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Don’t blame Brexit!


ACCORDING to Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland, ‘the cause of our food and petrol shortages is Brexit – yet no one dares name it’. He doesn’t say which foods he’s short of, but there are plenty of his sort bleating about Brexit (still). The Twittersphere and media have been fizzing with cock-a-hoop Remoaners, their spindrift bile carried by their bigotry, ignorance, wishful thinking and hubris. The loathing of Brexit and Brexiteers is palpable (some might call us scum). Having been denied the much-vaunted cliff-edge cataclysm prophesied by Project Fear and promoted by Messrs Cameron, Osborne, Adonis et al, the CBI, BBC and most of the Establishment (neither car industry nor financial services have decamped to the EU and Kent has not become a lorry park, to name a few of many unfulfilled Remoaner wishes), they have clutched the straw of the HGV driver dearth to chirrup ‘we told you so’. It’s pathetic.

Motorists cannot have failed to notice the proliferation in recent years of recruitment advertisements on trucks, traffic signs and lamp posts appealing for HGV drivers. The shortage has been known about and growing for years. Some hauliers have remained wedded to the expediency of pre-Brexit outsourcing of jobs to drivers from relatively low-wage EU states. But a report this month by industry recruitment specialist Driver Require concluded that a shortage of ‘EU drivers did not significantly contribute to the current shortage’. 

In a June 2021 letter to the Government, the Road Haulage Association (RHA) claimed there are 600,000 HGV drivers in the UK of whom 10 per cent are from the EU.  However according to ONS figures, quoted by The Grocer,  the number of HGV drivers from the EU fell from 45,000 in 2017 to 24,500 now. A reduction of 20,500 over four years out of a pre-pandemic HGV driver total of around 500,000 is hardly cliff-edge stuff. Of the 34,500 EU drivers at the beginning of 2020 (pre-pandemic), 12,500 have left, representing only 18 per cent of all 70,000 drivers who have left the industry in the same period.

As Chris Lamb reported in TCW Defending Freedom on Tuesday, poor pay and conditions have been a deterrent to recruitment and retention, resulting in an ageing and disillusioned indigenous workforce that has either retired or sought alternative employment.

Employers’ easy access to cheaper EU labour has been exacerbated to debatable degrees by a coincidence of circumstances (cancellation of tests due to Covid, sclerotic DVLA etc), some foreseeable and summarised here by The Grocer. 

In the five years since the referendum, hauliers have done little to tackle the root cause of the problem by improving pay and conditions to attract more drivers and reduce reliance on EU drivers. They are now trying to shift the blame on to the Government and are pressing for relaxation of visa rules so foreign drivers can plug the gaps. Whether the 5,000 visas the Government is prepared to grant, or the barmy 100,000 demanded by Sir Keir Starmer, it’s highly unlikely that a cohort of qualified EU HGV drivers is standing by to fill the breach given the scale of the problem EU-wide.

(Incidentally, I am unaware of any mention either by Government, media or the greenery about using rail freight to alleviate the problem. Carrie should tell Boris to speak to these guys.)

The hauliers are the main culprits for the driver shortage, but Government must share some of the blame for a lack of planning and contingencies and for a dysfunctional DVLA (is it the country’s most Covid prone/shy organisation?) particularly with regard to tanker drivers. Their strikes brought the country to a standstill 20 years ago. This time it appears the RHA created the problem when it leaked a confidential remark from BP which led to needless panic buying, exacerbated by a foolish Government announcement that there is not a problem.

Another potentially much more politically serious problem for the Government has been highlighted by the British Meat Processors Association. They are pleading for thousands of visas to be issued for abattoir workers and butchers from the Philippines, South America and elsewhere to obviate another looming crisis which they should have avoided by improving pay and conditions. 

With abundant post-pandemic opportunities in less gruelling jobs, workers have been leaving the industry in droves and, predictably, some have returned to their EU homes. The consequences for farmers and animal welfare may be far more serious morally, financially and politically if livestock raised for human consumption cannot be properly slaughtered and butchered so they have to be rendered (i.e. wasted) then replaced on supermarket shelves by imported meat produced to lower welfare standards. Footage of carcasses in mass burial pits or on flaming pyres will be electorally disastrous and a scandal if allowed to happen. The Government will get most of the blame, whether deserved or not.

Whatever Jonathan Freedland might think, the current problems cannot be blamed on Brexit or the 17.4million who voted for it. The referendum was five years ago, allowing plenty of time to prepare or adapt, especially the Government. As I wrote here almost a year ago, they spent £4.4billion of our money and deployed 22,000 civil servants plus a whole gravy-trainful of consultants to prepare industry and institutions for Brexit. Boris Johnson has had time, resources, our money and our mandate to get the job done. He has no excuses.   

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David Owen
David Owen
David Owen has over 30 years’ experience of international trade and contracting, mainly with UK and German companies, managing oil, gas and mining projects in Europe, Middle East and Africa.

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