By Dr John Sydenham.
Returning late from a concert on Friday night I heard Chris Morris on the Radio 4 Midnight News (24/09/2021) presenting a surprisingly biased news item. This item blamed Brexit for the shortage of lorry drivers but most of its content was questionable or false. A clip of the news segment is given here:
Chris Morris represents Reality Check. Reality Check is a group within the BBC that is supposed to represent the highest standards of in-depth, unbiased coverage.
This was a case of extremely serious bias because it was presented as impartial by the Reality Check group. The bias will be explained in detail below.
The topic was that "Brexit causes lorry driver shortages". The two sides of the debate were presented and then Reality Check was brought in to deliver the final truth. Reality Check stridently "proved", using arguments that were mostly false, that a Government Minister, Grant Shapps, was misleading the public.
The biased arguments in the clip are as follows:
"European drivers who went home during the pandemic couldn't return because of immigration rules"
Did the drivers fail to return because of immigration rules?
According to Ti Insight - European Driver Shortages a record number (45,000) of EU drivers were working in the UK in 2017. About 62% (28,000) of the number of EU drivers working in 2017 were working in the UK at the end of 2020 despite immigration rules.
Were immigration rules the reason that 17,000 EU drivers did not return to the UK? There are two other very likely alternatives that Chris Morris failed to stress, the first is that the drivers found it easy to get jobs nearer to home. The second is that the drivers were worried about being stranded in the UK, away from their families, because of COVID.
The EU lorry driver shortage means that finding jobs near home is easy for EU drivers:
Polish drivers would clearly have no problem finding a job in Poland and the same applies throughout the EU.
On the second point, given that the UK has implemented strict quarantine regulations it is reasonable for drivers to fear being stranded. However, quarantining of travellers from EU countries also happens within the EU. Current German COVID travel restrictions begin by saying that "in principle" it is possible to travel freely to Germany from any Schengen country but then direct readers to a list of countries and regions "of concern" which do not have free travel to Germany, this list includes large parts of Ireland, Slovenia, much of Norway, and until very recently, the South of France. It is clear that being in the EU does not guarantee free movement to other EU countries in this time of COVID. There can be little doubt that many EU drivers who wish to stay in contact with their families would have stayed at home, Brexit or no Brexit.
The main point here is that Chris Morris and BBC Reality Check are supposed to analyse the facts impartially and in-depth. Would any impartial analyst simply conclude that immigration rules were entirely responsible for the failure of EU drivers to return to the UK? The facts are clear: 62% of EU drivers stayed in the UK despite the rules and there are extremely powerful reasons related to COVID why drivers might stay at home. The BBC Reality Check analysis, by forcefully blaming Brexit, was deeply biased.
Chris Morris claims that "The fall of the pound against the Euro made the UK a less attractive destination".
The peak number of EU drivers in the UK (45,000 - see below) occurred in 2017-18, after the Referendum, and well after any fall of the pound "due to Brexit". The UK was a more attractive destination for drivers after the Referendum contrary to the assertion by Reality Check that currency movements would stop them. The reason for this is that there was no huge fall in the pound after the Referendum by historical standards.
The BBC persistently claims that there was a large fall in the pound due to the Referendum. Ignoring the brief, speculative surge in the pound before the Referendum, the pound fell 0.12 euros from its non-speculative level before the Referendum back to its trend value in June 2016. This was less than the 0.15 euros fall between 2015 and 2016.
An impartial analysis would conclude that the Referendum had very little to do with the fall in the pound. The small speculative bubble before the Referendum was reversed immediately after the Referendum and the pound returned to a trend value controlled by factors such as the ending of the Euro crisis and the appalling UK Balance of Payments Deficit.
The reason that EU drivers ignored the falling pound was that it was a hiccup compared with normal exchange rate movements:
The BBC, especially Reality Check, is continually producing fake news about the "huge fall in the pound due to Brexit". Fake news is the correct term because there was actually only a small fall in the pound after the Referendum by historical standards, not a huge fall and the fall was back to trend so almost certainly not due to Brexit.
