Monday 13th September 2021

(2 weeks, 1 day ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Transport

Commons Urgent Question

Baroness Vere of Norbiton Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Transport (Baroness Vere of Norbiton) (Con)
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My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to an Urgent Question asked in the other place on HGV drivers. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, I welcome this opportunity to update the House on the actions that my department and others have been taking to address the shortage in HGV drivers. This is, of course, a global issue, with our supply chains adjusting to the impact of the pandemic and working incredibly hard to make sure that consumers get whatever they need. We have been working with the industry for many months, unlocking testing capacity so that UK workers can join the driving sector.

My department has already increased the number of vocational driving tests from 2,000 a week pre-pandemic to 3,000 a week—that is a 50% increase—and last Friday I announced to Parliament additional measures that will significantly increase the number of HGV driving tests, by up to 50,000 per year. First, we will eliminate the need for some car drivers who want to tow a trailer to take an additional test. Some 16 million drivers who took their test before 1997 already have that right, so we are going to allow everybody to enjoy the same privilege of the licence, allowing around 30,000 more HGV tests every single year.

Secondly, tests will be made more efficient by the removal of the reversing exercise element and, for vehicles with trailers, the uncoupling and recoupling exercise. That test will be carried out separately by a third party, so it will still be done.

Thirdly, we are making it quicker to get a licence to drive an articulated vehicle without first having to get a licence for a smaller vehicle. That will make around 20,000 more HGV driving tests available every year and mean that drivers can gain their licence and enter the industry more quickly, without removing any testing. I have instructed the DVLA to prioritise the processing of licence applications, and we are supporting the industry to get UK workers into training.

This is not the only action that we have taken. Over recent months, we have made apprenticeships in the sector much more generous; offered incentive payments to employers to take on apprenticeships in the sector; worked with Jobcentre Plus with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to direct more people towards this brilliant career; and provided funding of £1 million for the Roads to Logistics scheme, encouraging ex-military leavers, ex-offenders and the long-term unemployed to move into jobs in this sector. This is not just a transport problem or effort, but ultimately many of the solutions to this will come from standing challenges, which the industry itself will want to take on.

The Government welcome the prospect of better remunerated drivers, with better conditions and a more diverse HGV workforce.”

Lord Rosser Portrait Lord Rosser (Lab)
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I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. The Government have known for months and months that driver shortage issues would be exacerbated by the terms of the Brexit deal and their handling of Covid. Government Ministers are just now telling the industry to increase pay and improve conditions to recruit and retain more drivers, a much-needed step. However, how will that, or shortening the test process, or changing safety-driven driving regulations now address the immediate threat of worsening and widespread supply chain shortages this autumn? Or are the Government still sticking to what appears to have been their stance until now—which would explain the lack of timely government action—that the industry has been crying wolf over the impact of driver shortages this autumn?

Baroness Vere of Norbiton Portrait Baroness Vere of Norbiton (Con)
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My Lords, there is so much to respond to in that question. I am sure the noble Lord knows it is the case that this issue has been around for a very long time. I was talking to a colleague in the other place only recently and he said that one of the first things he did when he was elected in 2010 was go to an RHA reception at which they complained about the driver shortage. So the reality is that this has been a long time in coming. We absolutely will work with the industry to put in place all the things that they need to do.

The other thing to recall is that there are hundreds of thousands of qualified HGV drivers in this country who do not currently work in the sector. The industry must focus on getting those people back. By doing so, we have to focus on improving pay—there is anecdotal evidence that is coming through—and terms and conditions: my goodness, how simple is it to provide a clean loo, a vending machine and a comfy place to wait? Distribution centres need to absolutely step up and make sure that HGV drivers have at least those very simple things to make their day slightly easier.

There are lots of things that can be done. I do not take the point that the Government have been slacking. We have done an enormous amount and will continue to work with the industry to make sure that we keep goods flowing.

Baroness Randerson Portrait Baroness Randerson (LD)
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My Lords, rather than making the roads safer—Britain has always prided itself on its road safety record—these proposals seem to be some sort of cowboys’ charter. What does the Minister think about the response of Logistics UK and other representatives of the sector who believe that the longer working hours they suggest and have introduced will make the roads riskier and deter people from joining the industry? What assessment have the Government made of the safety impact of making the driving test effectively easier? This is not what people wanted when they voted for Brexit. Brexit is at the basis of this; Covid has made a bad situation much worse.

Baroness Vere of Norbiton Portrait Baroness Vere of Norbiton (Con)
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My Lords, Brexit is not the basis of this. At the current time, Germany has a 45,000 to 60,000 HGV driver shortage, France 43,000, Spain 15,000, Italy 15,000, and Poland 124,000. This is a problem that is impacting developed countries all across the EU and in the US, which has a 61,000 shortage right at this moment in time.

The noble Baroness refers to cowboys. I do not know who the cowboys are that she is referring to; I hope it is not the haulage sector, which I know is doing everything it can to make all the interventions we are putting in place work. For example, as the noble Baroness well knows, hauliers have to notify the department that they are going to use the extension of the hours and we obviously monitor the safety that comes out of that.

