The chief executive of high street retail giant Next has blamed the government’s “insane” immigration policy for the huge shortage of lorry drivers causing chaos in Britain’s supply chain.
Lord Wolfson – a Conservative peer and Brexit supporter – called on the Home Office to change the rules to allow more heavy-goods vehicle (HGV) drivers to work in the UK amid ongoing shortages and disruption.
“It strikes me as being insane that despite the fact that everyone knows that we desperately need drivers, the Home Office are still preventing people coming to this country to work as drivers,” he told LBC.
Reluctant to blame Brexit for the crisis, Lord Wolfson said: “I personally don’t think that’s the problem with Brexit, I think it’s the problem with the way in which our immigration system is being run.”
The Next boss added: “I think there’s an enormous difference between having control over your immigration system, which I think we should have, and running that system well, which I’m not sure that we are.”
Dire stock shortages have left many supermarkets shelves empty in recent weeks, while Nando’s has been forced to close dozens of outlets and McDonald’s ran out of milkshakes.
The head of Iceland’s boss warned that supply disruption could see Christmas “cancelled” for some families this year, while retailer The Entertainer has said it would cause a reduced choice of toys this Christmas.
The Road Haulage Association (RHA) estimates that up to 20,000 HGV drivers from the EU left during the Brexit process – adding to a crisis which has left the country short of at least 90,000 drivers in all.
“I think also we need to look at the policies that we have going forward to make sure that people who want to come and work in Britain, have the skills that we need, can get here,” said Lord Wolfson.
Asked if he would welcome the return of drivers from the EU, the Next boss said: “Well not necessarily just European countries. I think we should be welcoming all people who want to work, who want to contribute to our economy and who have skills that we desperately need.”
The RHA has pleaded with the government to put haulage driving on the shortage occupation list so overseas drivers can apply for visas on a temporary basis. Logistics UK and the British Retail Consortium (BRC) have also called on ministers to offer temporary visas to EU drivers.
But business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng wrote back to industry leaders on Friday – telling them foreign workers offered only “a short-term, temporary solution” to the shortage. “I am sure you would agree on the importance of utilising the strength of our domestic workforce,” said Mr Kwarteng in his reply.
Labour has also called on shortage occupation list. The opposition blamed the government’s “chaotic” approach to a Brexit trade deal and the failure to engage with the logistics industry for the current crisis.
“We need a clear-sighted strategy from the government as to how it intends to fill what’s estimated to be a 90,000 shortfall in HGV drivers,” shadow transport secretary Jim McMahon told The Independent.
He called on ministers to work with the Migration Advisory Committee to identify how a shortage of drivers could be recognised in the new immigration points system.
“This crisis isn’t going to go away, no matter how much ministers bury their heads in the sand,” said the Labour MP.
The Liberal Democrats have called on the government to rethink its immigration policy entirely and scrap its “arbitrary” threshold on salaries for skilled worker visas.
Meanwhile, former Labour MP and Leave campaigner Kate Hoey has attracted criticism after she admitted Northern Ireland was “sacrificed” in the trade deal with the EU.
She suggested on GB News that the province had been abandoned because otherwise “we weren’t going to get Brexit at all”.
Baroness Hoey, recently given a role as a post-Brexit trade envoy, has been a fierce critic of the Northern Ireland Protocol which has introduced new customs checks on NI-GB trade.
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