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Lorry Drivers

Volume 813: debated on Wednesday 7 July 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the shortage of lorry drivers; and what steps they are taking to address the situation.

I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and refer to my interests on the register.

My Lords, the Government hold regular meetings with the road haulage industry regarding driver shortages and the impact on supply chains. On 16 June, I hosted an industry round table, alongside the Employment Minister. We are supporting HGV driver training through apprenticeships and training for jobseekers, and encouraging drivers who need to renew their driver’s certificate of professional competence to return to the sector.

I welcome the government action. Brexit and Covid combined have, in part, led to the crisis that we face, as well as the closure of test centres during the Covid pandemic last year, preventing training of new drivers. The industry is stepping up to the plate by agreeing to pay drivers more. Will the Government look very carefully at encouraging women drivers to take up lorry driving, and at adding HGV drivers to the UK skills shortage list, as well as trying to provide even more training, test centres and the reissuing of licences?

If my noble friend does not mind, I shall focus on the first of those questions. First, I welcome any more pay for professional drivers, because they do an outstanding job. I recognise what my noble friend says about diversity. It is a very white, male sector. There are huge opportunities for the sector to diversify and, when it comes up with plans to do so—for example, Logistics UK’s Year of Logistics, which I hope we will get under way soon—I will be very happy to support them.

My Lords, perhaps I may pick up on the second part of the question of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, and ask about adding lorry drivers to the post-Brexit skilled occupation list. I also ask for a period of not just six months but 18 months, which is what I understand the industry wants, in order to be able to attract, recruit and train new British drivers.

The industry needs to do an awful lot more to recruit, train and retain its staff, and perhaps I will be able to get into that a little later, but on foreign labour, the UK labour market has changed dramatically due to the pandemic. Many UK workers face an uncertain future. There will be employment opportunities within the professional driving sector, and I hope that they will apply for them.

My Lords, lorry drivers have been the hidden heroes of this pandemic and they deserve our full support. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that such jobs require good skills, training and investment, and are equally important to driving our economy forward as any university degree?

I agree that they have been some of the heroes during the pandemic, and ensure that I frequently tell them so. I think they have done a fantastic job, but it is time for the industry to step up just a little more. On 1 August last year, we suspended the HGV levy. This has saved the industry hundreds of millions of pounds. For each truck, it costs about £900 a year, so if you are a haulier with 3,000 trucks, you save £2.5 million. That could train 800 new drivers. I ask the industry to recruit those people and train them.

Finding effective solutions means first identifying the cause. Driver and other staff shortage problems could lead to higher food prices. I get the impression from the Minister’s answers that the Government do not accept any responsibility for the present situation, but may I seek clarification on that? Do the Government think that the staff shortage problems are due to the end of free movement and the way they are now implementing border controls, or due to the effect of repeated Covid lockdowns, or do the Government think they have no responsibility and that the staff shortages are due to low pay and poor terms and conditions of employment, inadequate manpower planning or a failure by the industry to invest in proper training programmes to meet future manpower needs?

All of the above; those are the issues we are facing. I have been Roads Minister now for two years, and I had this conversation with the haulage sector two years ago. It was very clear then that foreign labour would not be available to it. It has known that this was coming down the track. The TSC issued a report in 2016, pointing out exactly what the sector needed to do to address the shortage it had then, and yet still not enough has been done. I would accept that the Government stand ready to help. We have listened to the industry and work alongside the it. For example, on HGV testing, I have doubled the number of tests every week from the pre-Covid level. We are doing everything we can, and we need the industry to work in partnership with us.

To ensure that goods kept flowing into the United Kingdom after the end of the transition period, the Government recognised that there was a shortage in the capacity in our ports, so they deferred checks for hauliers. Why are they not deferring the Immigration Rules changes for hauliers, to ensure that they are able to bring goods into this country properly?

Hauliers are able to bring goods into this country properly. The issue is that there is a driver shortage in the UK market. There is also a shortage in the EU market, actually, and in many economies. I can announce to your Lordships’ House today that I have just temporarily extended drivers’ hours. I accept that that is definitely not a long-term solution: we must ensure that drivers’ safety is not compromised, and operators must notify the DfT.

The announcement my noble friend just made will be very welcome to the industry. Speaking to people in the industry, they say that they are facing the biggest crisis that they can recall in driver recruitment. Will the Government consider temporarily lifting the CPC regulations and the need for them for domestic drivers, now we are no longer in the European Union?

I thank my noble friend for his question. I have looked very carefully at driver CPC. It is my opinion that we need to put the “professional” back into professional driving. Driver CPC is a really good way to ensure ongoing training for the profession. It is one day a year, which I think is about the right amount of training. It ensures that they are up to date and maintain their skills and knowledge of the roads. The Government have funding available to support those who have a C+E licence who need to get their driver CPC, so there is a way for people to upgrade their qualification.

My Lords, as president of the CBI, I know that employers are facing the perfect storm of staff shortages as the economy reopens. First, does the Minister agree that the Government should immediately update the immigration shortage occupation list, as well as helping workers to gain skills? Secondly, does the Minister agree that, with cases projected to rise to up to 100,000 a day, instead of waiting until 16 August, from 19 July, instead of people having to isolate after coming into contact with a Covid-positive individual, we should have a test and release system, including using lateral flow tests, which will allow people to carry on with work?

I think that I have already answered the noble Lord’s first question. On his second, obviously the Government will be watching the economy as we go through this period of lifting the restrictions and monitoring the impact carefully.

The Minister appears to be blaming the industry and the pandemic but, given that she referred to discussions in 2016 and 2018, do the Government not have some responsibility in this respect? This crisis was eminently predictable, given the age profile of drivers and the likely reaction of east European drivers to Brexit. Do the Government need more powers and responsibilities to establish an emergency programme of training for qualified HGV drivers and to implement it in concert with the industry, unions and FE sector now?

I have said that this is a partnership between the industry and the Government. We will do what we can and we need industry to step up to the plate. I reiterate that the HGV levy has been lifted until mid-2022. That is a huge saving for the sector. It has the money that it could now invest in skills, and I very much encourage it to do so.

The railways are very hungry for traffic. The Minister has a list that I gave her of simple modifications that could be made and there are resources available. Will she use the idle resources on our railways to better advantage to move freight?

The noble Lord will know that I am a great fan of rail freight and where it is appropriate to shift freight to rail we certainly should do so. However, one thing that we should be setting up with the industry is a clear and transparent charter that sets out good practice, decent minimum standards for our professional drivers and a commitment to initial and ongoing training. It is time to put the “professional” back into professional drivers and I would be happy to support the industry in working towards such a charter for hauliers and their customers.

My Lords, it is not just lorry drivers. I detect skill shortages in every part of my day-to-day personal and business life—shortages of roofers, data scientists, maintenance engineers, digital marketeers, gardeners, and many more. Do the Government have an analytical grip on the functioning of the UK’s labour market? Do we have appropriate educational skills and immigration policies to enable our economy to reap its full potential?

Any government Minister could probably spend about an hour talking about all our responses to the pandemic, the changes to our labour market and what will be needed in different parts of the sector. One of the big things that the Government are focused on is apprenticeships. In the haulage sector in particular, we did exactly as it asked. We increased the C+E apprenticeship from £6,000 to £7,000 a year. We now need the industry to step up and take that £7,000; there is a £3,000 incentive if that is done before 30 September. Let us get more people into jobs.

Sitting suspended.