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Rod Mackenzie, of the Road Haulage Association, said the move to reduce pressures caused by a shortage of drivers amounted to sabotage and would be “taking work from British operators and drivers”.
But Transport Secretary Grant Shapps defended what he said was a temporary change to the practice known as cabotage, which will allow EU lorry drivers to make unlimited pick-ups and deliveries in the UK for a two-week period over the next six months.
The Government hopes the relaxation of the rules will help ease a supply chain crisis that has hit industries from fuel to food and triggered concerns over shop shortages in the run-up to Christmas. “It’s only a measure for a short period — for six months — and we know as the economy grows... it’s important that we respond to that,” Mr Shapps told BBC Radio 4’s Today show.
The move came just over a week after the Tory party conference when Boris Johnson unveiled his vision to turn Britain into a “high wage, high skill and high productivity” economy.
Mr Shapps dismissed suggestions that the relaxation was a contradiction of tougher post-Brexit immigration policy or that it would lead to lower wages.
“The great thing about having that independence is that we can flex to suit our own domestic market and that’s exactly what this will do,” Mr Shapps added. “It will give us six months of additional capacity. It’s the equivalent of a few thousand HGV drivers.
“We are not importing a new type of driver who is not here…we are simply saying whilst drivers are here they are able to do something productive which is helpful to us and helpful to them. It’s not big enough to have an impact on the higher salaries.”
Mr Shapps also admitted today that a previous move to grant temporary visas to overseas drivers to help ease fuel shortages had not worked, attracting only “dozens” of applications.
“We always said we don’t think this was the answer,” Mr Shapps told LBC Radio. “It is right you test every avenue…you don’t want to leave any stone unturned. We turned that stone, it’s not the solution that some in haulage thought it was.”
Amid concerns over the supply chain crisis, Tim Morris, head of the Major Ports Group, said we should not “fool ourselves” that the situation was getting better. His warning came after a backlog at Felixstowe Port this week threatened major delays on imports.
However, Mr Shapps said: “Christmas will go ahead, we’ll be able to see our friends and families. There will be food, there will be gifts.”