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Labour Shortages: Exports and Imports

Volume 704: debated on Thursday 2 December 2021

4. What recent assessment her Department has made of the impact of labour shortages on UK (a) export and (b) import levels. (904518)

As the global economy has rebounded from the pandemic, we have seen pressures placed on supply chains across sectors and across the world. It is this Government who have taken quick and decisive action across the United Kingdom to ease those pressures where immediate interventions have been required.

The Minister is redefining “quick and decisive”. An Aviva study indicates that more than seven out of 10 businesses are worried about skills shortages and 25% of businesses said their biggest risk is the uncertainty caused by Brexit. The temporary visa scheme for poultry workers has now closed and only nine people applied to join the Government scheme designed to boost the number of fuel tanker drivers, out of an intended 300. Given the failure of those schemes, why will the Government not consider devolving immigration powers, which could deliver the stronger labour market they profess to want but in reality are actively frustrating?

I am afraid that SNP Members have not woken up to the reality of the opportunities that we now have to trade around the world as part of being an independent trading nation. The hon. Gentleman refers to tanker drivers. Some 5,000 visas have been made available for HGV drivers for a three-month period to provide short-term relief. We have gone further. The long-term sustainable solution is to support and develop our domestic workforce, and to improve the pay and conditions in the sector. That is why the Government are working to correct the structural problems in the haulage industry. We are increasing testing availability by 50,000 a year. We are streamlining the process for efficiency and we are committing £17 million in free skills boot camps for HGV drivers.

The problem that the Minister has is that the shortage of HGV drivers in the UK is happening now. It is already causing huge disruption and we are all anxious to ensure that the situation does not get worse in the run-up to Christmas. Will the Minister tell us how many of the 5,000 temporary worker visas that the Government made available to overseas lorry drivers in September have been allocated?

We are not going to provide a running commentary on numbers, but what I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that this is not a problem faced only by the United Kingdom. He is so keen always to talk about our friends across the channel, so he will know that France has a shortage of 40,000 drivers, Germany has a shortage of 60,000 drivers, and Poland has a shortage of 120,000 drivers.

I find it extraordinary that the Minister was unable to tell us how many visas have been allocated to overseas HGV drivers. We were told in October that it was just 20; I wonder what the figure is now. The reality is that the Wine and Spirit Trade Association warns of “delivery chaos”, of

“major delays on wine and spirit delivery times”

up to five times longer than last year and increases in freight costs—no doubt that will not affect parties in Downing Street. Does he want to be responsible for cancelling Christmas celebrations elsewhere, because if not, he needs to give a much better answer than the one he just gave?

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman has not realised that this is not Transport questions, but International Trade questions—I am sure that his new shadow ministerial colleagues will raise questions with Transport Ministers in due course. We continue to see businesses thriving, including in the wine and spirit industry, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) pointed out.

Eight out of 10 businesses in Scotland say that they need to recruit staff, yet three quarters are reporting skills shortages. Businesses cannot export what they can neither make nor supply, yet the Government’s already tired 12-point plan, which has been mentioned this morning, has nothing to cover workforce shortages or dealing with them. Will the Minister explain why?

Again, this is International Trade questions, but I am happy to provide an answer on behalf of the Government. We are putting significant resources into training people up to develop our domestic workforce. My understanding is that many people are very keen to find a new job potentially in a new industry. This Government will help them to do that.

Clearly, the Government are keen to duck all these issues relating to trade. The Federation of Small Businesses reported to a Committee in this Parliament that a fifth of its members have ceased trading with the UK’s biggest export market—the EU—either temporarily or permanently due to bureaucracy or costs, yet the 12-point plan contains nothing to deal with that issue. The Government’s priorities are clearly elsewhere. Tory cronies are queuing up for a Christmas come early to get contracts and big donors are fairly leaping into the Lords. Why are backbone businesses being short-changed and served only a thin gruel?

I know that the hon. Gentleman’s Twitter followers will be happy with that statement. The truth is that we have secured trade deals with 70 countries around the world, and the EU. The EU deal is the best deal that it has ever secured with anyone. A zero-tariff, zero-quota deal has been done with no one bar the United Kingdom, and we look forward to trading with not only them, but new markets, as I have outlined.