“Broadcaster Andrew Neil says the reason for a shortage of HGV drivers is ‘they only make 28k a year’ and that ‘we need to start paying people better, bigger wages’” – BBC Question Time tweet, September 16


More than 15,000 EU drivers went home after Brexit and Britain has never trained enough local replacements despite appeals to the Conservative Government by the Road Haulage Association.


Born in Paisley, Neil is a right-wing journalist and broadcaster. He began his career as a sports correspondent for the Paisley Daily Express. As editor of the Sunday Times, Neil displayed a libertarian streak, opposing Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax and famously exposing proof of the existence of Israel’s nuclear arsenal. After falling out with Rupert Murdoch, Neil became publisher of The Scotsman newspaper where he was noted for sending “helpful hints” daily to the editorial team. At the BBC, Neil gained a reputation as a forensic interviewer such that during the 2019 General Election, Boris Johnson refused to be interviewed by him. Latterly Neil was associated with the launch of GB News but quit after disagreements over the editorial line and production standards.

READ MORE: Question Time: Andrew Neil explains why he quit as GB News chairman

On BBC Question Time on September 16, Andrew Neil rejected the assertion that Brexit was the main cause of the current shortage of HGV drivers and the resulting empty supermarket shelves. Instead, he claimed the problem was down to a global labour shortage for all kinds of workers (citing Germany and China).  Neil also claimed that around one million EU workers had gone home “due to Covid”, though he admitted that Brexit was making it difficult for them to return to the UK. Finally, Neil went on to argue that these events had a positive side as the driver shortage would push up wages.

The National:


According to the Road Haulage Association (RHA), the main industry representative, prior to the pandemic, there was an estimated shortage of HGV drivers in the UK in excess of 60,000. This was down to ageing, relatively low wages, tax changes for self-employed hauliers, and bottlenecks in the training system. To that extent, Neil is correct to point out there is a systemic problem in meeting driver numbers.

However, it is difficult to separate the immediate current driver shortage (and empty supermarket shelves) from the impact of Brexit. Pre-Brexit, the UK road transport businesses employed around 600,000 HGV drivers, including 60,000 – a tenth - from EU member states who were residing in Britain under the freedom of movement rules. According to Freightlink, the leading European ferry ticketing agent for hauliers, at least 15,000 European drivers have left the UK due to Brexit. Freightlink also notes that an unknown but substantial number of UK drivers have left the industry due to the complications of new, post-Brexit customs procedures.  The average age of HGV drivers is 55-57.  Many have simply retired rather than facing post-Brexit red tape.

Note: The RHA has made repeated requests to the Conservative government (i.e. before Brexit) to bring in reforms to help reduce this shortfall. These overtures have largely been ignored. Today, post-Brexit, the likely shortfall in driver numbers is closer to 100,000. This is as much a government policy failure as anything else.


There is a truth in Neil’s claim that in the west in particular, an ageing population (coupled with a rising, associated demand for care staff) is reducing the availability of workers in general. This gap has been filled generally by immigrant workers from Asia, the Middle East and Africa. For instance, the head of the German Federal Labour Agency, Detlef Scheele, was quoted last month as saying Germany was losing nearly 150,000 of indigenous workers every year. Scheele argued that Germany needs 400,000 immigrants every year to make up for these losses and new service occupation vacancies.

However, the whole argument for Brexit was premised on “taking control of our borders” and putting new limits on immigration into the UK from Europe (whether of EU citizens or non-EU migrants transiting to Britain). Clearly such a policy in itself exacerbates the general labour shortage in the UK.

Writing in the pro-Leave Spectator (of which Neil is publisher) in 2016, the magazine’s editor Fraser Nelson warned: “Brexit would make a significant difference to immigration. The OECD reckons that Brexit would cut EU migration by about 84,000 …” which suggests Neil should have been aware that voting Leave would impact on HGV driver availability.

The National:


On Question Time, Neil seemed to suggest that the exit of EU workers from the UK (including drivers) was the result mainly of Covid.  However, the pandemic did not break out in the UK until around March 2020 – a good four years after the Brexit referendum. The main exodus of EU citizens had started long before the pandemic.

That is not to say the Covid crisis has not impacted on the shortage of drivers.  Freightlink says the pandemic is a significant contributor to the driver shortage after disrupting the movements of around 30,000 hauliers – lorries in the wrong place at the wrong time, or drivers suddenly dropping off the required schedule, having come into contact with someone testing positive for Covid.

The pandemic is also responsible for a massive delay in HGV driving tests, which is preventing the training of new drivers. During a typical year, 72,000 candidates train to become HGV drivers with 40,000 succeeding. The complete shutdown of vocational driving tests throughout much of last year resulted in the loss of over 30,000 test slots and only 15,000 were able to complete training successfully.

READ MORE: UK Government to make HGV tests easier in bid to ease post-Brexit shortages

In these strained circumstances, even a rise in driver wages will not produce instant results, as Neil seemed to imply. Nevertheless, he is correct to point out that driver remuneration in the UK (relative to the hours and travel from home) is poor. At circa £28,000 it is roughly the equivalent of what the average worker in their 20s earns in other employment. In addition, HGV drivers have to pay for their regular Driver Certificate of Professional Competence. GV training is also expensive and often poor – which explains the high failure rate. 

Once again, the libertarian Andrew Neil reduces the solution to a problem (a shortage of drivers) to relying on market forces, rather than enlightened public intervention.


5 out of 10. Neil is half correct – HGV drivers are underpaid. But the immediate shortage is linked to Brexit and the UK will have to train a lot more drivers before the shelves fill up. And that takes government intervention.