This morning I was asked to appear on Good Morning Britain to talk about the increasingly important subject of a lorry driver shortage which is spreading across Europe and beyond.
I was up against that familiar old foe of Tories - and given her longevity and fondness for crossing aisles every other party as well – Anna Soubry.
The fortunate thing when you debate with Anna is you know her replies will be a variation of ‘it’s Brexit, innit?’. But on this occasion I had something of an ace tucked up my sleeve: I am a qualified fleet transport manager.
Just like any transport manager will tell you an impending lorry driver crisis has been known about for many years.
Funnily enough I wrote to the business minister as long ago as 2015 to raise the issue of introducing an apprenticeship route for lorry drivers - when we were 50000 drivers short. Can you guess who that business minister was?
That’s right. Anna, who alongside then skills minister Nick Boles, informed me there wasn’t a need. After all we could rely on cheaper European labour, couldn’t we?
For me Brexit was always about improving the lot of British people and British workers. The answer to our lorry driver shortage isn’t going back to visas for EU workers – a quick fix perhaps but a methadone solution for Remainers desperate to rejoin. It will never be enough.
There is no panacea to fix the shortage, it has been building for too long.
In 2014 the trade press was reporting on potential driver shortages in the run up to the Christmas season and with the backing of the Road Haulage Assocation and the Freight Transport Association in 2015 I raised the subject in the House saying “the UK is facing a critical shortage of heavy goods vehicle drivers. The average age of a lorry driver in this country is now 53 years old, with only 2% of qualified drivers under the age of 25 and 60% over 45.”
In the short-term attracting back some of the 300,000 HGV class 1 license holders who have left the profession will help. Suspending the CPC qualification – something we can now do outside of the EU – for a fixed period will be an incentive.
Better pay and conditions are needed – lorry driving is a lonely job and it isn’t just about putting more money in drivers pockets. It’s about providing safe and affordable overnight parking; decent food options; and clean washing and bathing facilities.
I have written to Grant Shapps asking him to conduct a survey of driver facilities throughout the country. If we want to make lorry driving a profession attractive to many – younger people and, crucially, more women – the days of being treated as a third-class citizen along Britain’s motorway network - and paying a significant amount for the privilege - must be over.
The Government are listening. I’m pleased that a Large Goods Vehicle Driver apprenticeship is now being offered but we are 100 000 HGV drivers short now, almost as many as Poland who have 125 000 vacancies, and filling that gap will take time.
I just wish that Anna and others had listened more in 2015. We would have been on the way to addressing this crisis, and I’m sure Anna would have found something else to blame Brexit for.