The scares we have been witnessing – and maybe some readers have experienced – of shortages of a favourite marmalade in the grocer’s or fuel at the forecourt have longstanding origins – but that means nothing when they can be used to energise a political campaign that would rather create grievances and spread genuine hardship than find solutions that make life harmonious.
It has come as a great surprise to many that there is, all of a sudden, a shortage of HGV drivers able to ensure supermarket shelves are stacked – but it is no surprise to me. For the last four or more years people have been telling me this development would come – and interestingly all of them have been supporters of Brexit rather than opponents inventing yet another scare. You see Brexit is not the cause of the shortage so many would like to claim it is, all Brexit has done is remove the cloak that hid the appalling de-skilling and mistreatment of drivers in the road haulage industry.
Those behind the wheel have too often been mistreated and taken for granted at the hands of some employers driven only by greed, forgetting their duty of care is a better route to delivering improved and sustainable profits. Meanwhile officious bureaucrats and lazy disinterested politicians only ever interested in the next headline have been unwilling to heed the warnings that a perfect storm was heading our way.
Back in 2017 the late Bob Durward, a highly successful Scottish businessman who originally started out in haulage used to assure me ordinary British drivers were being forced into early retirement or switching to other jobs due to the masses of East European drivers being recruited on very low wages once their countries acceded to the EU and they could take advantage of free movement of labour. He predicted huge problems ahead because adaptable smaller family haulage firms were being put out of business and we were not training enough new drivers to tackle natural wastage, never mind any shock that might come from EU drivers choosing to stay away.
Last year June Slater, a retired businesswoman I keep in touch with and in contact with hundreds of British drivers through her special Facebook group, reported similar and compelling concerns to me, only now we were in the middle of the government’s lockdown in response to the Covid pandemic.
Large numbers of East European drivers were either caught in the continent or, given the harrowing and unpredictable circumstances they faced, preferred to be with their families. What would happen when travel became possible? She predicted most would not come back – not least because the UK Government’s tax policy IR35 for self-employed people would impact on the thousands of foreign HGV drivers who work through agencies. They had their tax liability deferred for a year but it would now be due on arrival in Britain, while some faced repayments of £10,000 from Covid grants a loophole had allowed them to claim.
This is where blaming Brexit can be seen as nonsense. The undeniable fact is there are huge shortages of HGV drivers in the rest of Europe too (for similar reasons as those in the UK) amounting to 400,000 in the EU 27 – with the highest being 45,000 in Germany and 20,000 in France. Why would a Czech driver wish to pick up work in the UK and face a tax bill run-up from previous years when there is enough work in the rest of the continent that is cost free? The driver shortage in EU members states is not caused by Brexit and the unwillingness of self-employed drivers to come back to Britain is not caused by Brexit. Temporary visas are therefore not the answer.
Last year there was a drop of 42,658 LGV tests in the UK. The DVSA and DVLA’s outstanding HGV licence examinations have nothing to do with Brexit and are entirely a product of the Covid lockdowns with home working, social distancing rules and associated strikes at the agencies.
The last straw for many HGV drivers was the treatment they received during the national and local lockdowns – as if they were the carriers of a plague rather than critical workers ensuring our foods, fuel (and toilet rolls) were getting to us. They found their motorway toilets and showers locked up, their canteens closed and even supermarkets refusing to let them use the staff facilities after a long drive to get supplies delivered. Now, many drivers are finding they are due a routine medical but cannot get a doctor’s appointment so their licence can be renewed.
If you take a step back from what’s happening in the supermarkets, the forecourts and in the meeting rooms of lobbyists pushing their vested interests upon the government – where nobody is there to speak up for the consumer or wider public – what we see is Brexit has had a role, but it is not the one being tweeted by BBC reporters, SNP politicians or the big corporations. Brexit’s role has simply been to put power back in the hands of the ordinary British workers, who were taken advantage of for so long and are willing to get back on the road – but find government incompetence and mendacious opposition leaders politicising the remedies. Brexit has made visible the dishonesty of our political elite.
The answer is to clear the administrative barriers, pay decent wages and welcome the British drivers back to the job they used to do.
Brian Monteith is a director of GlobalBritain.co.uk and served in the Scottish and European Parliaments for the Conservative and Brexit Parties respectively.