A SENEDD Committee delivered a report on supply chain issues to the Senedd last week.
The Economy, Trade, and Rural Affairs Committee, chaired by Preseli Pembs MS Paul Davies, launched an inquiry after extensive supply chain issues last autumn.
At that time, shops ran short of specific products, some petrol forecourts ran dry, and the Welsh and UK Governments intervened with emergency measures to support vital supply chains.
The shortages’ causes were complex.
They included the pandemic, new trading arrangements following the UK’s exit from the EU, and even global events such as the Ever Given blocking of the Suez canal.
However, the Committee found, a key reason for the disruption was a shortage of HGV drivers.
The committee published a report: “A New Direction for HGV Drivers: Addressing HGV driver shortages and related supply chain issues.”
The committee heard that pre-pandemic, there was a shortage of between 60,000 to 100,000 drivers in the UK.
That historic shortfall was one of the key issues that had led to the acute driver shortage.
However, Logistics UK made it clear that the combination of the end of EU membership and the end of the EU transition period, along with the COVID pandemic, transformed this shortage into an acute crisis. Those issues were further compounded when HGV driving tests were paused during the pandemic, causing a backlog and a 10-week wait for an examination.
Speaking in the Chamber, Paul Davies said: “The industry faced a perfect storm in 2020-21, when several issues coalesced at the same time.
“The committee decided to focus on those issues, as ensuring Wales has enough HGV drivers will be vital if we want to keep supply chains open and avoid similar breakdowns in the future.”
The Committee’s inquiry was short and focused. It took evidence from a number of organisations, including hauliers, business owners and trade unions.
The Committee also engaged directly with current and former HGV drivers.
Paul Davies observed: “The feedback we received from the engagement with drivers was very powerful and enlightening. I won’t repeat exactly what some of the participants said, for fear of being ejected from this Chamber. However, it’s clear that there are several issues with the current experience of being an HGV driver. A lot of the themes that shone through from the drivers were echoed, though in more parliamentary language, by other stakeholders.”
The report makes 11 recommendations around improving the training and working conditions of HGV drivers. It also looks to the Welsh Government’s forthcoming logistics and freight plan as an opportunity to implement them.
The Welsh Government’s transport strategy, ‘Llwybr Newydd’, contains a commitment to create a new logistics and freight plan. Considering the pressing shortage of drivers, the Committee feels that the new plan should be prioritised.
While the Welsh Government accepts all of the recommendations made to it, Mr Davies expressed concern that the most urgent recommendation – relating to improving driver rest areas – would only be considered as part of a review due to end in 2024 when the need for improvement was immediate.
Paul Davies concluded: From keeping food on our shelves to delivering essential medical supplies, it is fair to say that HGV drivers were some of the unsung heroes of the pandemic.
“The implementation of this report’s recommendations would improve driver experience and entry into the industry.
“While the issues we experienced before Christmas have been largely resolved, supply chains are still creaking, and we live in turbulent times.
“It is not possible to predict if and when another shock will hit our global supply chains. This means that it is exceptionally important that we concentrate on shoring up parts of the system we have control over.”
Labour Committee member Vikki Howells MS supported Mr Davies’s words.
“Drivers who gave evidence to us raised a litany of concerns about the lack of safe places to park.
“When there were places to park, facilities could be substandard and not fit for purpose. We were told about broken showers, broken tiles and dirty wash facilities and the Road Haulage Association spoke of stops not even having toilets.
“And then, perhaps most seriously of all, these facilities were not safe, with—as our Chair has mentioned—witnesses saying that they’d been robbed up to 10 times. This is simply not good enough.”
Samuel Kurtz MS added: “The Chair rightly highlights the impact of leaving the European Union and the COVID-19 pandemic that followed. However, the conditions in which these drivers operated existed long before either of these two events occurred.
“A pre-existing chronic shortage of HGV drivers amplified these acute and unprecedented events.”
Responding for the Welsh Government, Dawn Bowden said: “Driver shortages are compounding wider domestic and global supply chain problems, leading to widespread cost inflation and longer delivery times for a broad range of goods.
“At present, we believe that no particular sector of the Welsh economy faces severe risks from supply problems, but the resilience of the Welsh supply chain will remain fragile as we emerge from the winter period.
“We are, therefore, more vulnerable than usual to disruptive events, such as severe weather, the Ukrainian crisis, and industrial action at ports.
“There’s an elevated risk of unforeseen no-notice shortages of critical commodities, with potential for wider impacts to public services and businesses.”
On the pressing point of driver security and rest stop provision, Ms Bowden promised: “I will speak to my colleague the Minister for Economy on whether we can bring forward the issue of the audit of driver facilities, because that does seem to be a particularly common and pressing theme that has been raised by the committee and through the evidence taken.”