Our country’s supply chains are under pressure and there is a real risk the crisis will get worse while the Conservative government remains asleep at the wheel.
In some ways the problems are far deeper now than they were at the height of the pandemic when gaps appeared on shelves as shoppers stocked up on toilet rolls and pasta.
Food producers have warned for months of fruit and vegetables left to rot because of a labour shortage. Now blood tests are being postponed for weeks because of shortage of vials in part due to UK border issues.
Nando’s had to close almost 50 restaurants due to a shortage of chicken. McDonald’s ran out of milkshakes. Tesco and Iceland both warned of further problems ahead. Even school canteens have been told they could face shortages. Can you imagine what it will be like if children cannot get the Christmas presents they are hoping for this year?
Retail prices are currently rising at the fastest pace for almost four years to join a toxic cocktail of shortages, disarray in our supply chain, shortages of people.
Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak have failed to see this storm coming despite warnings from industry for several years. Along with businesses and trade unions, Labour repeatedly warned the Tories that their Brexit deal would contribute to friction at the border and supply problems with our neighbours and largest trading partners. They didn’t want to listen.
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng tries to shift the blame to businesses, telling them they need to fix the chaos created by his Government. Surely it was not beyond the realms of the possible for the Conservatives to have helped train up more drivers over the last five years since the referendum?
The loss of thousands of EU workers has had a damaging impact on agriculture and food processing – and led to the meat industry asking the Government about using prisoners to help plug the gaps.
These shortfalls have been exacerbated by the Government’s woeful neglect of key workers like HGV drivers who play such a crucial role in getting food to our tables, business orders fulfilled and keeping our economy moving. The Road Haulage Association has warned it could take up to 18 months to tackle the shortfall of drivers and the trade union Unite has highlighted the inadequate pay as supermarkets squeeze costs down the supply chains. Even now, Ministers have no credible plans to address these problems.
The Conservative Government’s main response is to expect exhausted drivers to work even longer hours – despite the risks to the safety of drivers and other road users. Terrible ideas like this are the direct result of the Government’s failure to engage and listen to people working in industry.
Over the last year I have met haulage firms, employers and trade unions across a range of sectors and raised the concerns from all sides of industry at Westminster about the reckless way the Conservatives were approaching Brexit negotiations.
As a matter of urgency, Labour would appoint a Government minister in charge of solving the supply chain crisis and co-ordinating the response, reflecting the seriousness of shortages.
Labour would set up a taskforce to work sector by sector with employers and trade unions on an ongoing basis to identify gaps and recruit and train workers into key roles at good rates pay.
In the case of HGV drivers and many others who contribute to our everyday economy, people’s work has been undervalued and underpaid for too long. To attract and retain people, pay and working conditions have to improve yet these issues are repeatedly ignored.
In the immediate term, Labour would also ask the Migration Advisory Committee to look urgently at whether HGV drivers could be added to the Shortage Occupation List. This would enable UK businesses to allow experienced drivers from EU countries to work in the short-term while testing capacity is increased and the backlogs are reduced for drivers here.
Every day of dither and delay is critical. The Chancellor Rishi Sunak is missing in action all while vital economic supply chains are at breaking point. This chaotic Conservative government has lost control.
As Labour Chancellor, I would take a different approach and actively bring together employers and trade unions across our key industries on an ongoing basis.
We need positive plans for the future and in the national interest to get our country moving again.
Rachel Reeves is Labour MP for Leeds West and the Shadow Chancellor.