Dean Russell is MP for Watford.
My dad was a HGV driver. He is long retired now but, 18 months ago during the general election, I found myself saying that I was the ‘son of a lorry driver’ because most people didn’t even know what a HGV (heavy goods vehicle) driver was. Recent weeks have changed all that – and finally HGV drivers are getting the recognition they deserve.
I can remember that for decades my dad would get up in the early hours of the morning, usually around 3am, to get to work, and then get home late exhausted from a truly long day – every day.
He did a job most people didn’t think about because it was often done during unsociable hours, like so many other HGV drivers that work in the early hours, as they keep the country fed and businesses fully stocked.
When growing up during the early 1980s, I recall wanting to be a HGV driver like my dad. I vividly remember the usual junior school question of: ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’? Other kids would put ‘astronaut’, ‘football player’ or even ‘Prime Minister’, but I always put ‘HGV driver’. When I was younger, I recall vividly how being HGV driver was a noble profession and respected widely.
Yet, over the past few decades, there has been a push to reduce costs, leading to many organisations taking advantage and exploiting EU workers, paying them poorly whilst driving down wages for everyone.
Over this time, Labour and pro-EU lobbyists didn’t care for the livelihoods of people like my dad. They didn’t care to notice the requirements getting tougher and the wages stagnating. The Left was happy to use the ‘working class’ as political pawns in speeches, whilst ignoring the reality that EU workers were being exploited to drive down wages for everyone, and also criticising those who raised concerns as xenophobic (or worse). This was plain wrong for all involved.
From friends I knew who worked in the profession, this backdrop created an underlying fear for many HGV drivers that, if they did something wrong, like dropping off a delivery late to a depot, that they could be replaced by someone cheaper in a heartbeat. It is no surprise to me now that I read that more than 230,000 HGV licence holders decided not to work in the commercial haulage sector. Why would they if they don’t have job security or a career ahead of them?
The job is a tough one, but also a rewarding one. I recall in summer holidays joining my dad at work (probably against every health and safety rule that exists today). Long before GPS, I would watch as my dad pull out the map to work out the best route from depot one to depot two and so on.
Then when he arrived, he would drag heavy pallets and trolleys off the vehicle via the tail lift. Once done, he would be greeted by clipboards and sign-off sheets to check everything had been delivered ok – then back out to the next drop. As a child it was a huge adventure seeing the country, stopping for fish and chips as we took a short break for lunch and the excitement of the battle against time to the next drop. Unfortunately, I also have the scars, too, since I once managed to get my hand trapped in the mechanism of the tail lift (a story for another day)!
Even so, I could see the appeal of being a HGV driver. The freedom of a life on the open road, the ability to manage your day, meet lots of new people and have a job away from the chains of an office chair and desk. The reality for my dad and for drivers like him was that being a HGV driver was still a gruelling job. It is a role that requires focus: driving all day, planning, time management, physical and mental agility, whether that be parking huge vehicles in sometimes impossible spaces, or shifting heavy palettes on and off during each drop off.
In other words, being an HGV driver is as far as your can get from an ‘unskilled’ job and certainly deserves to be treated as such.
Finally, market forces are giving HGV drivers the spotlight, and wages, they deserve. For too long, experienced HGV drivers have seen their wages hit a ceiling that, for many, was akin to junior office-based roles with conditions slowly eroding over time.
As noted in analysis by The Grocer recently: ‘Better pay and conditions will be a major factor [in re-engaging the workforce]…and the crisis is already forcing change on this front. Driver wages have risen by an estimated 20 per cent since the shortages hit home, as companies compete for drivers.’
It went on to note that ‘there have been plenty of additional measures, too. Tesco, for example, has offered a £1,000 signing-on fee for drivers, and Poundland is paying for drivers to upgrade to HGV1 licences.’
The shortage of HGV drivers is not just limited to the UK. There has been a global shortage – so, for example, in Poland there is an approximate shortfall of 123,000 HGV drivers [according to TI Insight].
So the need to provide training skills and opportunity for new HGV drivers in the UK is essential, but so is the need to promote the profession as one that young people want to enter and former drivers want to return to. The Government has been ramping up the opportunities in recent months, increasing the number of HGV driving tests, improving apprenticeships and reducing bureaucracy, and we must ensure this continues. This is all essential – especially cutting unnecessary bureaucracy – as we ramp up training and opportunity long term, showcasing the profession to school leavers to build a new generation of drivers.
Personally, I am proud of both my parents – more than they could ever realise. Politically, we must remember it is people like my parents that are the silent majority of conservative voters. They are the millions who work hard to get on in life and to support their family. As Conservatives, we need to continue to show we are on their side and ensure that these improvements will continue under Conservative rule. We have an opportunity to keep this show on the road, and deliver on that promise in the coming months and for years to come.
The current situation with short term visas for foreign HGV drivers is a necessary one, and exactly what visas should be used for, but must only be used to solve an immediate issue. The shortages won’t disappear overnight. In resolving the issue, we must ensure we never return to the time where we diminish the position of the very people that keep this country running.
At least today we know the importance of HGV drivers, and I can finally say proudly that I am the ‘son of a HGV driver’ without being asked ‘what is that?’. Finally, workers like my dad are once again getting both the recognition and pay they deserve.