HGV Driver Shortage

Oral Answers to Questions — Economy – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 12th October 2021.

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Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:00 pm, 12th October 2021

2. Ms Hunter asked the Minister for the Economy to outline the preparations that his Department made to address the shortage of HGV drivers as a result of Brexit. (AQO 2566/17-22)

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

If you pick up any newspaper, you will see that there is a shortage of HGV drivers in, for example, Germany, Poland, the Republic of Ireland and even the United States of America. Some of the countries affected are still in the European Union, while some have never been in the European Union. I therefore ask the Member why she attributes the shortage to Brexit, when it is happening in countries right across Europe and, indeed, the world.

Photo of Cara Hunter Cara Hunter Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for questioning me at Question Time. When I spoke to HGV and LGV representatives on the ground, they raised their concerns with me, and that is why I ask the question on their behalf.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

I did not get a question there, but I am certainly happy to outline the situation across Europe. There are estimated shortages of 124,000 drivers in Poland, between 45,000 and 60,000 drivers in Germany and around 43,000 in France. It is not a Brexit issue. In fact, the one way in which Brexit affects the situation here in Northern Ireland — we have had representations from people saying so — is through the additional paperwork and hassle caused by the protocol. Those additional burdens are causing a lot of people not to want to have to make the journey across the Irish Sea. If we want to address that issue, addressing the protocol would be helpful.

We have to focus on the fundamental issues as well, which are largely the pay and working conditions of those who operate in that sector. If we want to tackle the problem, we have to understand it in the first place. That means focusing on the issues that actually matter.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

Minister, in a letter of 27 September to the AERA Committee, you wrote:

"the Home Office has to date shown no appetite for any relaxation of visa rules".

That is the problem emanating from Brexit. In light of your words, do you agree that the British Government have no plans to fix the crisis, which not only affects HGV drivers but is a problem for a number of industries, particularly the agri-food industry here in the North? It results from a hard Brexit immigration policy. Do you agree that the British Government care more about that than the economy in the North of Ireland?

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Before I call the Minister, I remind Members that half an hour is available for questions. Please, can we have questions, not speeches?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

The Member fails to understand what I said to Ms Hunter, which was that a combination of issues is causing the problems that we see. All those issues, in all the ways in which they have been manifested, need to be addressed. From speaking to the industry, first and foremost, we want working conditions to improve so that it becomes an attractive industry for people to come into in the first place.

To address wider labour market issues, yes, flexibility is needed in the system. I want to see that, and the AERA Minister and I have engaged in correspondence with the Home Secretary about it. We need to understand, however, that a combination of issues is causing the problems in the wider labour market. For HGV drivers in particular, working conditions are the problem, and those are what we need to address.

Photo of Stephen Dunne Stephen Dunne DUP

Given that it is, indeed, a global problem, does the Minister agree that one practical, local solution to help to address the backlog of HGV driver tests would be to amend the trailer test requirements in line with those in Great Britain? That would help to free up more examiners to carry out the main tests rather than the small trailer tests. Unfortunately, the Infrastructure Minister swiftly dismissed that idea last week.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

Yes, we could take that action, and it would be one remedy to some of the problems that we face. In the year before the pandemic, 2019, around 3,000 HGV tests took place. In 2020, obviously because of the pandemic, the number was, I think, under 300. That was a massive reduction in an industry in which there was already a decrease in the number of drivers coming forward. Testing is one part of it. Testing has increased over the past few months, but we are dealing with such a big backlog of people whom we are trying to bring forward that we need to consider all options. I agree with the Member's point, however.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

At last week's Infrastructure Committee meeting, a major local haulier indicated that east-west payloads on trailers were at only 50% to 60% of the trailer capacity and that, frequently, journeys required an extra overnight stop because of the bureaucracy associated with the protocol. What assessment has been made of the additional cost to business in Northern Ireland of moving goods from GB? Furthermore, how many additional HGV drivers are required to meet the demands of the transport industry?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP 2:15 pm, 12th October 2021

Any fettering of trade, any additional paperwork and any additional bureaucracy leads to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland being slowed down, so of course it will add cost. I have spoken to business owners who have had to take on extra employees to deal with the mountains of paperwork that they have to fill out that they did not have to fill out prior to the protocol. Of course costs will increase as a result of the protocol arrangements, and of course they make it more difficult for those in the haulage industry. It is wrong for others to dismiss the protocol as not being a factor in the haulage industry's problem because it is contributing to it. It is completely understandable that some people in the industry will say that they do not want to have to deal with the potential extra overnight stays, which the Member mentioned. That is why the issue needs to be addressed.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Perhaps the Minister could urge Mr McGuigan to keep up, because on 25 September Her Majesty's Government announced an extra 500 visas for HGV drivers. Is there any allocation to Northern Ireland? How will we see a ripple effect from that?

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

My understanding is that it is done on a UK-wide basis and that there is not a particular allocation for Northern Ireland.