James Bielby

“Not many trade associations change government policy” – Bielby

Lobbying pays off for FWD with temporary extension to HGV drivers’ working hours. But as the federation’s chief executive explains, one victory doesn’t mean the haulage problem has gone away

Not many trade associations can say they have single-handedly changed government policy, but at FWD we’ve done that multiple times.

The most significant was when the government adopted our suggestion of the Alcohol Wholesaler Registration Scheme, which now gives the Exchequer more than £200m a year in duty revenue that had previously been lost to fraudsters, and has driven BWS sales away from criminals and back into the hands of legitimate wholesalers.

There have been many others on things like tobacco display, environmental taxes and business rates relief, to name but a few. Not bad for a small group of food and drink distributors and their representatives.

Now we can add another major victory. Against the odds and the run of play, the government announced a temporary extension of HGV drivers’ hours.

That’s a huge bonus, not only for suppliers who were struggling to get stock to wholesalers but for those wholesalers who were unable to fulfil their customers’ orders, and indeed for all those shops, restaurants and pubs that had, through no fault of their own, been letting the public down on availability.

This is just what food distributors needed – an immediate and obvious solution to what could have been a catastrophic supply chain failure.

The flexibility in drivers’ hours means those out-of-the-way shops, pubs and restaurants got more of the stock they needed for the big reopening on Freedom Day and allowed wholesalers to do as much as 15% more deliveries each day. If it remains in place into the autumn, it will avert possible shortages in the run-up to Christmas.

The safety of drivers and other road users will be top of mind when wholesalers decide where and when to use the extension.

While it’s the perfect solution to avert disaster, we recognise it is a stop-gap measure and government and the haulage industry need to work very hard on longer-term solutions, such as raising the profile, pay and conditions of the HGV driver role and incentivising younger people to take up the occupation.

The crisis in haulage has been on government’s radar for years and it’s heard all the warnings of an ageing driver population and a lack of new entrants to the sector.

It might even have calculated that Brexit would see many EU nationals leaving the driver market in the UK, or that others might prefer to take the offer of furloughing themselves rather than expose themselves to a raging pandemic.

Where the government has got this catastrophically wrong is in its insistence that this is a medium- to long-term problem and, therefore, needs medium- to long-term solutions. Transport Minister Baroness Vere even accused the industry of ‘crying wolf’ when they pleaded for her to intervene.

She did listen to us though. We were the only trade association to have been consistently lobbying government for an immediate temporary extension of hours to allow wholesalers to serve independent retailers in rural and vulnerable communities.

We faced huge opposition from the haulage lobby, unions and a sceptical government. But the fight isn’t over, so we’ll be talking to government day and night for further change.

We have suggested an end to furlough for HGV drivers and a Seasonal Visa Scheme for qualified lorry drivers from the EU and beyond. Speeding up the massive Covid-related backlog of tests would help fill vacancies, as would placing HGV drivers on the Shortage Occupation List and welcoming back some of those who left the UK when it left the EU.

Will the government listen? As we learned in July, it will if enough people shout loud enough and long enough.

driver shortage FWD Government HGV HGV drivers James Bielby