Back to school and supply chain issues
September 8, 2021
On Monday York’s children returned to school, beginning what will hopefully be a much less disrupted year of education. Parliament also sits again from 6th September, and I have hitherto been working from York, addressing a large volume of local casework, and getting out and about across the city.
Like other parents, I have seen how cruelly the pandemic has affected our young people’s schooling. A major concern has always been the particular impact on children from poorer backgrounds, and I am glad last week saw the government take further steps to tackle this, with £1 billion of funding to significantly expand the National Tutoring Programme, to provide 15-hour catch-up tutoring courses to up to 6 million children over the next 3 years.
Westminster also returned to normality from Monday, with the end of video link proceedings. This face-to-face interaction is so crucial for effective scrutiny of the government of the day, which was severely watered-down during months of ‘zoom Parliament’, with video calling enabling MPs to talk past each other, and not have to properly engage with what others were saying. Having MPs physically present will thankfully mean the government now needs to work much harder to convince us of the wisdom of their proposals.
We must remember that all these efforts ultimately depend on sustaining the economy’s recovery from covid, most obviously to ensure we have the resources to keep up the fight against the virus, and preserve the livelihoods of all. Although there is absolutely no room for complacency, current signs remain broadly positive. An August survey found business confidence at its highest for over 4 years, while York’s job figures also remain strong, with just 1.9% of the working population on unemployment benefits, as against a British average of 5.4%.
However, the ongoing supply chain issues producing limited shortages and delays for supermarkets and suppliers are a sign the recovery from covid may not be entirely smooth. The pandemic’s hammer blow to economic activity has of course produced supply chain bottlenecks all round the world, but at home the cause is a significant shortage of workers across many supply chains, from farms through food processing to truck drivers. The suspension of normal economic activity understandably caused many migrant workers to leave, with something like half a million to over a million estimated as having left the country during 2020.
The shift in our new immigration system towards attracting higher-wage more than lower-wage workers is also seen as making it harder for some potential employees to get here. Moreover, many supply chain roles are not always seen as that attractive by much of the UK-born working population, with the long, unsocial hours of lorry drivers a good example, meaning it is hard to quickly make up labour shortages that developed under covid.
We must not underestimate the scale of the jobs market distortion produced by the virus. Some employers cite the sheer success of the furlough scheme as a factor, keeping people who actually may not have roles to return to away from job-hunting. The pandemic also meant some 30,000 HGV driver tests did not take place last year, substantial when set against the estimated total shortfall of 100,000 drivers.
The silver lining is employers having to raise wages to attract staff, with higher hourly rates and joining bonuses across sectors previously seen as low-wage. This is good news for people coming off furlough or rendered unemployed by coronavirus, but if sustained these will inevitably feed through into higher prices in shops.
In the longer-term, this risk can be removed through businesses recruiting and training up more British staff, and in particular making efforts to ensure jobs like HGV driving are more attractive to recruits. However, that takes time, and in the short-term I expect to see the government introduce rapid solutions, like relaxing immigration rules to allow labour shortages in food production and distribution to be filled from abroad.
While I welcome current government actions to ensure more rapid driver qualification and apprenticeships, and indications drivers could be added to the Shortage Occupation List to allow overseas recruitment, I will press for decisive moves to resolve the situation now Parliament has returned.