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Goods Supply Chain

Volume 700: debated on Thursday 9 September 2021

3. What discussions he has had with representatives of (a) haulage and (b) other companies involved in the goods supply chain on recent disruptions to the UK’s supply networks. (903262)

I have regular discussions with the road haulage industry. Over the summer, we conducted a public consultation that resulted in over 9,000 responses.

Despite all the Government’s protestations to the contrary, Brexit and the end of freedom of moment are the lead causes of the current driver shortage in the UK. Will the Secretary of State listen to the Road Haulage Association when it says that it does not have a cat’s chance of solving the problem unless it has access to temporary labour in the short term?

I hear what the hon. Lady says, but actually it is a fact that there is a global shortage. In the US, for example, drivers are being hired from South Africa. In Poland, the shortage is 123,000 and, in Germany, 45,000 to 60,000. To say that this is just a Brexit issue is completely untrue; it is about coronavirus. That is why, as I said, we consulted on a series of measures, for which the consultation closed on Monday, to ensure that we can go back to pre-1997 driving licences—a Brexit bonus—to allow for more tests to be taken for HGVs so that tests for both articulated and rigid HGVs can be taken together. There are also one or two other measures that I will return to the House quickly to say more about.

Rugby is an excellent location for logistics, being at the centre of England and at the crossroads of the motorway network. However, despite the challenges that the sector faces, including that of drivers, our haulage and courier businesses make sure that we get the goods that we have ordered—usually online—incredibly quickly. Will the Secretary of State pay tribute to the extraordinary efficiency of our logistics sector?

I absolutely join my hon. Friend in that. This sector literally works day and night to provide goods, medicines and vital services around the country, for which we are hugely grateful. It has done that throughout the pandemic in very difficult circumstances. We on the Government side are pleased to see salaries for haulage drivers going up. If they are paid 20% more, or something like that, that would be good for British workers, and I thoroughly support it.

This has been a summer where Ministers have shown an abject failure of duty, whether on the exam fiasco, Afghanistan or the HGV driver shortage. We have seen high-profile examples of businesses impacted by supply-chain disruption and suppliers with stock that they could not get out the door, yet Ministers seem to do nothing. Will the Government finally accept that when it comes to a crisis such as this, it is their job to solve it, not just to sit on the sidelines and hope that it all works out? If they do accept that, what action is the Secretary of State taking to bring forward a road freight recovery plan to tackle head on the long-standing warnings of truck driver shortages that have been compounded by Brexit and covid?

First, we have introduced a temporary relaxation on drivers’ hours. Secondly, we have introduced £7,000 funding for the large goods vehicle driver apprenticeship programme. Thirdly, there is an additional incentive payment of £3,000 and, as I mentioned, we have been working hard to free up space at the Driver and Vehicle Standards Authority—the testing authority—so we are now testing 50% more drivers than we did before the pandemic. Yes, we have been acting, but we are going to go further. I mentioned removing the need for car drivers to take additional tests for a trailer—a move we can make only because we are outside the EU—removing the requirement for staged licence acquisition to obtain a lorry licence and authorising third parties to assess off-road manoeuvring for the lorry practical test.

If that is the best the Government have got, I am afraid that the crisis will not be sorted. They talk about solutions and interventions, but the long-term problems in the haulage industry will not be resolved by those measures outlined, such as making drivers work longer hours. It is only by training more that we can help to fill the long-reported 90,000 vacancies.

This problem has been a long time coming. The Secretary of State will know that well before covid, and a year before Brexit, 24,000 would-be truck drivers passed their theory test, but only 9,000 went on to complete their practical test, and yet even with that knowledge and the industry pleading for intervention, nothing has been done. This is a live crisis that is only getting worse. Without real action, he will be left standing alone as the Transport Secretary who stole Christmas, leaving shelves empty, gifts absent from under the tree and restaurants and bars without the stock they need to trade. Will he immediately take action and set up a taskforce to resolve this crisis once and for all?

Order. I say to Front Benchers that these are meant to be questions—statements come at a different time—and, please, we have to shorten them. Those on each side complain to me afterwards that they have not got in, so let us help the rest of the Members of this Parliament.

Mr Speaker, I will be brief. This is the problem of having a pre-written statement. The hon. Member heard the previous answer—a 50% increase in the number of tests. He is right that it is not enough, but that is why we have closed the consultation, which I have just said we will act on fast, on what will introduce even more testing capacity. The fact of the matter is that we are acting on this. This is a global crisis—in Europe alone there is a shortage of 400,000 drivers—and this is the Government who are doing something about it.

I thank my right hon. Friend for those answers. It is clear that there are huge backlogs at the DVLA and the DVSA, and he is working to get through those, but will he also consider other measures to address this crisis, such as skills provision and signposting for jobseekers?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As well as things such as the provision of skills—I have talked about the £7,000 apprenticeship programme—we are looking at what else we can do working with both the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education. He mentions the shortages with the problems at the DVSA and, on the licensing side of this, at the DVLA. He may want to join me in trying to persuade Opposition Members to end the pointless DVLA strike, which is hurting the most vulnerable people in our society who cannot get their licences back, including those who drive HGVs.

The penny has finally dropped. For the first time the Government finally seem to understand the scale of the problem, and they seem rattled. This was the reaction of the industry to expediting the testing process, which we welcome. However, it is nowhere near enough, and it will take at least two years to fill the gap, if they attract enough drivers. Why then, as I asked the Secretary of State when I wrote to him back in June, can he not convince the Home Office to put HGV drivers on the shortage occupation list for a temporary period? This is not just about cancelling Christmas; shelves lie empty right now.

I do agree that this is an urgent measure. That is why, before anybody else was talking about it, we were already acting—carrying out these consultations, putting in place these measures—and we have 50% more people being tested. I hear his call for more immigration to resolve the problem, but we do have to stand on our own two feet as the United Kingdom. There are a lot of people coming off furlough, and I look forward to those people getting jobs.