The noble Baroness seems to think that somehow the HGV test is getting easier. I am sorry to disabuse her: it is not. There will be no change to the standard of driving required for HGVs. The simple fact is that a certain element of the test will be delegated to trainers, who already train the HGV drivers in things such as manoeuvres. I would go on on the safety issue, but it is clear that we have some of the safest roads in the world and we want to keep it that way.

Lord Naseby Portrait Lord Naseby (Con)
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My Lords, is it not clear that, with just about 100 days till Christmas, there is an urgent short-term problem? Against that, why cannot Her Majesty’s Government produce a six-month visa for former HGV drivers who are somewhere else in Europe and recognise that they need be for only six months? I have had a six-month visa in my life as a commercial man and everybody obeys the six months. That surely will help in the short term.

In the longer term, it costs a young person of a non-academic interest over £7,000 to train. Why can we not have the equivalent of the student loans scheme for young people who want to learn to be HGV drivers, which could be repaid in the same way, so that when they have a job they can pay the loan back to Her Majesty’s Government?

Baroness Vere of Norbiton Portrait Baroness Vere of Norbiton (Con)
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I recognise that my noble friend wants to open the floodgates to EU drivers, but I sense that he may be waiting quite a while for the flood to arrive, because as I have outlined there is a shortage of drivers across the EU. What we must do is focus very hard on recruiting and training domestic drivers, and getting some of them to return. That is where the heart of this lies.

I note what my noble friend says on training. I do not know where the £7,000 figure comes from, because I actually phoned up an HGV trainer the other day—not for myself, of course—to ask and they said that it was around £3,000. By removing the staging requirement to get a C licence and a C+E, we will have combined the two training elements together. We would also expect training to reduce to get a C+E articulated licence. As my noble friend may know, there are private sector loans available and many of the training schools will make those available to the trainees, but of course it would be better if industry paid for the training in the first place.

Viscount Thurso Portrait Viscount Thurso (LD)
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My Lords, is the Minister aware of the recent research which shows that HGV drivers dislike their conditions and having to stay away overnight? With that in mind, will the Government look again at the plans for rail freight villages and palletisation of freight? That would put a lot of freight on to the railways and allow the drivers to do the last-mile deliveries, which would keep them nearer home and be more eco-friendly. I commend it to the Government.

Baroness Vere of Norbiton Portrait Baroness Vere of Norbiton (Con)
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I thank the noble Viscount for his suggestion. We in the Department for Transport are great supporters of rail freight. We have made significant investments in rail freight. It is not suitable for many of the goods moved by road, but where it is suitable we have various grants available to slightly subsidise the cost of rail freight and get that freight off the roads.

Earl Attlee Portrait Earl Attlee (Con)
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My Lords, I declare an interest as I have a C+E HGV licence. I am also an out-of-date HGV driving instructor.

The chickens are coming home to roost. For years we have treated HGV drivers like dirt. Why would anyone want to become an HGV driver? We literally expect them to urinate and defecate away from fixed facilities. Go and look at the A34 trunk road, see how many lorries are parked up with the driver inside and think about what he is going to do in the morning.

We persecute HGV drivers with regulation. I do, however, have one suggestion for the Minister. I have an HGV licence, but I cannot use it commercially because I do not have a Driver CPC—a certificate of professional competence. If the Minister relaxed that requirement, she would have access to a large number of HGV drivers very quickly.

Baroness Vere of Norbiton Portrait Baroness Vere of Norbiton (Con)
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Gosh, do I have some jobs for my noble friend. He is, however, absolutely right: it may well be that some of these hundreds of thousands of people with HGV licences do not want to return to the sector because, historically, it has been seen as a sector that does not treat its employees very well. The only way to fix that is to get the haulier sector working with the customers and the supply chain in the distribution centres. The Government have already produced an internal report on lorry parking. We will look very carefully at what we can do to go beyond the changes to the planning system that we have already put in place.

I take my noble friend’s point on the Driver CPC. The House may remember that we were able to extend it last year, but that was using EU legislation. I will do what I can on the Driver CPC. It is a good safety mechanism, but we might be able to do something, although significant changes would require primary legislation at this time.

Lord Carrington of Fulham Portrait Lord Carrington of Fulham (Con)
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My Lords, has my noble friend heard the stories about considerable delays in renewing HGV licences for drivers? There seems to be a problem with the DVLA’s processing of renewal applications. Will my noble friend look at the problems in the DVLA and try to speed up the process? That would have a big impact on the number of drivers available.

Baroness Vere of Norbiton Portrait Baroness Vere of Norbiton (Con)
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That is an excellent point. I spoke to the DVLA only this afternoon, and indeed the Secretary of State and I asked it to prioritise provisional vocational licences quite some time ago. One thing that people must realise, if they are waiting for renewal of a vocational licence, is that under Section 88 it is highly likely that they would still be able to drive even though their licence has not been renewed. If your application has been done—if it is in and it is correct—under Section 88 you can still drive. We need to get that out there. I completely take my noble friend’s point, though, and we are in very frequent discussions with the DVLA to see how we can get as many licences through the system as possible.