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Brexit ‘part of the solution’ to lorry driver shortage, claims minister

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Transport secretary Grant Shapps has denied that Brexit is part of the problem behind the shortage of lorry drivers – arguing that Britain’s divorce from the EU had presented solutions to the crisis.

The cabinet minister insisted that cynics were “wrong” to blame Brexit for the drastic shortage of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers causing empty supermarket shelves and the closure of petrol stations.

“I’ve seen people point to Brexit as if it is the culprit here. In fact, they are wrong,” Mr Shapps told Sky News on Friday, after BP closed dozens of stations hit by fuel shortages.

“Not only are there very large and even larger [driver] shortages in other EU countries like Poland and Germany – which clearly can’t be to do with Brexit – but actually because of Brexit I’ve been able to change the law and alter the way our driving tests operate.”

The minister added: “Brexit actually has provided part of the solution of giving more slots available for HGV tests and there are a lot more – twice as many – tests available now than before the pandemic. A large proportion of those we’ve only been able to do because we are no longer in the EU.”

Logistics groups and food industry bodies have pleaded with the government to create a temporary visa scheme – or add HGV drivers to its skills shortage jobs list – to allow EU workers to help fill the shortfall.

But Mr Shapps insisted the coronavirus pandemic was the “principal cause” of the driver shortage and claimed it was a “global” problem.

Put to him on Sky News that it was “disingenuous” to suggest Covid was the reason for the lack of drivers, the transport secretary said: “Covid is the main reason. It is a global problem and Europe is hit particularly bad.”

Mr Shapps said motorists should “carry on as normal” after the lorry driver shortage hit fuel deliveries at dozens of BP petrol stations and a small number of Esso forecourts.

Saying he would “move heaven and earth” to keep goods moving, the transport secretary claimed the shortage of lorry drivers should “smooth out fairly quickly” because of the increase in driving tests.

He also suggested foreign workers had helped create “systemic” problems – saying UK wages for hauliers had been held down by “importing cheap European, often eastern European labour, undercutting the domestic market”.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “What we do know is that there are a lot of people who have their HGV licences but many of which will have lapsed to come out of the market, often because there has been cheaper European labour. We want to get those people back in.”

Watch: 10 ways to Brexit proof your finances

Labour chair Anneliese Dodds acknowledged there had been shortages of lorry drivers in other countries – but said the government’s failure to plan had led to the current crisis.

“Undoubtedly the Government’s method of implementing Brexit has had an impact overall on the system, but there are other factors that are in play here,” said the Labour MP.

Unite the Union accused the transport secretary of talking “complete rubbish” in claiming that Brexit is part of the solution to the current crisis.

“Brexit has meant the crisis brewing has been brought forward and it has hit much, much harder. To say that Brexit is part of the solution makes no sense,” union spokesperson Barckley Sumner said.

The Road Haulage Association (RHA) has said that simply increasing the amount of lorry driving tests available would not be enough to fix the crisis – calling on the government to change visa rules to allow more overseas drivers to work in the UK.

The RHA’s Rod McKenzie said that the industry had lost 20,000 European drivers because to Brexit, on top of historic shortfalls in the workforce.

Several of the UK’s largest businesses and industry bodies have also requested that the government relax visa requirements to help ease the labour shortfall. BP is understood to have asked the government for similar support on a temporary basis.

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