This week, as a member of the UK Trade and Business Commission, I joined other parliamentarians and business leaders to hear representatives from the food, retail and logistics industries, who warned that Britain’s supply crisis will continue for months and lead to potential price rises for consumers.
After quizzing the businesses on labour shortages, I urged Ministers to ‘put common sense before ideology’ and issue temporary visas for lorry drivers to weather the Brexit and Covid-19 storm.
Supply chain experts cite post-Brexit trading arrangements and new immigration policies among causes of problems both in transport and production that will risk empty shelves in the run-up to Christmas.
In an extraordinary meeting of the cross-party UK Trade and Business Commission, which brings together MPs from every party in Westminster with business leaders, The British Retail Consortium, The British Frozen Food Federation and Logistics UK, testified that labour shortages both in transport and production will likely mean reduced choice and potentially higher prices for consumers.
The witnesses made assurances that everything will be done to protect consumers, but also confirmed that food producers are facing overall cost increases between 5-10%, deepening concerns that this could be passed onto shelf prices.
Recent figures from the British Retail Consortium, who gave evidence at the session, and research group NielsenIQ revealed a 0.4% month-on-month increase on the price of goods last month alone with mounting pressures from rising commodity and shipping costs as well as Brexit-related red tape cited as driving the increase.
The experts cast doubt on the short-term Government strategy to plug holes in the availability of HGV drivers and food production staff by recruiting domestic workers, stating that British applicants to these jobs are low despite an intense recruitment drive, better wages and improved benefits.
In the short-term the industry experts were unanimous in calling for temporary visas for transport workers with Richard Harrow, Chief Executive, British Frozen Food Federation calling it “a perfect storm” and commenting that “unless we get some short-term flexibility on visa access, we are in for a rocky time”.
Andrew Opie of the British Retail Consortium said the government faces a choice on allowing overseas food producers to work here or risk “offshoring” parts of Britain’s food production industry to Europe.
The witnesses painted a pretty stark picture for the months ahead unless the Government acts quickly. They made it quite clear that red tape and labour shortages from Brexit have exacerbated problems that are being acutely felt across production, processing, manufacturing, retail and of course logistics.
Ministers should stop Brexit ideology from getting in the way of common sense. In the longer-term companies must improve wages and conditions to attract more recruits, recognising that will increase prices, but we need more lorry drivers now, and so the Government should issue temporary visas to attract back the European drivers we have lost and combat the potential for a winter of empty shelves and less choice for consumers.