When you ask people why they do not want to be truck drivers, they often cite the poor conditions overnight and the low esteem for the profession, as well as the pay and hours. Even in the richer countries of Europe and the UK, there is a shortage of good overnight stopping places where a driver can be safe, find a meal and a shower and get sufficient sleep for the next day.
The economics of long-haul trucking is competitive, but the main costs are not the driver. The capital and maintenance cost of the truck, and the fuel cost of the long journeys both usually exceed the drivers rewards by a substantial margin. The trucking companies could help themselves and their drivers by being willing to enter a compact with drivers over training, conditions, style of driving and reward.
Drivers who are well-trained to drive with fuel economy in mind can save their employers a lot of money. There should be sharing schemes for good fuel economy. Drivers who keep out of accidents and look after the truck help keep insurance, repair and maintenance bills down. Again, this can be shared with the drivers to mutual advantage.
Years ago, I helped Margaret Thatcher to sell National Freight, a nationalised trucking business. It was bought by its employees, who understood how a change of attitudes could help firm and driver. I remember interviewing one driver and part-owner after the event. He told me that when he drove a nationalised lorry, he was not that attentive to the wellbeing of the vehicle or even concerned if it would work each morning. But once he became a co-owner, he took a great interest in ensuring that it was looked after and would earn its living every day. The truckers of National Freight did well with their business as a result.
As someone who believes that free enterprise brings many advantages, I see the driver shortage as an opportunity to put right some of the problems of the industry here in the UK and get more people into better paid and worthwhile jobs. There need to be more training courses, linked to employment packages for those that stay the course and pass the test.
The industry needs to work with government over better facilities for long-distance drivers, and could profitably explore with them how there could be a profit-share for the fruits of good driving. The model of keeping wages down is a bad one. I have always favoured training and productivity-enhancing improvements in jobs so that employees can be better rewarded whilst leaving the company money to invest and to reward the savers who have invested in the improvements.
It is time my critics thought more about the needs and potential skills of people already living in the UK and less time dreaming about bringing in many more people from overseas. Better qualifications can bring better pay and a richer working experience. It also brings more respect from society. I remain grateful to the truckers who deliver the food to my local supermarkets and the parts to UK factories. We need them and should value them more.