So, the claim that the fall in the pound against the euro after Brexit made the UK a less attractive destination is false on three grounds, firstly more drivers came from the EU to work in the UK after the small fall in the pound post-Referendum than before it. Secondly the fall in the pound in June, apart from the up-down speculative blip, was almost certainly not due to the Referendum and thirdly the fall was small by historical standards. The fact that more EU drivers came after the "fall in the pound" completely invalidates the claim by Reality Check. Drivers were not repelled by the small fall in the pound. An impartial analyst would take account of these points. BBC Reality Check is clearly biased.
Changes to the tax system for self employed drivers also acted as a deterrent
This point was made with the implication that somehow the change in the tax system was related to Brexit. The change could have occurred if the UK were still in the EU and has nothing to do with Brexit.
Rod MacKenzie said that 20,000 drivers had left the country "because of Brexit"
This is a classic BBC News use of glove puppets. Rod MacKenzie probably made this point because he, too, was opposed to Brexit and Chris Morris used him as a glove puppet to amplify his own point. MacKenzie did not justify why he thought that Brexit was heavily responsible for the losses and added nothing except reinforcement of the doubtful assertions made by Morris. Unbiased coverage would have also included an opposite viewpoint.That "Other European countries can call on a much larger pool of labour"
How can other EU countries call on a much larger pool of labour when there is a pan-European driver shortage? They certainly cannot. Again, the BBC Reality Check are making highly dubious statements that would not be made by an impartial analyst.
We can see that the strident contentions by Chris Morris that the lorry driver driver shortages "have also been made worse by Brexit" and "things were already difficult when in the UK Brexit made them more so" are not supported by his arguments. The EU drivers who returned to the EU were only 25% of the total workforce shortage so Reality Check was biased from the outset for stressing Brexit. If over half of these drivers stayed away for reasons other than Brexit then Reality Check is wrong for stressing that Brexit was an important factor in the shortages. Indeed, from the available data it is difficult to find evidence for more than about 2-3000 of the driver shortage being related to Brexit out of about 70,000 shortfall. An unbiased article might have treated this as surprising and welcome the fact that Brexit had a small impact. It might also have considered that it could have been membership of the EU that created the problem in the first place by encouraging cheap labour and poor conditions for an unstable workforce and that the pan-EU shortages may prove this. Etc. etc.
The BBC management should be deeply concerned about its staff ignoring the BBC Charter. The Charter demands that staff should have an in-depth, unbiased approach, this means: No Campaigning. Staff must be stopped from using their privileged position to represent their own views and must not suppress facts that are contrary to these views. Staff must also be stopped from using glove puppets to present their own opinions. When staff campaign for their own causes they are violating the Charter and hence violating their contracts of employment.
The misbehaviour of "Reality Check" detailed here is particularly bad. Reality Check is presented by the BBC as the pinnacle of fair and unbiased reporting. If BBC management do not correct the rot in this group then the whole of BBC News is brought into disrepute.
Groups like Reality Check can only be worthwhile if they take an academic approach and take pride in this, there is no place for strident opinions such as those of Mr Morris. Reality Checks will work if they consider both sides of the debate and the full context.The actual data on EU driver numbers in the UK
According to a detailed transport industry investigation ( Ti Insight - European Driver Shortages ): "From 2010 to 2017 the number of EU nationals driving HGV in the UK rose from 10,000 to 45,000, and fell to 42,000 in early 2020, possibly related to Brexit. From March to June 2020, the number of EU HGV drivers declined by another 15,000, to 25,000, recovering only slightly to 28,000 by the end of the year. "
This was confirmed by the Financial Times (May 9th 2021) : "Kieran Smith, chief executive of Driver Require, a recruitment agency, said their research suggested 12,000-15,000 EU drivers had already returned home, partly because of the Covid-19 pandemic and partly because of tax changes."
What is the truth about the driver shortage?
Grant Shapps gave a fair summary of what happened.
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