Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Government Gets Slapped Down Again for Broken Promises on Logistics and Road Haulage

Open Letter to the Industry Has Not Gone Down Well
Shipping News Feature

UK – Today (20 July), presumably in a move it hopes will dilute some of the withering criticism it has received following earlier statements on decarbonisation and drivers hours, the government sent an open letter to the road haulage sector pledging to resolve certain of the problems. The response has not been what it will have wished for.

Many of the phrases used in the letter will be familiar to those who have read previous missives. Words such as ‘proposed’ and ‘expected to launch’ do not sit well in the ears of a working community which has previously been promised much and received little. At the heart of the problem is an uneasy feeling amongst the logistics community that those in power don’t quite understand how the industry they are paid to oversee actually operates.

It is a little late in the day for the government to realise the mass exodus of EU nationals, who it doesn’t consider important enough to retain, cannot be replaced by British drivers at a stroke. Training a Class 1 HGV driver to full competency is not a two week training course. The letter refers to considering ‘whether longer relaxations would be appropriate’ in the context of loosening driving hours regulations. That rather reads like an abandonment of safety to put a sticking plaster on the problem.

There will be those in the industry who choked when the open letter refers to commending the International Road Transport Union’s Driver Charter, a document aimed at improving the lot of the professional driver and referring to ‘access to sanitary facilities, break rooms and safe and secure parking areas’, some of the very things promised by government in the past and not delivered.

So to the main points of today’s announcement. These include a new consultation to be launched on allowing drivers to take one test to drive both an articulated and rigid lorry. This would streamline the process for new drivers to gain their HGV licence and would increase lorry test appointment availability. Despite sounding like another safety swerving short cut, the government says the consultation will ensure road safety is paramount and set out that drivers will still be supervised until fully qualified.

The consultation will also look at allowing trainers to actually examine drivers in the off-road manoeuvres part of the HGV driving test, and look at whether specific car and trailer tests should be required. This will allow a significant increase in the number of HGV driving tests to be conducted whilst, theoretically, maintaining road safety standards. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said:

”I want to thank all those in the road haulage industry who have worked so hard throughout the pandemic to provide such a vital service. I understand the challenges faced by drivers and operators right now and while longer-term solutions must be led first and foremost by industry leaders, today we are saying this government is here to help. This set of measures will kick start that help, easing pressure on the sector as we work together to attract new drivers, improve conditions and ensure the industry’s future is a prosperous one.

The government says it is also looking to help the road haulage sector improve the working conditions of drivers, something which is key to addressing the shortage and encouraging British workers to forge long, successful careers in the sector. It says it will support this, initially, by working alongside the industry to 'support more official parking spaces' for lorry drivers and 'look at ways' to improve the standard of lorry parks.

So there’s that promise of more and better parking, again. And the positivity continues with Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Therese Coffey confidently espousing the party line, saying:

”As part of our Plan for Jobs, we are helping people gain the skills and experience needed to take up opportunities in the haulage sector, including access to key training, and our Jobcentres are playing a vital role in matching jobseekers with the right roles in the sector.”

Ministers say they are also keen to hear more from sector leaders about an industry-led 'Year of Logistics', looking at various other ways to attract more people to join the industry from all parts of society, and potentially a very interesting idea considering the low profile of the sector currently, with such as schools career advisers, most of whom simply know nothing about it.

The statement goes on to say the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) will continue to encourage those who have already left the industry to re-join. Unfortunately, as anyone familiar with the HGV sector will tell you, the usual reason for leaving is retirement, the average driver age being in the mid 50’s. The statement finishes, with not a hint of the irony involved, with the sentence ‘the recently announced temporary relaxation of drivers’ hours rules allows HGV drivers to make slightly longer journeys, but must only be used where necessary and must not compromise driver safety.”

So to industry reaction. Logistics UK, formerly of course the Freight Transport Association, was pretty straightforward saying firstly the plan does not deliver on the critical promises made to the industry over three years ago on the need to increase safe and secure parking facilities for drivers across the nation’s road network. Elizabeth de Jong, Policy Director, commented:

“The plans revealed by government today only go part of the way to addressing the crucial problem areas that the industry has been talking with government about for years. After all the incredibly hard work to keep the country stocked with all that it needed throughout the pandemic, it is dispiriting to see that the safety and security of our workforce in the course of doing their jobs is still not being prioritised.

“The lack of available overnight parking spaces continues to be a huge impediment to attracting more people to join the industry and we need the government to make a far clearer commitment to deliver the 1,500 parking spaces it promised in 2018. Without the safe and secure locations in which to take legally mandated rest stops, it will be impossible to diversify the workforce and attract new employees to the sector.

“It is good to see the urgent focus placed by government on increased HGV driver testing with DVSA, as this is currently the biggest blocker to new entrants entering the workforce, but without targets and a workable timeline, this is simply a statement of intent. We need to know how soon the backlog of 25,000 test passes can be cleared more swiftly by the DVSA, as we estimate at current rates this will take 27 weeks (ie until the end of January 2022).

”We welcome proposals for reform of the vocational driving test process to increase test capacity, but it will take time to make the necessary changes to legislation, and for it to be implemented on the ground, before the full benefit can be felt.”

The Road Haulage Association (RHA) was equally unimpressed saying with an estimated driver shortage of 100,000, the crisis is so great it needs immediate short-term measures allowing the industry to work towards the longer-term fixes. It called on ministers yet again to put HGV drivers on the Home Office Shortage Occupation List with RHA Chief Executive, Richard Burnett adding:

“This is a step in the right direction long-term, but it doesn’t address the critical short-term issues we’re facing. The problem is immediate, and we need to have access to drivers from overseas on short-term visas. The idea to simplify training and speed up testing is welcome, along with encouraging recruitment it will only improve things in a year or two’s time.”