The policy director of the Road Haulage Association, Rod McKenzie, declared that the Transport Secretary’s comments are “boosterish claims in favour of a Government decision” and has instead helped “provide a solution” to the shortage.
Asked whether Brexit has alleviated the HGV crisis, as Grant Shapps claimed on Friday, Mr McKenzie declared: “What he’s saying is illogical – simply put, it’s illogical. It’s not our experience on the ground.
“We have a desperate shortage of lorry drivers and we need to sort it out. The idea that Brexit has helped us in some way defies logic.” Some 14,000 EU HGV drivers left employment in the UK in the 12 months to June 2020, and only 600 have returned in the past year, according to analysis of Office for National Statistics labour force data commissioned by Logistics UK.
Kieran Smith, chief executive at specialist HGV driver recruitment firm Driver Require, also strongly disagreed that Brexit could be dismissed as a factor in the current driver shortage, he said: “[Brexit] is part of it by definition.”
Mr Smith stated the shortage is “partially due to EU nationals leaving” the country, adding that a European exodus accounts for approximately one sixth of the lost workforce.
He said the main effect of Brexit on the industry has been the impact to the flexible nature of the sector, as the UK heavily relies on EU nationals to plug the gaps when demand increases in busy periods, such as the summer and winter months.
“At least 50 per cent of the flexibility is born by European nationals, enabling the increase and decrease of drivers as the industry demands,” Mr Smith said.
What has Grant Shapps said about HGV drivers?
The Transport Secretary said leaving the EU has actually helped “provide a solution” to the HGV driver shortage, as it has allowed ministers to ramp up the number of driving tests available to new recruits.
Mr Shapps told Sky News on Friday: “I have seen people point to Brexit as the culprit here when in fact they are wrong.
“Not only are there very large and even larger shortages in other EU countries like Poland and Germany, which clearly can’t be because of Brexit.
“But actually because of Brexit I have been able to change the law and alter the way our driving tests operate in a way that I could not have done if we were still part of the EU.
“So Brexit has actually provided part of the solution of giving more slots available to HGV tests and a lot more, twice as many available as before the pandemic.
“A large proportion of those we have been able to do because we are no longer in the EU.”
But thousands of EU workers have failed to return to the UK as the country eases out of lockdown, with the sector struggling to get back on its feet as a result.
Mr Smith said: “It has restricted the sector to deal with a sudden increase in requirements in haulage.”
Paul Mummery, a spokesperson for the RHA, agreed that Brexit was a large contributor to the lorry driver shortage.
“We’ve lost 20,000 drivers who have returned to the EU, so Brexit is indeed a factor in the driver shortage getting so much worse this year,” he said.
“We’re at a critical point ahead of the busiest time of the year; hauliers must be allowed to recruit overseas drivers on short term visas to plug gaps whilst we recruit and train more UK drivers in the longer term.”
Haulage bosses also questioned the Transport Secretary’s claims that ramping up driver testing will help counteract the current shortage.
Mr Shapps told Sky News: “The real problem that we face, the real bottle-neck in all of this is testing.”
He repeatedly referred to the Government’s changes to tests, including making them shorter, stopping the need for a separate test to tow a trailer or caravan and being able to drive a lorry without first passing a test to drive a smaller vehicle.
How testing figures compare to pre-pandemic levels
Between April 2015 and March 2020 – before the pandemic plunged the UK into a national lockdown – average driving tests for large goods vehicles totalled 72,654, according to figures from the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA).
But when the pandemic hit and test centres closed, the number of driving tests carried out fell considerably.
From April 2019 to March 2020, 70,288 tests were carried out but in the entire 2020/21 financial year just 27,630 were conducted.
During the first few months of lockdown, just a few hundred tests were carried out, with 133, 217 and 281 tests conducted in April, May and June respectively.
But as soon as lockdown eased in July testing capacity ramped up considerably.
In August, 4,364 HGV driver tests were conducted, rising to 5,728 in September and 6,677 respectively.
However, when the second national lockdown was introduced in November, testing figures plummeted to just over 1,500.
Although rising slightly to 5,217 as restrictions temporarily eased in December, figures soon fell again in the months from January to March, with just 624 tests being conducted during this period.
Testing rose considerably from April when the UK started to come out of lockdown.
In April 4,719 tests were carried out, rising to 6,790 in May and 7,252 in June.
These figures are on par with pre-pandemic levels, with monthly averages in the 2019/20 financial year totalling 5857, 6158 in 2018/2019 and 5885 in 2017/18.
The official figures are only released three months after they have been collated, so the most recent statistics on HGV driver testing have not yet been released.
N.B: Testing included C1 (medium-sized vehicles), C1E (medium-sized vehicles with a trailer), C (large vehicles), CE (large vehicles with a trailer).
The Transport Secretary claimed the changes would free up slots for more HGV tests and allow more drivers to get on the road.
However, Mr McKenzie said that in practice, tests are “getting slower and slower and slower”.
“This seems to be a kind of boosterish claim in favour of a Government decision,” he said. “On the ground, at the sharp end, things are really difficult.
“We’re struggling to get tests, we’re struggling to get drivers qualified, we’ve got more drivers leaving than joining and there is a desperate shortage anyway.”
Mr Smith also claimed increasing tests will have a “limited impact” on the industry as a whole, adding: “It isn’t going to be the panacea.”
He urged the Government to take a threefold approach to combating the driver shortage, including encouraging EU nationals to come back and work, even if just during peak seasons; improving training and testing of drivers; and attracting back lost or lapsed workers.
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