'Hopeless': Minister says just 20 out of 300 foreign HGV driver visas have been processed

13 October 2021, 08:45 | Updated: 13 October 2021, 10:19

By Sophie Barnett

Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden has been grilled on LBC as he revealed just 20 out of 300 applications by foreign lorry drivers for temporary visas have been processed.

Mr Dowden told Nick Ferrari on LBC that the number of foreign lorry drivers the UK has been able to attract is "relatively limited".

He said they have had around 300 applications, of which just over 20 have been processed and are now on the roads helping to ease the supply chain issues.

"That's not going to solve the crisis, is it?" Nick quizzed the minister.

"No it’s not, and that’s why it is just one of a range of measures we are taking, because of course we can’t just do what we have always done, which is when we have a shortage get more foreign labour in," Mr Dowden replied.

"We need to improve the skills in our country, and we need to get more people training to be HGV drivers. That’s why we are streamlining the recruitment process."

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Mr Dowden also revealed that the UK government has drafted in military testers to help "streamline" the recruitment process in the UK.

He explained there are two different elements to recruiting lorry drivers successfully.

There are applications for visas from foreign drivers, and also the streamlining of the testing process which happens for HGV drivers in this country, Mr Dowden said.

He told Nick: "Over the longer term we need to get more people driving HGVs. That’s why we are investing more and streamlining that process, in fact it’s why we have got military testers also helping us with this. The best way to solve this is getting people in this country to train as HGV drivers."

Nick asked the minister: "I’m sorry, I must have misheard you. I thought you said this process had been streamlined. I don’t see 20 out of 300 as particularly streamlined chairman?"

He asked the minister whether he is happy with roughly a 7% success rate.

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Mr Dowden replied: "That number is just a reflection of the number of applicants who have been processed and have actually got their visa."

"So we have 300 on the road, I see..." Nick replied.

But Mr Dowden explained: "No, we have 300 who have applied for these visas. I believe the number is just over 20 who have actually received them and are on the road. I expect this number to increase over time."

Nick called out the minister, saying the success rate is "hopeless".

He said: "You'd get booted out of school for that, minister!"

Ministers announced over the weekend that they will expand a fast-track scheme to allow thousands more people to be trained as HGV drivers.

However, the trainees will not finish their courses in time to alleviate the supply chain crisis in the run up to Christmas.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said on Sunday that 2,000 additional places would be opened up through "skills bootcamps" to boost the number of lorry drivers.

The courses, lasting up to 16 weeks, will not start until next month.

It brings the total number of new HGV drivers to 5,000, after ministers announced last month that 3,000 people would be able to train under the scheme.

In the last 24 hours the impact of the lorry driver shortage has been felt at Britain's busiest port, in Felixstowe, Suffolk, where ships are being forced to divert away because of a build-up of containers.

The congestion is partly the result of the HGV driver shortage slowing down the time it takes for containers to be emptied and picked up.

"We had to stop operations on a ship because there was nowhere to discharge the containers," said Lars Mikael Jensen, head of global ocean network at Maersk.

"Felixstowe is among the top two or three worst-hit terminals."

Speaking on LBC, shadow business secretary Ed Miliband, said "we need the HGV drivers" to resolve the supply chain crisis.

Asked by Nick Ferrari on Breakfast what he would do if he was the business secretary, Mr Miliband replied: "The truth is, months ago I was saying, the industry was warning government that the short-term couldn't be filled unless we brought drivers in.

"And the government just said it is scaremongering and it's not going to happen. I'm afraid that is a bit their tendency is when they hear bad news they basically just put their fingers in their ears or they just point fingers.

"It's now really hard, the point we have reached and the shortages in the other parts of Europe are not as bad as they are here. But we need the drivers, don't we.

"We do not want empty shelves, and we do not want this situation we are seeing at the ports."