Undocumented people who hold HGV licences have been sent official letters encouraging them to help stem the fuel shortage - despite the fact that they have no right to work.
Migrants who have overstayed their visas have been told their “valuable skills and experience have never been more needed than they are now” and asked to “consider returning” to work in the HGV sector.
The letters, sent by the Department for Transport (DfT), were part of the same mass mailout that also asked ambulance drivers and paramedics to become HGV drivers.
A letter was sent by the Department for Transport, signed by transport minister Baroness Vere, asking Germans who live in Britain to “consider returning” to the HGV driving sector.
“Your valuable skills and experience have never been more needed than they are now,” the letter states.
Officials admitted the letters were sent in error, prompting critics to accuse ministers of “staggering incompetence”, saying it illustrates the “complete chaos” they are in on the HGV driver shortage.
Undocumented HGV licence holders told The Independent they were “shocked” to receive the letter and said they believed it was an indication that they should be granted status in order to help plug labour shortages.
It comes after it emerged that fewer than half of the 300 visas the government is offering to European HGV drivers have been taken up under the emergency scheme that was announced last month in a bid to curb the labour shortage crisis.
Shadow immigration minister Bambos Charalambous said: “It is a staggering level of incompetence from ministers to send letters asking for help to those who are not allowed to work.
“This again illustrates the complete chaos the Government have got themselves into on this issue of HGV drivers. Despite being warned on several occasions that there would going to be a shortage, now we have a fuel crisis all because the government failed to plan."
In one case, an Indian man who has lived in Britain since 2008, and became undocumented in 2017 because he was unable to afford to extend his visa - but stayed in the country because his family lives here - said he received the letter last week.
The 30-year-old, who did not wish to be named, has been applying for a spouse visa for several years because his British-Indian wife lives is settled the UK, but has been repeatedly refused because the Home Office says he must return to his home country to apply.
But he says he fears returning there because he would be at risk of harm from his wife’s family, due to the fact that they are in an inter-caste marriage.
Asked about the letter, he said: “The government knows my status, it knows everyone’s status, but it’s so desperate for drivers, so it doesn’t care.
“I don’t know why they aren’t just giving me a visa. I have no criminal record, I’ve not worked illegally. If I get a visa I will go straight to work, the next day. I’m so desperate to work. I can’t sit at home all the time. It’s hard. I could be helping, contributing to this country, paying tax.”
In another case, a man who has been in the UK since 2008, and became undocumented in 2017 because he couldn’t afford to extend his student visa, received the letter last week and said he knew “loads” of other undocumented people who had received the same.
The Indian national, who didn’t want to be named, said he was working as an HGV driver cash-in-hand. He argued that the government should allow him to work legally: “If they have HGV drivers here, people like me, who have got no criminal record, with experience, why can’t we work legally? We’re working like slaves.”
He said the last few months had been “busy” at work, adding: “They’ve been struggling. They’re offering more money. They don’t’ care if you’ve got documents or not.
“They should sort the status of people who are genuine, who have never committed any crime. We can help the economy. I’m getting £130 a shift and paying no tax. Why don’t they let me pay tax and sort my status?”
The Road Haulage Association (RHA) has called on the government to change visa rules to allow more overseas drivers to work in the UK, warning that the industry has lost 20,000 European drivers because to Brexit, on top of historic shortfalls in the workforce.
Minnie Rahman, interim chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, accused minister of treating migrant workers as though they were “disposable, exposing them to exploitation, extortionate fees and the hostile environment”.
“If government is serious about creating a fair, high-wage economy, it must ensure safe working conditions and raise wages for everyone, and start treating migrant workers as people, not commodities,” she added.
A DfT spokesperson said it had sent one million letters to a database of eligible drivers to help recruit for the crisis, and that the “vast majority” were eligible drivers, many of whom have elected to return to the professions.
They said immigration status was not indicated on the database.
“The letter was automatically sent to almost one million people with lorry licences - including a limited number of international residents who were automatically eligible. Anyone wishing to drive professionally faces further tests and training,” they added.
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