Heck boss warns of food shortage this Christmas if labour crisis is not sorted

It's a beloved British Christmas dish, but a leading Yorkshire businessman has warned that pigs in blankets may be missing from the dinner table this winter.

Roddy Keeble (27) who obtained his HGV licence last year. Roddy’s wife Mica (25), is also taking her HGV licence test.

Heck founder Andrew Keeble has written to local MP and Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, calling for urgent action to tackle the labour crisis in food.

Mr Keeble said production of pigs in blankets could be cut by a third.

Sign up to our Business newsletter

Sign up to our Business newsletter

Mr Keeble explains: “Some of the pig processors are having to cut down on how many pigs they are processing a week so that is going to have a knock on effect on what’s on the shelf this autumn and winter.”

The Bedale based company, which is one of the UK’s largest independent sausage makers, is facing staff shortages in September, and urgently needs to fill roles across dispatch, distribution, and marketing.

A spokesman for Heck said: "September is going to be one of their busiest months in terms of new product launches, including a range of “posh chicken nuggets.

"In response to the additional issue of lack of HGV drivers, they are training their own workers to distribute their sausages and bangers to customers. Andrew’s son, Roddy Keeble, is now filling the gaps and driving up and down the country."

Andrew Keeble said: “The Government needs to take urgent action. They need to get on top of issuing of settlement codes, we know there are people waiting to come to work in the UK.

"Why not fast track processing of refugees, if these guys want work, then we have it for them.

"Can we settle them up here in Yorkshire?

"The biggest issue in the food and supply industry is recruitment and retaining.

"British people don’t see food as a destination career, but we’ve had people starting work for us straight from school, who we have trained up and are now heading up marketing and sales.

"Our wages are soaring as we are now in a bidding war for staff so I can only see inflation going up. We are a brilliant place to work."

The Government has previously said it wants employers to invest in UK-based workers rather than relying on labour from abroad as businesses contend with a shortage of HGV drivers.

Supermarkets and suppliers are struggling to meet demand following an exodus of drivers from EU countries, who returned to the continent during the pandemic and remained there.

This is coupled with the health crisis bringing DVLA testing centres to a standstill, creating a huge backlog of drivers taking their HGV test.

A review of the Shortage Occupations list, which sets out jobs where overseas workers can apply for visas, is not due until next year.

The PA news agency had understood that proposals had been floated for the Government to bring forward the review so HGV drivers could be included to ease the problems facing the supply chain.

But according to the Financial Times, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng wrote to business leaders on Friday saying foreign labour only offered “a short-term, temporary solution”.

The newspaper said Mr Kwarteng urged employers to help the “many UK-based workers (who) now face an uncertain future and need to find new employment opportunities”.

His letter comes ahead of the UK’s furlough scheme ending on September 30.

According to the FT, Mr Kwarteng said in his letter to the British Retail Consortium and Logistics UK: “I am sure you would agree on the importance of utilising the strength of our domestic workforce and how our migration policies need to be considered alongside our strategies to ensure UK-based workers are better able to secure decent employment opportunities.”

Alex Veitch, general manager of public policy at Logistics UK: “Logistics UK is frustrated with the Government’s decision to reject the logistics industry’s calls for temporary visas to be made available for EU HGV drivers as a short-term solution while new domestic drivers are recruited, trained and tested.

“While these new domestic drivers are trained and qualify into the workforce, which can take up to nine months, and DVSA works through its backlog of outstanding HGV driver tests – which we estimate could take until early 2022 – temporary visas made available for European workers would help to overcome the current supply chain problems experienced across the country.

“The industry needs drivers now, and we have been urging the Government to replicate its temporary visa scheme, introduced for agricultural workers, for logistics to keep trucks and vans moving in the short term.”

Several Government departments are liaising over the supply chain issues, including the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy department, the Home Office, the Department for Transport, the Department for Education, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Department for Work and Pensions.

Home Office officials are said to be blocking the review being brought forward, amid concerns it could lead to other sectors demanding inclusion.

A source told PA: “It has been floated and seems like the obvious solution but there’s been a lot of pushback from the Home Office.”

HGV drivers are currently not included on the list but there is pressure from supermarkets to include them to help ease the shortfall while more UK drivers are trained.

