Today, lorry drivers, tomorrow?…

And so the Government have announced a temporary visa scheme for lorry drivers, intended to avert an emerging crisis in the run-up to Christmas. It’s probably a bit late for Fireworks Night, but will it have any significant impact in the now less than three months until Christmas?

That’s going to depend on a number of factors;

  • Cost – are these visas going to be free? Because, if there is a shortage of drivers across Europe and beyond, the market will determine whether or not an individual driver will choose to work here rather than in, say, Germany. The cost of a visa is a factor in that calculation, especially for a short term opportunity – the visas will only cover the period until 24 December, according to reports.
  • Availability – as with any application process, the time taken to handle them and provide a response is critical. Given the Home Office’s form on delay and rejection, even if all the details were in place now, how long might it be before successful applicants can take up their temporary roles?
  • NHS levy – in fairness, this is strongly related to cost. Are these temporary workers going to be subject to the NHS levy? Or, in order to offer an attractive package, are employers going to have to fund this?

This Government has been frequently accused of being an “essay crisis administration”, leaving critical decisions until the last moment, and my fear is that this is going to one of those critical decisions whose ramifications emerge only quite slowly at first.

You see, whilst some would suggest that this policy change demonstrates the advantages of controlling your own immigration policy, what it demonstrates is a fundamental lack of strategy in terms of how the various industry sectors are enabled to find the staff they need to thrive going forward. What, we should ask, is the long term strategy for the distribution sector other than to throw money at short term solutions?

It isn’t even that the Government itself will spend very much. Instead, it will be private businesses that bear the cost and, ultimately, we the consumers.

So we should be asking this question of the Government;

What is your long-term plan for dealing with the shortage of lorry drivers, other than to encourage people to transfer out of other industry sectors?

We also need to offer solutions ourselves. That should include raising the issue of mutual freedom of movement, or of partial freedom of movement, acknowledging that the Government’s recent treatment of EU citizens has made getting such a deal more difficult – it turns out that we might have needed them rather more than they needed us.

I noted the comments of one Minister that we’re trying to build a high skill, high value economy. Well, that suggests that you don’t need to find people to do all of those jobs too often thought of as low skill, low value. Do we need to find ways of valuing jobs that might not require significant educational achievement but are hardly “unskilled”? And, perhaps more relevant to the public sector, do we need to understand that you can’t buck the market, as Margaret Thatcher said, in that if you don’t allow Government, regardless of its level, to compete for skills on level terms, you might struggle to staff a modern, professional public service.

All of the indicators are that there are critical staff shortages in a range of sectors, and if this Government’s response is going to be a series of short term bandages, we can expect a series of crises over the coming years. How we, as Liberal Democrats, respond to that will be a key marker in terms of establishing credibility with voters as the next General Election approaches.

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  • Barry Lofty 27th Sep '21 - 5:44pm

    Mark [email protected] I agree with your assessments regarding the difficulties we find ourselves in with the present emergency and can I just air my own feeling about the whole EU question, were we many ordinary citizens so badly off when our country
    was a member of that group, that we all have to suffer all the inconvenience and bad feeling that has seemingly taken over our lives since that Brexit vote or was it just a vehicle for ambitious politicians to make a name for themselves and also knowing which buttons to press with the electorate to achieve their ambitions?. I feel we have lost so much more than we have gained.

  • Today Lorry Drivers ? Excellent article by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian today :

    “Despite all the panic in government and at the petrol station forecourt, there is another urgent question: what about the care homes? The government is hastily attempting to give three-month visas to 5,000 foreign truck drivers to “save Christmas”. It is also allowing 5,000 visas for farm workers to gather in the winter harvest. But, in the face of widespread personnel shortages, the care home sector is to get no relief at all.

    There are already 100,000 staff vacancies in the care home sector, yet all the health ministry can say is that there will “always be enough staff with the right skills to deliver high quality care”. This is state-sponsored employment chaos”.

    Come on, Ed Davey, there’s an open goal waiting for you if you choose to seize it.

  • ‘What is your long-term plan for dealing with the shortage of lorry drivers, other than to encourage people to transfer out of other industry sectors?’

    You forgot to mention in your article that 25,000 HGV truck driver tests were lost due to the testing shutdown during the pandemic.

    Secondly for reasons,I don’t understand HGV drivers are regarded as unskilled workers & paid accordingly.This needs to be changed soonest.

    With over 1 million employees about to come off furlough there will clearly be quite a lot of people looking for new jobs.

    Put all three of these points together then long term the situation should be easily resolved although there will obviously be bumps in the road for the next year or so.

  • David Evans 28th Sep '21 - 7:45am

    What I would add to Marks list of key factors would be

    Willingness. Over the last five years, we have been led by a party that has made it clear that it holds foreigners in general and foreign workers in particular in absolute contempt and drove many who had decided to work here to leave the UK. The vast majority would never want to work here ever again except for ridiculous wages. It is another disaster imposed on us by Boris Johnson and his incompetent party. Worst of all this damage will be long lasting and take many years of hard work by several new governments to put right.

    We are where we are and there is no quick and easy solution to any of this disaster.

  • Antony Watts 28th Sep '21 - 10:41am

    This is a systematic problem. Relying on “The Market will manage all” of the Tories will always result in shortages, or full trains or shortfalls of anything (including I fear climate emergency actions).

    The natural status of a market is to be in need. That is supply always is less than demand, which nominally promotes growth.

    Add that to political short sightedness (leaving the EU) and you have a sure fire disaster on your hands.

  • @Antony Watts. I disagree. In the long run, relying on the market is normally going to be the most efficient solution. We have a problem in the short term because Brexit and Covid have both disrupted things – both causing us to lose lots of European drivers, it takes time for the country/businesses to adapt, and the Government evidently didn’t have the foresight to see this particular problem coming and plan for it.

    But in the medium-long term, all the Government really needs to do is make sure that it is sufficiently easy for people who want to become lorry drivers to get trained up. I’m pretty sure there’s enough competition and enough businesses working in delivery for the market to see to the rest. For training, maybe we need some system whereby people can get loans for their training, payable back only once they are working and earning sufficient money – similar to student loans, but based on vocational skills that there is a shortage of?

    And of course in the very long term, we need to find a way to reduce our reliance on such an eco-unfriendly and congestion-causing way of delivering stuff anyway – but that’s a long term thing, not the immediate problem, and requires a lot of infrastructure investment.

  • @Simon R – “For training, maybe we need some system whereby people can get loans for their training, payable back only once they are working and earning sufficient money – similar to student loans, but based on vocational skills that there is a shortage of?”

    A very good point, however, as it is quite sensible I doubt any politician or political party will take it up.

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