Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.
Bradley Burn Café, Wolsingham, Co. Durham
This weekend, I bumped into another MP at a local beauty spot. “It only feels like we’ve been away a fortnight, doesn’t it” he said. It does.
Planning to return to Westminster is not unlike that feeling that you get ahead of returning to school, college or university after the summer. The obvious difference with education is that, like many of my colleagues, I’ve been spending the summer working in my constituency.
The start of it was dominated by the pandemic and opening-up. And the last two weeks by the withdrawal of the West from Afghanistan. September will see a hard switch back to the domestic agenda (Coronavirus variants permitting).
A couple of months in ‘the patch’ – spending time chatting to people – keeps MPs grounded. And it’s the domestic agenda that people are talking about. The man who stopped me in the street to chat about his small business. The farmers concerned about how to navigate the new ELMS system, who I chatted to after an evening I’d arranged with DEFRA and the Rural Payments Agency. The mum who I know from the pub, who collared me after a pint to chat about her eldest who is worried about getting a job and whose youngest is struggling with autism. It’d probably be quite helpful for the non-politicians in ‘the bubble’ – the civil servants, advisers, lobbyists and even the media – to do the same.
What’s really stuck me over the last few weeks is the response of local employers to my Jobs Fair. In an area synonymous with historically higher levels of unemployment, employers are desperate for staff. Big firms: Nissan, Aldi, Balfour Beaty, Network Rail, and Amazon are among the almost 40 employers who came along. Down at the Wheatsheaf in Leadgate, the chat at the bar was of the shortage of lorry drivers – you can currently get £30 an hour (the equivalent of £60,000 a year full time) driving for Aldi, apparently.
Kwasi Kwarteng’s response – to tell companies to get more local people trained rather than ask for a relaxation of immigration rules – is the right thing to do. It doesn’t actually take that long to train a lorry driver (which is why you don’t see apprentice drivers). It can be done in four months or so my local firms tell me. Until recently though, relatively poor pay and undercutting from foreign companies caused UK firms problems in recruiting local drivers.
But there are bureaucratic blocks also causing short-term issues. If you drive a car, you only have to renew your licence when you hit 70. But a lorry driver has to do this every five years, and every year as soon as they hit 65. Surely this is an unnecessary barrier as well as an added expense?
On top of that, the haulage sector faces another barrier – The Driver Certificate of Professional Competence (CPC). This is an extra licence bus and lorry drivers have to get on top of the basic drivers licence, and also has to be renewed every five years. There is no cap on the cost for the 35-hour course (which often costs several hundred pounds) – often putting off those who just want to pick up a few shifts, or who are approaching retirement, from doing the job.
The CPC is an EU wide measure adopted in the UK when we were members, but we are one of the only European major countries who force all our lorry drivers to undergo these time-consuming and expensive courses. Lots of other countries are no where near as onerous with their requirements.
Surely this puts the UK at a disadvantage, and simply adds to the strain on our distribution network at this critical moment?
During the pandemic, the Prime Minister and Chancellor have been quite right to use taxpayers’ money to support jobs and the economy. A fact conveniently side-stepped by Keir Starmer is that this was only possible because Britain dealt with the structural deficit that Labour’s hubris in power had built up. We need to remind Labour of that whenever the opportunity arises.
Speaking to people in North West Durham and to my local businesses, it’s clear that the Government is right now to concentrate on getting people back into work – and, where possible, better-paid work.
At the next election, the economy is going to be the central factor. Part of it is big investments to level up: -drive productivity, connectivity and skills. But right now, we’ve also got to look at curtailing some excessive bureaucracy holding back people taking up work right now, especially in terms of our haulage industry.
Given the pandemic and fears for what might happen next, there will be ‘stickiness’ in the employment market. People will be nervous that if something – such as a new variant – emerges, they will be disadvantaged if they move jobs.
We need to reassure them and inject confidence in our economy. In some sectors, this might mean slashing red tape; in others, it could mean giving people new skills and training, so that they can make the switch to new jobs.
To build back better, we need to reassure voters that we are the party which can deliver good, high paid jobs and training. If we can reassure them of that, then at the election they will know the Conservatives are a party which has their backs. And that it isn’t worth taking a risk on a Labour Party which carps from the sidelines, but would not be able to ‘step up’ and help them, as Conservatives in government have done.