The current average age of a UK HGV driver is 55 and ministers are concerned an ageing workforce needs replacing.

Government officials are working closely with the DVLA to increase the number of tests taking place and have vowed to streamline the process.

They have also increased funding for apprentices to get more workers into the industry but want to ensure the UK is less reliant on overseas drivers.

The shortages have hit several retailers and restaurant chains.

Nando’s saw a shortage of chickens due to a combination of not enough drivers and fewer staff working in meat factories.

Other delays have also impacted McDonald’s, which said this week it had run out of milkshakes and bottled drinks as it prioritised deliveries of other products in the interim.

Organisations from the food and drink industry have recommended a 12-month Covid-19 recovery visa to help firms recruit staff such as HGV drivers, and an expanded seasonal worker scheme for the horticulture sector.

A Government spokesperson said: “We have a highly resilient food supply chain and well-established ways of working with the food sector to address food supply chain disruptions.

“We recently announced a package of measures to help tackle the HGV driver shortage, including plans to streamline the process for new drivers to gain their HGV licence and to increase the number of driving tests able to be conducted. However, most of the solutions are likely to be driven by industry, with progress already being made in testing and hiring, and a big push towards improving pay, working conditions and diversity.

“We want to see employers make long term investments in the UK domestic workforce instead of relying on labour from abroad and our Plan for Jobs is helping people across the country retrain, build new skills and get back into work.”

The Government recently announced a package of measures to help tackle the HGV driver shortage, including plans to streamline the process for new drivers to gain their HGV licence and to increase the number of tests able to be conducted.

The statement added: "We have also temporarily relaxed drivers’ hours rules to allow HGV drivers to make slightly longer journeys, but these must only be used where necessary and must not compromise driver safety.

"More information about the measures we’re taking to tackle the haulier shortage is available here: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-announces-package-of-measures-to-support-road-haulage-industry

"The government encourages all sectors to make employment more attractive to UK domestic workers through offering training, careers options, wage increases and to invest in increased automation technology.

"To help with these efforts, Defra is working with industry and DWP to raise awareness of career opportunities within the poultry sector among UK workers.

"Our new points-based immigration system makes clear employers should focus on investing in our domestic workforce, especially those needing to find new employment, rather than relying on labour from abroad.

"An occupation on the Shortage Occupation List results in lower application fees and reduced salary requirements, for skilled workers filling jobs which are in shortage. The SOL does not, however, exempt jobs from the wider mandatory requirements of the Skilled Worker Route in the Points Based System including skill levels.

"The occupation of HGV driver does not meet the skills threshold under the Points Based System.

"The Government acknowledges some businesses will need to adjust from depending on EU workers coming to the UK under free movement rules. We have amended the Immigration Rules to enable drivers who come to the UK on an international journey to transport goods or people on journeys within the UK and undertake cabotage operations to do so under the visitor route.

"We have no plans to introduce a short-term visa for HGV drivers. Employers should invest in our domestic workforce instead of relying on labour from abroad."

The statement added: "Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the Government has implemented an unprecedented package of measures to support workers and businesses right across the UK, as well as new reforms to ensure businesses have access to talent from across the world so that we can Build Back Better from the pandemic and support the national economic recovery.

"Last year, the Home Office launched a £3m awareness campaign for UK employers, informing them that freedom of movement was ending and that they may need to take steps to adapt their recruitment practices. We have also remained in consultation with representatives of the hospitality sector throughout this period and supported them where possible.

"The Seasonal Workers Pilot has been expanded for 2021, from 10,000 to 30,000 visas, granted for workers to come to the UK for a period of up to six months to work in the edible horticulture sector only.

"Our Hospitality Strategy includes measures to help address current recruitment challenges as well as to make the industry a career option of choice. We are working with UKHospitality to better promote jobs in the sector via our nationwide network of Jobcentres, and are supporting workers into these roles through our Sector-Based Work Academy Programme and our expanded apprenticeship and traineeship offers."

Support The Yorkshire Post and become a subscriber today. Your subscription will help us to continue to bring quality news to the people of Yorkshire. In return, you'll see fewer ads on site, get free access to our app and receive exclusive members-only offers. Click here to subscribe.