Grant Shapps is Transport Secretary, and is MP for Welwyn Hatfield.
Good news landed on my desk recently: the daily “SitRep” detailing petrol levels at filling stations across the country showed that they had finally returned to above normal after weeks of shortages caused by an injudicious and partial briefing which predictably led to scare stories and real shortages.
Of course, there was barely a murmur about the improving situation in the media. Good news rarely sells, and anyway, even as the fuel crisis began to abate, there was already another shortage story in the works, inspired by a single large container ship being diverted from Felixstowe, our biggest container port, to the Continent.
That this happens all the time – companies continually adjust port calls in the fluid world of international shipping – and that a handful of ships were waiting offshore to unload at Felixstowe and London Gateway, when the queue at Los Angeles was 60 or more, mattered not a jot. In the modern era of instant news, even the merest hint of shortage is enough to spark screaming headlines.
“Can you guarantee Christmas minister?” came the accusatory enquiry during a morning television and radio news round. Explaining that one is not Santa, but I’ll do my best was about the only reply I could muster. Even as I said it, a headline including the words “Grinch Shapps” passed through my mind – it goes with the territory.
But these scares – real enough when you are trying to get to work in the morning and having to queue at a forecourt – illustrate a genuine problem. The global supply chains are under considerable strain. As the world economy awakes from Covid-19, shipping rates and energy prices have soared.
We have experienced a prolonged period of economic dislocation due to the pandemic, with ships and containers in the wrong place and production racing to catch-up with resurgent demand, and it will take time for the world economy to right itself. In the meantime, the fragility of the trans-oceanic “just in time” supply chain model has been put under the spotlight.
Now add to the mix that the UK is the fastest growing of the G7 economies with vacancies as well as the number of people in work at record highs, and nowhere is the labour shortage more acute than in logistics.
So just how big is the lorry shortage?
One of the haulier associations reckons the shortage of HGV drivers in Britain is 100,000. However, detailed research finds the true figure is around 39,000. Nonetheless, this long-term deficit means we lack resilience in a sector responsible for some 90 per cent of UK domestic freight movements. It’s a structural problem that we must fix – and we are.
But first, here is what we won’t do. Labour’s solution is simplistic. This, says Keir Starmer, is all the fault of Brexit and we must therefore throw open the gates, issuing hundreds-of-thousands of long-term work visas to European HGV drivers in the hope of returning to the status quo ante. There are two problems with this solution.
First, there is nothing Anglocentric about this shortage – Germany and other EU countries are experiencing a similar driver famine. In fact, the shortfall in Poland is reckoned to be over 123,000 drivers.
Second, returning to a reliance on cheaper Eastern European drivers will only serve to “bake-in” poor wages and conditions. Precisely the low-wage recipe that led to our problems in the first place.
As Conservatives, we believe that effort and skill should be rewarded. And we believe this principle is best served through the mechanism of the market. Reliance on Eastern European HGV drivers has resulted in structural under-cutting of British drivers who, for too long, have been denied the rewards that their vital role deserves.
These men – they are 99 per cent men – have undergone rigorous training and must spend long hours at the wheel as they skilfully navigate their trucks weighing up to 44 tons to meet tight deadlines. Low wages have been compounded by spartan truck stops devoid of showers and other comforts. No wonder that the average age of HGV drivers is 55 and that many have retired in recent years.
So, what are we doing?
I have introduced 25 separate measures to encourage more Brits to drive HGVs; too many to describe here. But the gist is that we want to make driving an HGV as accessible as possible to as many people as possible.
For those who blame Brexit by conveniently ignoring the lorry driver shortages in Europe, it’s worth noting that some of the 25 solutions would not even have been possible had we still be in the EU. For example, I’ve been able to streamline the testing regime free from interference from Brussels. As a result, our HGV licences are every bit as safe but faster to obtain. This, together with 24 other measures, is having a real-world impact.
On Friday, I visited a major milk distribution depot in my Welwyn Hatfield constituency. My hosts are training new drivers and then offering up to £78,000 a year; albeit you would have to be prepared to tolerate fairly unsociable shifts. This may be a pleasing outlier, but wages are rising generally across the sector by some 15 to 20 per cent. And more money means more applications. We are now seeing some 1,000 new HGV provisional licence applications per day – three times the pre-pandemic level.
The day may come when automation helps to provide a solution to the HGV driver problem – experiments are taking place involving autonomous vehicles and “platooning” (electronic linking of lorries) – but that lies in the future.
For now, we rely deeply on our brilliant HGV drivers. They are the lifeblood of the nation. At the height of the pandemic they transported the medicines and protective equipment that kept us safe. And now they are a catalyst for economic recovery.
It is a skilled job, a profession that young people – male and female – should be encouraged to take up. We must respect them and reward them to a degree befitting their importance to this country. Unlike Labour, which would choose to undercut them again with 100,000 new EU driving visas, this government is delighted to see truck drivers being paid a proper wage in return for their hard work.