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Sir Keir Starmer has suggested that visas could be needed for 100,000 lorry drivers, rather than the 5,000 announced by ministers, to address the shortage in the industry.
A shortage of HGV drivers has caused long queues at petrol stations across the UK in the past few days, with some pumps running out of fuel entirely amid panic buying by motorists.
The Labour leader said that the current situation amounted to “a complete crisis” as he took part in the traditional party conference interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr on Sunday morning.
Asked if he would bring in foreign HGV drivers to deal with the current crisis, Sir Keir said: “We are going to have to bring in more drivers and more visas. And I’m astonished that the Government, knowing the situation, is not acting today.
“The Prime Minister needs to say what he’s going to do. There are 100,000 vacancies for drivers. For a long time, we’ve heard there’s a problem with HGV drivers. But we knew when we exited the EU that we needed a back-up plan to deal with the situation.”
Pressed by Marr on whether he would grant permits to 100,000 foreign drivers as Prime Minister, Sir Keir said: “We’re going to have to do that. If there’s 100,000 vacancies and the Government is offering 5,000 visas... Norwich is 140,000 people, [this number] is the size of a small city. In the long term, we need conditions to be improved and we need training.”
Sir Keir went on to criticise the Government over “a complete lack of planning” since Britons voted to leave the European Union in 2016.
“We’ve had five years to prepare for the consequences,” he added. “Here we are on a Sunday morning with petrol stations closed, with supermarket shelves that are empty and a Prime Minister that cannot take key decisions.”
A temporary relaxation of rules which will allow more European lorry drivers to work in the UK will see as many as 5,000 temporary visas granted. The plans will be subject to strict time limits and the relaxation is unlikely to last beyond Christmas.
However, the plans to recruit overseas workers to help tackle the driver crisis has been attacked by the leader of a trade union.
Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, said the Government was “going backwards" by “importing” labour from Europe.
He told a fringe meeting at the Labour Party conference in Brighton that people living in inner city communities across the UK which had been “left behind” should be recruited instead, but on decent pay and conditions.
“Instead, they want to bring people here from all over Europe, on poverty wages and poor terms and conditions,” he said.
Leaks about fuel supply concerns ‘irresponsible’
In a separate interview, Grant Shapps branded leaks to the press about fuel supply concerns as “irresponsible”.
“We need to ensure that people are reassured now that this manufactured situation has been created because there’s enough petrol in this country,” the Transport Secretary told Sky News.
Mr Shapps said motorists should only fill up their cars when they need to, but insisted there is “plenty of fuel available”.
Rod McKenzie, the managing director of policy and public affairs at the Road Haulage Association, argued that “too much classroom stuff and not enough driving” has deterred some drivers from wanting to return to the sector.
“If you tell them they can come back into the industry but have to spend five days in the classroom getting up to speed and getting new qualifications... a lot of people have left the industry for that very reason,” he said.