'Not a single boot on ground until November': Businesses say government visa scheme is unworkable

ITV News Business and Economics Editor Joel Hills on the businessman who is questioning the government's plan on the HGV crisis

Lord Wolfson is a highly successful businessman, a prominent supporter of Brexit and a Conservative peer.

He is, in short, the sort of man who should be in perfect alignment with a government led by Boris Johnson. He isn’t. This morning, the chief executive of Next is openly questioning the government’s competence when it comes to immigration.

In an update to investors, Next reveals that its warehouse and logistics operation are “beginning to come under pressure” due to a shortage of labour.

The company is warning that, unless the immigration rules are relaxed, its ability to trade in the run-up to Christmas will “experience some degradation”.

Here’s the kicker: “The HGV crisis was foreseen, and widely predicted for many months. For the sake of the wider UK economy, we hope that the government will take a more decisive approach to the looming skills crisis in warehouses, restaurants, hotels, care homes, and many seasonal industries.”

Lord Wolfson is, in the politest way possible, telling the government to pull its finger out.

The government is now in action mode. At the weekend, having resisted calls to make it easier for businesses to recruit from abroad for many months, ministers finally agreed to add 5,000 HGV drivers and 5,500 poultry workers to an existing visa scheme until Christmas.

Businesses are starting to be briefed on how the scheme will work.

Companies have been told to submit lists of names of the people they are hoping to bring to the UK and that visas will be issued on a first come, first served basis rather than the basis of need.

And companies will have to wait. IT systems need updating and the scheme will require legislation. The government plans to lay a Statutory Instrument on October 15th.

What this means, in effect, is that no HGV drivers or factory workers will be arriving in the UK before the beginning of November at the earliest.

Some companies say they cannot wait five weeks for reinforcements.

Interestingly, I’m told that businesses are also being encouraged to approach EU nationals who have left the UK in the last 18 months to ask the to apply for settled status and return here to work.

The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), whose members employ around six million people in the UK, is unimpressed.

“The proposed visa scheme is unworkable,” says Ruby Mcgregor-Smith, President of the BCC.

A 2008 picture of Ruby McGregor-Smith. Credit: PA

“The Shortage Occupational List should be expanded to support all all sectors where we have shortages. We do not understand why a new scheme which will take time to implement would be used. All visas issued should be for at least twelve months and offer the right terms and conditions and incentives to encourage HGV drivers to our country.”

The chief executive of The Federation of Wholesale Distributors (FWD), James Bielby, also doubts the visa scheme will be effective.

The FWD’s members, which include Brakes, Bidfood and Bestway, deliver food and drink to schools, hospitals, restaurants and shops. Collectively, they need to recruit around 3,000 HGV drivers.

“The temporary visas are too little too late,” says Bielby. “Not one worker will be here before mid-November at the earliest and for an industry grappling with genuine fuel driver shortages this won’t make any difference whatsoever. It’s expensive, it’s bureaucratic, it’s too short.”

A government spokesperson said: “We’ve taken immediate action to increase the supply of HGV drivers, streamlining the testing process, enabling fuel companies to work together and introducing short term visas. “This is a global problem and we have been working closely with industry for months to understand how we can boost recruitment. “However we also want to see long-term solutions delivered by employers through improved testing and hiring, with better pay and working.”