Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab has suggested offenders who have been given community sentences could be used to address the country’s lack of HGV drivers amid continuing concerns about fuel shortages.
Panic buying sparked by concerns a lack of lorry drivers would prevent supplies reaching fuel pumps has brought long queues and pockets of aggression at petrol station forecourts over the last few days.
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has announced soldiers could be drafted in to drive tankers in the next couple of days to help alleviate the problem.
Mr Raab, who was made Justice Secretary in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recent ministerial reshuffle, has dismissed Labour’s call for 100,000 migrant visas to be issued to provide sufficient drivers.
The former Foreign Secretary said the move would leave the country reliant in the long term on labour coming from abroad, and instead suggested the gap could be filled in another way.
“We’ve been getting prisoners and offenders to do volunteering and unpaid work,” Mr Raab told The Spectator, in comments carried by The Times.
“Why not if there are shortages encourage them to do paid work where there’s a benefit for the economy, benefit for society?
“If you give people skin in the game, give them something to lose, if you give them some hope, they’re much less likely to re-offend.”
It comes as motorists say there is still not enough fuel despite The Petrol Retailers Association (PRA)’s latest survey of its members finding just over one-in-four had run dry, down from more than a third on Tuesday.
Ministers said they expected the situation to improve further, with the first troops driving tankers expected to appear on the roads “in the next couple of days”.
Some roads around London have become gridlocked as motorists hunted for stations that have fuel, with some carrying petrol cans, plastic jugs and water bottles to stock up, and there were even reports of violence in a handful of places.
PRA executive director Gordon Balmer said forecourt staff were being subjected to a “high level” of physical and verbal abuse from frustrated motorists.
“There are encouraging signs that the crisis at the pumps is easing, with forecourts reporting that they are taking further deliveries of fuel,” he said in a statement.
“However, we are extremely disappointed to hear many forecourt staff are experiencing a high level of both verbal and physical abuse, which is completely unacceptable.”
His warning comes amid reports of fights breaking out on forecourts with, in one case, footage appearing on social media of a man wielding a knife, as tempers boiled over during long waits to fill up.
Earlier, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said the situation appeared to be “stabilising” with most people “behaving quite responsibly”.
As well as deploying troops, he said the Government was sending out vehicles from its reserve tanker fleet, driven by civilian drivers, to provide “additional logistical capacity” to the industry.
“It takes, sometimes, a few days to get troops on the ground,” Mr Kwarteng told reporters.
“We have decided to do that.
“I think in the next couple of days you will see some soldiers driving tankers,” he said in a pooled clip for broadcasters.”
Altogether 150 military drivers, together with 150 drivers’ mates, have been on standby since Monday to carry out deliveries to filling stations.
Figures from the Department for Transport have shown there is a backlog of more than 56,000 applications for vocational driving licences, including HGV and bus permits, waiting to be processed.
Ministers have blamed the pandemic, which led to the cancellation last year of tens of thousands of tests.