Cumbria Chamber of Commerce is urging the Government to look again at its plans to address the labour and skills shortage impacting on key industries.
The plea comes amid the Government’s latest plan to tackle the shortage of HGV drivers by temporarily relaxing rules regarding how many hours they can stay behind the wheel.
Current proposals announced by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps on Wednesday could have serious implications for a number of haulage businesses in Cumbria, and their drivers, based at large depots, most significantly in Carlisle and Penrith.
The chamber believes the Government should be focusing its efforts on getting more of the national workforce contributing effectively and off support schemes such as furlough, as well taking tougher action in renegotiating with the EU to get better access to European labour.
Managing director Suzanne Caldwell said: “We are aware of a number of businesses in Cumbria which are suffering massively with a labour and skills shortage, and hauliers are suffering just as much as those in hospitality, manufacturing and a number of other sectors.
“We’re talking with members in the county who are having to operate at a significantly lower capacity than usual due to staffing issues as well as bringing pay rises forward.
“We’re also engaging with colleagues at the British Chambers’ of Commerce and at other chambers around how to best address the problems moving forward. So we know the problems regionally are very much in line with those nationally.
“The Government have put themselves in a really difficult position, and they’ve looked at what they see as the easiest quick-fix to alleviate the shortage of HGV drivers, which is very disappointing.”
HGV drivers say they are vehemently opposed to a temporary relaxing of rules regarding how many hours they can stay behind the wheel, believe it is not safe, and fear getting the blame if they are involved in a road accident.
The shortfall, which the Road and Haulage Association puts at around 100,000, has meant some supermarkets say they are running low on products such as milk and vegetables because there are not enough drivers to transport produce from suppliers before it spoils.
And it’s not just supermarkets that are affected by this inability to move goods around as needed.
Businesses are also reporting haulage price increases due to wage rises aimed at attracting and retaining staff, forcing up their costs.
Under current rules, drivers can clock up a maximum of four nine-hour driving periods per week with a 45-minute break after each four-and-a-half hours spent driving.
This can be extended twice a week to 10 hours behind the wheel, provided drivers take two 45-minute breaks.
They must not exceed 90 hours of driving over a two-week period.
When loading, unloading and waiting in depots is accounted for, many drivers can end up working 60 to 70 hours every week.
From next week, the daily driving limit will go up to 10 hours, and 11 hours twice a week.
Alternatively, bosses will be allowed to change drivers’ weekly rest patterns.
Mrs Caldwell said: “We’ve highlighted ways in which the Government can make key changes to help alleviate the current labour and skills shortage which is acting as a perfect storm in a variety of sectors.
“Ministers can do this by directly replacing all of the schemes we enjoyed the benefits of under the EU, bringing forward the Turing Scheme – which is replacing Erasmus – and introducing a similar scheme to Australia whereby it is far easier for international workers, particularly younger job hunters, to get short work visas for six months to two years.
“We understand the economic problems, and the shortage of HGV drivers which the Road and Haulage Association puts at around 100,000, is a huge problem.
“And we agree with the association and HGV drivers who are opposed to these changes. Hauliers are already under huge pressure and we’re seeing the negative effect of that in the increase in traffic incidents in recent weeks.
“We understand the predicament businesses are in but the Government should not risk the lives of drivers and others by this temporary extension of driving hours rules from July 12.
“In addition these measures may well encourage more drivers to leave the industry.
“The lack of staff is not limited to haulage drivers. Hospitality and other sectors have the same issue. The Government should instead focus their efforts on getting more people back to work, bring the furlough numbers down, and have some tough negotiations with the EU to unlock more European migrant workers.
“The negative collateral effects of the Government’s plans are concerning. This feels like a very short term move when the economy needs long term vision.”
RHA chief executive Richard Burnett said: “We oppose wholesale extensions to drivers’ hours as we believe they can be counter-productive by making the job less attractive.
“Loading more hours onto drivers that are already exhausted is not the answer – the problem needs more than just a sticking plaster.
“Ministers should be mindful that road safety is the reason HGV drivers’ hours are limited. Relaxing them should only be used as a last resort to resolve short-term issues that cannot be addressed in other ways.”