Fewer than 10,000 European lorry drivers left the UK workforce after Brexit, official statistics have revealed, despite claims Brexit is to blame for the crisis.
Figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) show that only one in five drivers to have left the profession since the referendum were EU nationals.
Meanwhile, it has emerged that the haulage industry was warned as far back as 2016 that it faced a shortage of as many as 100,000 drivers as it struggled to attract new truckers to replace those retiring or leaving the industry.
It comes as Michel Barnier, the former EU chief negotiator, and the Labour Party have this week sought to pin the crisis on Brexit, arguing that there is a “clear link” between the driver shortage and the UK’s decision to leave the bloc.
Number of drivers by nationality
It is estimated the UK needs an additional 100,000 drivers to secure its supply lines. Before the pandemic, the haulage industry was short by around 60,000, a figure that has since been exacerbated as around 30,000 more vacancies were created over the last year.
However, on Tuesday, Huw Merriman, the chairman of the Transport Committee, pushed back on the characterisation that Brexit was to blame and said the haulage industry had ignored the growing driver shortage for years.
Annual number of HGV tests by age
The Conservative MP pointed to a 2016 parliamentary report into the looming crisis that warned of driver shortages unless wages and conditions improved.
The ongoing shortage erupted into a national crisis last week when news leaked that BP was warning the Government that fuel stocks in its forecourts were lower than normal due to the lack of drivers.
The leak sparked panic-buying at petrol stations, with drivers queuing for hours to fill up and ministers putting the Army on standby to help with fuel deliveries.
On Monday, Mr Barnier argued that the fuel crisis was a “direct consequence” of the UK leaving the union.
Government boost for HGV drivers
Speaking at an event at the London School of Economics to promote his new book, he said: “Part of the answer is linked, effectively, to the consequences of Brexit because the UK chose to end freedom of movement. And there is a clear link to the truck drivers.”
His comments were echoed by Rachel Reeves, Labour’s shadow chancellor, who said that Brexit was “obviously a contributory factor” to the HGV driver shortage, adding “to deny that I think flies in the face of reality”.
‘Brexit has actually helped in this crisis’
Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, downplayed suggestions on Tuesday that Brexit had been a big factor in the crisis and said the mass cancellations of HGV driver tests during the pandemic had had a far more direct impact.
He added: “On the other hand, [Brexit] has actually helped us to change rules to be able to test more drivers more quickly.”
Figures from the Office of National Statistics, show that of the 46,000 drivers who left the haulage industry between 2016 and 2020, only 9,000 – 19 per cent – were EU nationals.
National statistics also show the percentage of EU drivers in the UK workforce has remained steady since Brexit.
Median income for HGV drivers vs salary adjusted for inflation
In 2016, EU drivers accounted for 37,000, or just 11 per cent, of the 321,000 lorry drivers in the UK. By 2021 that had marginally decreased to 10 per cent, with them now making 28,000 of the total 275,000 drivers.
While the proportion of EU drivers has remained steady since Brexit, the average age of HGV drivers has been rising as younger truckers leave the profession.
ONS figures showed that in 2013, 45 per cent of drivers were over 50, but by 2020 that demographic represented more than half, 54 percent, of all truckers.
Conversely, drivers aged between 35- to 49-years-old, those who could reasonably expect to spend another 10 to 20 years in the industry, shrank sharply, dwindling from 40 per cent of the overall workforce in 2013 to 29 per cent in 2020.
ONS stats also show that average HGV driver pay has not kept pace with inflation since 2010.
‘Why is it that only 1pc of HGV drivers are women?’
Meanwhile, figures from the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) showed that fewer and fewer young people are now applying for licences.
In 2013, under 29s accounted for 45 per cent of those taking their HGV licences, but by 2021 that had plummeted to just 35 per cent.
On Tuesday, Mr Merriman, who voted to remain in the referendum, publicly pushed back on the idea that Brexit had caused the driver shortage, saying blame lies with the haulage industry not addressing the steady haemorrhage of drivers.
Proportion of HGV drivers by age
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, he said: “This is a private industry, I remember back in 2016 asking them what they were going to do to fix their industry, why is it that only one per cent of all drivers are women, why is it that only two per cent of all drivers are under 25, why is the average age 55?
“Let’s now hear from the industry about what they’re going to do to get their own industry in order rather than just constantly asking the Government to step in.”
The backbencher pointed to a 2016 report by the Transport select committee, in which the road haulage industry said it was already facing a shortage of 60,000 drivers, with another 40,000 due to leave in 2017.
At the time, MPs called on the industry to overhaul pay and conditions as well as roadside facilities for drivers to attract more people into the profession.